Chapter 46

"Skjalddis?"

The eleven-year-old girl sighed and looked away from the window to the portly, plain-faced young man sitting across the table from her. "Yes?"

"Are you listening to me?"

She huffed. "Not really."

"I see," he replied, the usual irritability seeping into his voice.

"I know it all already," the girl complained. "I've read it three times today. Why do we have to go through it again?"

"The envoys will be here tomorrow, and we have to show them that we are proper hosts," he replied, jabbing the open book between them with his finger.

"We?" She scoffed.

"Yes. You are a Silvershield too. Don't ever forget that."

She scowled. "I want to go to the theater."

"You know, I don't have to do this," the man grumbled. "I am taking time out of my very busy schedule for you, and this is the gratitude you keep showing me."

Skjalddis sneered, turning her gaze back to the window. "I wish Gunnhallur was here."

The man glared at her, his fists clenching on the table. He then opened his mouth to speak when a voice called from across the room.

"Are you two talking about me again?"

Both of them whirled round to face the doorway, where a man wearing a brown cloak over chain-mail stood, grinning from ear to ear.

"Gunnhallur!" Skjalddis shouted. She leapt out of her chair, feet barely missing her tutor's shoulder as she bounded onto and over the table to run into her brother's arms.

Gunnhallur easily lifted her off the ground, and her laughter echoed his own as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Wha - How..." the tutor sputtered, rising from his seat.

"Helmut!" Gunnhallur said jovially over Skjalddis' shoulder. "Have you been torturing our little sister again?"

"Why weren't you announced?! And where is your escort?!"

"Eh, I left them at the Helm and Cloak. They had a long journey and I-"

"Are you mad?!" Helmut shouted. "Have you forgotten what happened the last time you did that?!"

"Calm down, Helmut," Gunnhallur replied, a frown creasing his features as he gently set down Skjalddis who turned around to scowl at their irate sibling.

"And stop shouting!" she chimed in. "We haven't seen him in weeks and you're scolding him already!"

Helmut's teeth grinded loudly. Sensing the rapidly dropping mood, Gunnhallur moved around her towards him. "It's good to see you too, brother. How is-"

Helmut shoved past him and stalked past Skjalddis out the door, his footsteps echoing through the hallway beyond.

A brief silence fell on the room. Gunnhallur then sighed before picking up the book from the table. "What were you studying?"

"Who cares?" Skjalddis scoffed, hurrying to his side again. "Where have you been? Who did you meet? Did you get anything for me?"

For a moment, Gunnhallur's eyes flicked to the doorway where Helmut had gone. He then looked down and smiled at the child bouncing from foot to foot in front of him. "Of course. Did you really think I'd forget?" He produced a small box from his pack and held it out to her. She took it excitedly, tore off and threw aside the lid, and gave a joyous squeal upon seeing their contents. Gunnhallur chuckled as he watched her shake off the shoes on her feet and put on her new ones, then laughed as she did a pirouette.

"They're perfect! Where did you get them?"

He grinned toothily and leaned back against the desk. "Oh, it's quite a long story. You'd hardly believe one word of it."

She planted her hands on her hips and pouted. He pretended to resist, then smiled and 'gave in'. "Alright, alright. So, we had just arrived in Selgaunt..."

..


Skie blinked, and in that moment, Gunnhallur and the room disappeared, replaced by a plain wooden ceiling. She blinked again, slowly and repeatedly, and when he did not reappear, she sank down back into the sheets.

The lack of warmth next to her revealed that she was now alone in bed, though the audible sounds coming from behind the privacy screen told her that Eldoth was still present.

She looked back to the ceiling, the dream still fresh in her mind.

Ten years. Ten years since he bought me those shoes.

She felt the familiar sensation of tears gathering behind her eyes. Closing them, Skie breathed slow and deep, like Mother had taught her, willing her mind away from her long-lost brother.

It has been a month since I ran away. I wonder how Mother is faring.Her thoughts went to Father and Helmut, and she dispelled them with a shake of her head.

