From Bearskull to Thornburst

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Aurina walked behind the guard, fighting the urge to wince at the pain in her ribs.  Gods above, why did they take so starlning long to heal?  She shifted the weight of the sack that was slung over her shoulder, hoping to get a little relief.  Granted this huge stinking sack didn’t help matters either.

Trying to take her mind off her discomfort, Aurina locked her eyes on the guard’s back as he continued to escort her through the lord’s palace, and thought back onto the first time she walked her father’s halls.

Aurina grew up a half elf among barbarians, daughter of their chieftain, Elga Serpentbane.  A former adventurer in a group called the Bloody Misfits, Elga traveled far and wide before settling down to rule, and nine short months later Aurina was born.

For most of her life the identity of her father was kept from her, her mother only saying that Aurina would know in time.  That time came almost five years earlier, when Aurina decided she wanted to be a ranger like her hero Berriam from her mother’s tales of adventuring.  It was then that Egla finally revealed the truth to her daughter, that her hero was also her father. Berriam Thornburst, lord of the neighboring Beriath’s Valley, and a fellow Misfit.  Elga told Aurina she was the result of a single night’s dalliance, the last night the Bloody Misfits were together where Berriam held a great feast for them in his hall.

Father and daughter were kept ignorant of each other, for Egla feared that being the daughter of such two infamous parents would bring too much dangerous attention upon her firstborn child.  But she swore that when Aurina came of age she could seek out her father, either at Elga’s side or with her blessing.

And so when Aurina turned fifteen, she bid her mother farewell and traveled to Beriath’s Valley to ask Lord Berriam to take her as an apprentice.  She was determined to keep her identity a secret from her father until he had accepted or denied her.  Aurina wanted to follow in his footsteps and wanted him to train her for her own skills and merits, not for the blood she carried.

The path between the lands of her people, the Bearskull barbarians and the elves of Beriaths’ valley was a well-traveled one, but Elga insisted her daughter travel with at least one companion, and sent along her own dire tiger Shadow to escort her daughter to the edge of the elf city.

Alone in a new city, but with funds gifted from her mother, Aurina was able to find lodgings close to the palace while she attempted to gain audience with her estranged father.  It took a week before Aurina learned of the petitioners’ line which the lord met with every day, and another month of standing in that line and being turned away for one reason or another before she was finally able to stand before Lord Berriam Thornburst.

He looked down at her from the dais and his throne with mild distaste.  Her clothes were clean but worn, patched and mended as her people did not throw anything away unless completely unusable.

“And what,” he drawled “Do we have here.”

“My lord,” Aurina bowed deeply and fought to keep her emotions in check.  Her mother had warned her to show no fear, and to display the utmost courtesy when presented to her father. “My lord I have come to ask a boon of you.” Berriam arched a brow at that.

“Of course you have, that is why you are here.  Very well then be quick about it, there are other who await their turn.” He motioned for her to speak and Aurina took a deep breath.

“My lord, tales of your greatness have traveled far, far enough to reach even my ears.  I grew up with tales of your prowess and ferocity in battle, and for so long have I dreamed of being great like you.” She licked suddenly dry lips, aware of the smirks and murmurs of the courtiers lining the walls.

“But to be great like you,” she continued, “I need to be trained like you.  So I have come to ask that you take me as your apprentice.”

Silence reigned over the audience chamber at her words, no one expected this little half breed to come with such an outrageous request.  She hurried on before her father could speak.

“I will prove myself worthy of this.  Give me a task my lord.  Any task, and I will see it through and prove to you my ability.”

“And who are you who have seemingly come so far to request such an honor?” Lord Berriam’s voice was cold and his eyes were hard.  Aurina’s heart hammered in her chest.

“Ah…Rina,” she stammered.  Berriam caught her hesitation and shook his head.

“Of course it is.  Tell me ‘Rina’, how old are you?  And why should I take someone such as you on when you cannot even be honest enough to give me your name?” Berriam leaned forward in his chair, waiting for her to answer.

“I have seen fifteen summers my lord, and forgive me but I do not want my name or lack of one to hold any sway over your decision.  I only ask for the chance to prove myself first.  Then on your acceptance or rejection I will tell you all.”  She looked up hopefully at her father, seeing him watching her she could not help but wonder if he saw any resemblance in her face, though she saw no recognition in his eyes.  Finally he made a rude noise and leaned back in his chair waiving a dismissive hand in her direction.

“You are a child.  An insolent, arrogant child. Your request is denied.” he motioned for the next petitioner as Aurina was led away.

Thankfully, she was more determined than heartbroken.  Knowing now the petitioner’s process, she came again every day for another month and every day was able to come before her father.  Most days he turned her away without a word, some days she was able to make her plea again before being escorted out as the next petitioner was escorted in, until that last day.