I shouldn't think about that. I have done what I have done. There's no going back now. And I am not alone. I have Eldo-

A sudden crash made her sit up in alarm, and she hurried out of bed and around the privacy screen to find Eldoth standing with his back to her, in front of the dresser and facing the mirror. Hair-brushes and pins were strewn on the floor to one side of the dresser, along with a snuff-box whose contents had spilled out onto the carpet.

"Eldoth, what's wrong?! Why did you-"

"Don't bother me!" her lover snarled, blazing, venomous eyes rounding on her. "Go away!"

Skie's mouth fell open as she stumbled backward into the far wall.

Why? Why is he...

Her face fell as it dawned on her.

The riot. Those awful hobgoblins. And everything else he has had to go through since this started.

She lowered her head as guilt descended on her like a crushing weight.

I did this to him.

She looked up at Eldoth. He had his back to her again and his hand was now over his mouth, fingers repeatedly pressing and running over his lips as he stared wildly into the mirror, ignoring her reflection.

He puts up such a strong front, but all this has to be hard for him. And here I am only thinking about myself.

Skie hesitated for a long moment, then slowly extricated herself from the wall and took a small, ginger step toward her lover. "Eldoth...?"

The bard glared at her reflection, his hand still pressed to his mouth. She moved forward again, tears welling in her eyes. He lowered his head, then slowly turned around to face her.

"I'm sorry," Skie said, her voice shaking as a tear flowed down her cheek. Eldoth's glare faded, and his expression softened. He then moved forward and gently placed his arms around her, one hand reaching up to stroke her hair. She fell into and clung to him, crying quietly into his chest.

"It's not your fault," he said softly. "I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have shouted at you, I was...I was just angry. At..." His voice trailed off, and he tightened his hug, crushing her to him.

"We don't have to do this," Skie heard herself say. "We can just go now. You, me, Safana. We can just go."

He leaned back and looked down at her. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I..." she stopped, staring up at the gentle doubt in his eyes. "I...I don't want you to get hurt because of me."

He frowned. "Because of you?"

"Yes," she said, trying and failing to fight back more tears. "You and Safana, you have already done so much for me, and all I have done is complain and asked for more. You didn't have to join that caravan, I made you do it..."

"Hush," Eldoth replied, using his thumb to wipe away her tears. He gave a small smile. "Didn't I say I wanted to help?"

Her heart ached, and she pressed her cheek to his chest again.

"How about this, my love?" Eldoth suggested softly, his familiar, lovable charm returning. "We take a bath, and then we go talk to Safana."

"Y-yes. Okay," she replied, leaning back and wiping her face. "You're right," she added, more composed now.

He smiled down at her, eyes filled with warmth and love, and kissed her.

..


The innkeeper greeted Skie and Eldoth as soon as they entered the common room and gave them Safana's room number with a chuckle that made Eldoth frown at him.
When Eldoth rapped his knuckles on the room door, he and Skie exchanged looks at the sound of heavy footsteps on the other side just before it opened. Skie's eyes widened at the metal-clad young man standing before them. "Ajantis?"

"Greetings, my lady, Eldoth," said the squire-knight. "Please, come in."

He opened the door wider, and Skie's heart skipped a beat as he stepped aside, revealing Safana, Khalid, Jaheira, Dorean, Imoen, Garrick and a woman with long, greying hair, all of whom were now looking at them.

What are they all doing here?

"Perfect timing as always," Safana announced. "Come on in, we were just talking about you."

Skie's heart began to hammer against her ribs. She then felt Eldoth's hand on her back gently but firmly pushing her forward into the room.

It's okay, it's okay, Safana's here, and so is Eldoth, it's going to be fine, keep calm, keep calm...

Jaheira stood in the very center of the room, one hand on her hip while the other held her quarterstaff. Her cyan eyes quietly burrowed directly into Skie's, as though they were piercing through to her mind. "We were about to send for you," she said as soon as Ajantis closed the door. "Your friend Safana told us that you wish to join our group. Why?"

Skie felt Eldoth's hand on her back tighten for a second. She glanced up at him; his expression was still casual, yet unsmiling. "I..." she began, looking back to and wilting under Jaheira's stony gaze.

"We have already been over this, Jaheira," Safana said tiredly, rubbing her forehead. The half-elf ignored her.

Skie looked to Safana, who folded her arms and gave her an encouraging smile. She felt Eldoth's hand gently pat the small of her back.

They believe in me. Be like them. Be confident.

Drawing herself up to her full height, Skie then stepped forward away from Eldoth, lifting her chin and meeting Jaheira's gaze. "I have seen many people who had been brought low or even ruined by the iron shortage. Nobles, merchants, small-folk...some of them were whole families." She paused. "My mother admired my father Lord Piergeiron for his dedication to his people. And while I have never had the pleasure of meeting him, I always wanted to follow his example. To make her proud." To make my brother proud, she told herself, involuntarily glancing at Dorean. "For the last few months, I...I have only been concerned with saving myself from Lady Aleena. To run away and disappear, with my friend and the man I love." From the corner of her eye, Skie saw Safana's smile widen, while Eldoth behind her made no sound. "But I can't now. Not when I am so close to the source of this crisis, in this town. I can't just turn my back on my people." She paused, then turned to face both Safana and Eldoth. "But I don't want you to risk your lives for me either, after everything you've done for me."

Eldoth stepped forward and took Skie's hand in his own while keeping his eyes on the two half-elves. Relief and affection flooded her, and she squeezed his hand tight.

"What's life without risk, little sister?" Safana said with a smirk. Skie could not help but smile back.

"Despite knowing that you may die in the attempt?" Jaheira said bluntly, her eyes still not leaving Skie.

"Skie is not a helpless damsel, Jaheira," said Safana. "She is very-"

"Let her speak for herself," Jaheira interrupted.

The room went quiet, all eyes on Skie. She hesitated, then lifted her head again.

"I have been trained with the sword and bow," she said, fighting down the urge to tell Eldoth to speak for her. "I have also been through some scrapes alongside Eldoth and Safana. I am no warrior, I know that. But neither am I helpless. And Jaheira..." she added. "I will not leave my country to be ravaged by this crisis. Not without doing something about it, however small it may be." She paused. "I want to help. If you would allow me, I would gladly lend you my aid."

Silence fell on the room again. Skie tried not to fidget as she looked round at the rest of the party; Khalid had his head tilted to one side. Garrick was practically quivering with excitement, while the grey-haired stranger scrutinized Skie with narrowed eyes. Imoen's arms were across her chest, cupping her elbows; she appeared to be distracted, and was stealing repeated glances out the window.

And the dwarf, Dorean...he simply stood there, looking at Skie, with most of his face obscured by his beard. His eyes showed no emotion.

"Gallant and compassionate," said Ajantis, moving to stand beside Skie and Eldoth, who raised an eyebrow at the squire. "My lady, I would be honoured if you would join us." He bowed, then looked pointedly at Jaheira whose expression still had not changed. Anger rose unbidden in Skie.

"I know what you are thinking. I am not one of those people. This is not a game to me, nor am I looking for a vacation from the boredom of nobility. I am serious about this." And you have no idea how serious, she added to herself, stealing a quick glance at Dorean.

"What do you think, Garrick?" the dwarf suddenly asked. Jaheira's stony face suddenly changed for the first time since Skie entered the room, rounding on Dorean with a sharp frown. The dwarf just ignored her as the rest of the party looked to the young bard.

"Well," Garrick said hesitantly, scatching at his sleeve. His eyes met Skie's, and after a moment, he puffed out his thin chest. "I say that Skie would be a fine addition to our party. She and Eldoth worked remarkably well together against the hobgoblins, and she displayed astonishing skill with throwing darts. She even saved me from the Chill's blades, and more than once I might add!" He beamed at Skie, who found herself smiling back.

"Thank you, Garrick." Skie's smile faded when she looked back to Jaheira who for some reason was still glaring at Dorean. The silence that followed was stifling, with everyone awaiting Jaheira's decision. It occurred to Skie that Eldoth had not said a word since they entered the room.

After a long moment, Jaheira slowly turned back to face Skie. "After you have your breakfast, Ajantis will take you to a shop. He and Khalid will help you with what you need." She paused briefly, then turned to Imoen and Dorean. "You as well. Neira, I still have more questions for you, if you do not mind."

"As long as I get paid," the grey-haired woman replied. Jaheira nodded, then glared at Safana.

"I have questions for you as well."

"Of course, Jaheira," said Safana. "Whatever you wish," she added with a glance at Khalid who missed it as he was turning to Dorean and Imoen. Jaheira's scowl deepened, but she said nothing further.

"Alright," said Imoen, bounding forward, pushing Eldoth's hand off of and away from Skie's, and clapping a hand on Skie's shoulder. "Welcome to our party! Sorry about the interview, we've had way too many people trying to kill us lately. I'm sure you're starving."

Skie blinked rapidly at the pink-clad girl and opened her mouth to reply.

"Perfect, so am I," said Imoen. "I'll see you girls later," she said to Jaheira, Safana, Neira and Garrick, then went over to and started half-steering, half-pushing Dorean toward the door. "Come on, let's go see what Reis has for breakfast."

..


"Seriously, Reis?" Imoen implored, gesturing at the six plates of fish on the table.

"Sorry, Imoen," the innkeeper called from the bar. "Council thinks we're gonna have a war, soldiers can't fight on empty stomachs."

"They are not doing any fighting, though," said Eldoth. There was a murmur of agreement from the tables around him, all of whom also had dishes consisting solely of fish.

"Nothing I can do, I'm afraid," Reis said to the common room at large, before being distracted by a customer at the bar.

"Okay, who's up for robbing the army camp?" Imoen said in a fierce whisper.

Skie looked down at her roasted minnow. "I'm in."

"My lady, if you wish to conspire to commit thievery, please refrain from doing it where I can hear you," said Ajantis. Skie looked up to see him and Khalid already tucking unperturbed into their meague breakfast. Her eyes went to the Calishite half-elf.

How could he be so calm after what he did to the Juggler?

She looked down, hoping no one saw her expression, and dejectedly began to eat.

"That was a good speech you gave back there," said Imoen, chewing a mouthful of fish despite her earlier protest. "I think I like you already." She looked over Skie's head at Eldoth. "You, not so much."

"Be still my broken heart," Eldoth deadpanned, earning a chuckle from Ajantis.

"So Imoen," said Skie, looking at the girl sitting beside her. "Tell me about yourself."

"Glad to! Hm, well, I'm from Candlekeep like my little brother here." She patted the back of the dwarf sitting on her other side. "It's the castle on the island that you can only get to by the ridiculously long causeway. The one with all the books and the stupidly extreme entry fee."

"I have heard it is quite excessive," Ajantis commented.

"'Quite' doesn't begin to describe it," Imoen replied.

Skie listened attentively as Imoen talked about the fabled library-fortress. According to the girl's tale, while it is indeed the home of one of the largest collections of literary and written knowledge in all of Faerun, life inside Candlekeep was admittedly quite dull; chores, training, and studies, usually with stuffy scholars with more academic knowledge than flair for storytelling. All in all, it seemed to be not dissimilar to Skie's own upbringing in Baldur's Gate.

She felt an immediate kinship when Imoen freely talked of her burglaries, robberies and explorations within the fortress, and before she knew it, she was sharing with Imoen and the others her own escapades in Baldur's Gate.

"Okay, now you HAVE to join in when it's time to liberate Nashkel's stolen goods from the corrupt army," said Imoen. At Ajantis' reproachful look, she added, "Anndd, maybe give some to the villagers as well?"

"Bad idea," said Dorean, speaking for the first time since they left Safana's room. "Any one of them may report us. And we shouldn't eat anything in public either, aside from this." He gestured to his plate of fish which he had barely touched. "We don't want to risk angering the army."

It suddenly occurred to Skie that Dorean had been so quiet that she had forgotten he was even there.

"All the same," she heard herself say. "I want to help however I can." She paused as everyone looked at her. "We could do it anonymously. Leave the food for the villagers to find."

"As admirable and heroic as that is, Skie," Eldoth drawled. "Whoever finds such a generous gift would probably just keep it for themselves."

"Regardless," Ajantis said with a warm smile to Skie. "I am honoured to have you with us." He paused. "And you as well, Eldoth."

The bard raised an eyebrow. "Me?"

"Yes. You proved your valour against the Black Talon mercenaries and the foul murderer at High Hedge."

"I-I'm sorry, who...?" Skie asked.

"The elven ranger," Eldoth replied. Skie's eyes widened to saucers.

"You met him?" she breathed, taking hold of his sleeve.

"Yes, my lady," Ajantis said grimly. "You are fortunate that you were not there. He is every bit the bloodthirsty madman as his reputation claims. The villain attacked us unprovoked after Dorean and Imoen offered him food, and he..." he trailed off, looking at Khalid whose gaze had lowered to the table. "I'm sorry."

"I-It's okay," the half-elf stammered. Ajantis hesitated, then nodded and turned back to Skie.

"Eldoth saved us, my lady. Were it not for him, that madman may have slain us all. Unfortunately, he escaped with the aid of the estate's owner, Thalantyr. For reasons that he refuses to divulge, the conjurer had been harboring a known murderer." Ajantis paused, looking down at his plate. "May Helm judge them both for their crimes."

Skie released a breath she did not know she had been holding and scooted closer to Eldoth, pressing up against his side and wrapping her arm around his own.

"Ajantis exaggerates my efforts, Skie," said Eldoth. "Yes, I drove the man away, but I alone did not save all of the group." His eyes met Khalid's.

"What do you mean?" Skie asked, looking from him to Khalid who was now staring blankly at her lover.

"Would you mind telling us?" Eldoth asked the half-elf. For a moment, there was a thick silence at the table, enough that Skie froze with only her eyes darting to her new companions.

"Xzar," Khalid said at last. "He saved me."

"Xzar?" said Skie, furrowing her brow. "Is that the wizard who was with us last night?" She paused. "The one who keeps touching your hair?" she added to Ajantis.

"Yeah, that's him," said Imoen, straightening to look at the windows. "I wonder where he is now. We haven't seen him since he left the Dragon." She paused. "I hope he's okay."

"I must admit, I am curious about him and his partner, the halfling," said Eldoth, looking at Imoen. "Is it true that Xzar and Montaron are the very first people you met after you left Candlekeep?"

To Skie's surprise, Imoen suddenly became quiet, looking uncertainly to her brother.

"Sorry, but we need to get going," said Dorean, pushing away his half-eaten meal. "We have to be back here in an hour."

..


After exiting the Northern Light, Ajantis led the group down the road, then along a dirt path leading north-east. A few minutes later, they stopped in front of an oval-shaped, one-storey building situated in the middle of a grassy field.

The building's only entrance was circular and had no door. Above it hung a wooden board, upon which the words 'Cloud Peak Outfitters' had been painted. A staircase spiralled down into the earth. The group filed in after Ajantis, with everyone except Dorean having to duck through the doorway, and descended the stairs into a large underground chamber almost twice the size of the Belching Dragon's drinking hall. Boxes and barrels were stacked along the walls, while shelves stocked with wares stood in neat rows. In the center of the chamber was a cloth-covered table, upon which lay a large, circular wooden carving of the face of a smiling woman. The area in front of the carving was bare, its floor carpeted.

"Ajantis!" a voice called, and Skie looked left and right before spotting a halfling woman who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere in front of the paladin.

"Greetings, Salla. It is good to see you again."

"Ach, it's good to see ye too!" the halfling replied, smacking Ajantis fondly on his armoured hip. "Didn't think ye'd be back so soon! An' who're these fine folks with ye? New recruits to the Radiant Heart?"

Ajantis laughed, though Skie noticed that it sounded strained. "Everyone, this is Salla Pitontoes, owner and priestess of Nashkel's temple to the god Tymora."

"Temple? Ye speak too highly of me, Ajantis! This is but a humble shop with a little shrine to me friend there. Always thought muffins would be a better gift, but gods need their worship like we need butter."

"Salla, this is Lady Skie of Baldur's Gate..."

Skie immediately had her hand vigoriously shaken by the little priestess.

"Eldoth Kron of the Ruathym Isles..."

"Ooh, ye look just like me husband!"

Eldoth smirked down at Salla. "Let me guess. You are not married?" Frowning, Skie placed her arm around Eldoth's, illiciting another laugh from the jovial halfling.

Ajantis next introduced Khalid who stammered three times just to say 'Good morning', and then Imoen who within a few minutes was chatting with Salla like they were old friends. Frowning, Skie looked round and saw that Dorean had somehow gone unnoticed by Salla and was now browsing the shelves. She watched as Khalid went over to and joined him in inspecting a row of winter-clothing.

Despite her chatty nature, Salla was an attentive proprietor, scurrying to and fro across the shop (or temple? Skie wasn't sure, as there did not seem to be any worshippers present) from one person to another to list off the benefits of her wares. Before long, Skie had purchased a coat, new pack, fur-lined boots and a pair of thick gloves.

"It'll keep the cold outta ye fingers, though ye might wanna take 'em off 'fore you do any climbing," Salla said with a wink.

"I-I'm not sure what you mean."

"C'mon, lass, ye think I don't recognize a fellow roof-jumper when I see one?" Salla replied, planting her hands on her hips and grinning up at her. Skie hesitated, then returned her grin with one of her own.

"Pardon me, Miss Pitontoes, but do you run this shop - temple - by yourself?"

"There's usually a hand or two from the village who'd help fer some coins or food." Salla's cheerful demeanour faded slightly as she looked away. "Not many people've been comin' by lately, though. Everyone's havin' to work more in the fields." She paused. "Lost a lotta good folks in the mines too."

"I'm sorry."

Salla smiled warmly up at her, then hopped away to speak to Imoen again, leaving Skie alone.

"You need a new weapon," Dorean's voice said from directly behind her.

Skie turned around so fast that she dropped everything she was carrying. "Oh!" she said, bending down to pick up her purchases. "Y-you startled me."

"It's alright. You said you were trained in the bow?"

"Yes," Skie replied, struggling to remain calm as her brother's suspected killer stood only a few paces in front of her.

"You should get one," said the dwarf. "And as many arrows as you can carry. We'll be heading into the wilderness today."

Skie swallowed, nodded, then turned and moved away, painfully aware of how nervous she must look. Walking as fast as she dared, she reached Eldoth who silently placed a reassuring hand on her arm.

"I don't think I can do this," she whispered, glancing at Salla jumping upon spotting Dorean for the first time and then chiding him for avoiding her.

"Yes you can," Eldoth whispered firmly back. "And you will have to."

They watched as Imoen joined in the conversation between Salla and her brother, excusing the latter's behavior for shyness. After a moment, Skie looked up at Eldoth. "Are you alright?"

He furrowed his brow at her. "What do you mean?"

"Earlier, in the room," Skie said hesitantly. "You were..."

Eldoth blinked, then smiled down at her and kissed her forehead. "I am fine now."

"Really?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes," he replied. He rubbed her back, then placed an arm around her shoulders and guided her forward. "Come on. Let's mingle with our new friends."

..


The interior of the lounge reeked of sweat and ale. Smoke wafted from pipes held between thick beards, adding to the gathering grey cloud above the two dozen heavily-armed, chain-mail wearing dwarves.

The front door swung open with a loud creak, revealing the one-eared bounty hunter. He crossed the room without hesitation, looking neither to the left or right as he made a beeline for a table at the very back of the lounge.

Two of the four dwarves seated at the table stood at his approach, one of them picking up an enormous pickaxe off the table while the other reached for his belted double-headed axe. However, at a raised hand from their seated leader - a five-foot tall, thoroughly muscled figure with a jet-black beard - they dropped their hands to their sides as the human stopped in front of them. The leader paused a moment, his beady eyes showing no emotion as they moved over the bounty hunter's torn ear and scarred cheek.

"Benjy," he said, the two syllables rolling out of his beard.

In response, the Flaming Fist captain placed a parchment on the table, removing his hand to reveal a notice for Dorean, Xzar and Montaron. "All that matters is the dwarf. You will receive double the reward being offered for all three, regardless of whether you kill the other two."

As murmurs began to arise from the other dwarves, their leader leaned back in his seat to regard Farrahd with narrow eyes. "What about the others with them? And the Shields?"

"Kill them all if you wish."

For a long moment, there was not a sound in the lounge.

The leader then gave one look at his fellow dwarves, and all of them stood up at once and began readying their weapons and armour.