“Oh gods you again child?” Berriam reclined to the side of his throne, head supported by his fist as Aurina made her way into the audience chamber, bowing before her unwitting father.  He sighed. “Same request as before?”

“Yes my lord,” Aurina said as she straightened.  “Give me a task to complete, and when I come back successful, accept me as your apprentice.”

Barriam studied the stubborn little half breed before him.  Taller than most half elves he had seen, long auburn hair braided behind her slightly pointed ears, large hazel eyes, common clothes, there was nothing about the girl that should set her apart from anyone else.  But she was brazen, and determined.   He sighed again, knowing now he would need to give her something else she would never cease.  “How many times have you come before me now?”

“This time makes thirty one my lord.”

“Well I for one do not want to see you here another thirty one days in a row.”  Berriam straightened as an idea came to him.  This would either provide the proof the child was so desperate for, or send her home with her tail between her legs.  He thought more likely it would be the latter.

“I have recently received word of an ettin among the hills, on the eastern edge of the valley,” he smiled as her eyes widened. “It is becoming a nuisance.  Kill the ettin, and I will consider your proposal.”  Aurina was silent as she mulled it over.

“If I kill the ettin,” she said slowly, “You will take that as proof enough and accept me as your apprentice.”  Berriam’s brows shot up as the courtiers whispered.

“You make demands of me?” he asked incredulously.

“I ask the same thing I have asked these last thirty one days my lord,” she replied. “Give me a task, accept my apprenticeship upon completion of it.  You have given me a task, will you accept my apprenticeship upon completion of it?”  Now it was Berriam who turned the words over.  The spies he had following the girl were unable to find anything out.  She simply showed up at the northern end of the valley a little over two months ago, found a place to stay, and almost every day since then had been here, making the same request of him over and over again.  Damn if he wasn’t beginning to like the little half breed.  If only a bit.  Berriam nodded to himself.

“Agreed, under one additional condition.  Since you will not tell me your name before your task, once you return you tell me here, before all the court, who you are.  Depending on that, I will accept you.” Aurina opened her mouth to protest but Berriam held up a hand to forestall her.  “That is nonnegotiable, I will not allow an unknown nor an enemy so unconditionally close to me.  This is also my final offer,” he looked hard at Aurina. “You either accept these terms, or you will be banished from the valley on pain of death.”

Aurina nodded slowly. “Agreed.”

“Good,” Berriam stood up and straightened his clothes, signaling that the audiences were over for the day.  But as he made to leave he hesitated and turned back to the little half breed, waiting to be escorted from the hall.  “And as you have come before me for thirty one days, you have just as many to find the creature, kill it, and return.  The commander will give you more details on where to find the ettin,” he said left the audience chamber.

That was thirty one days ago, and here Aruina was again, a little more dirty, a little more disheveled, and with a large, stinking, gore-dripping sack in tow.

No waiting in the petitioner’s line this time.  The guards knew her, by reputation as the Stubborn Little Half Breed if not by sight, and the sack over her shoulder could only mean one thing.  She was ushered into the hall before her father as soon as he was finished with the current petitioner.  She strode forward boldly, ignoring the soft gasps of surprise from those assembled at the sight of her.  Eyes trained on Berriam, she reached the foot of the dais and swung the sack around to land with a wet sound on the marble floor and bowing low once freed of her burden.

“I have returned successful my lord,” she said as she straightened and looked at her father.  Berriam stared down at her, eyes flicking between her and the bloody sack.

“That stain is not going to come out easily,” he quipped as he stood up and sauntered down towards her, fighting to keep the surprise and suspicion off his face.  He had his people shadow the girl, and so knew she was indeed able to track down and kill the ettin as he had bid her, but she was little more than a child!  There was something more to this for one so young to take out a giant kin alone, and he was determined to discover what it was.

“So you are back and successful O Unknown One? Let’s see just how successful you were,” he nonchalantly opened the sack and looked inside, nodding as he saw the rotting ettin head and confirmed what his scouts had already reported.  Looking back up to her, Berriam straightened and tapped a long forefinger against his lips in thought as he studied the young female before him.

“A task successfully completed, but something seems amiss here,” he said as he voiced his earlier thoughts.  “By the standards of most races you are young, practically a child.  How was it that you, alone and unaided, were able to accomplish this?  Track and kill a giant almost three times your size and strength?”  Aurina gave a little shrug.

“My mother knows a little of hunting giants and giant-kin, I simply remembered what she taught me,” she said simply.

“Ah yes, your mysterious parentage,” he drawled.  “And now we come to the second half of our little agreement.  Who are you exactly child, who has come to my home and demanded so much of me?” Aurina straightened as much as she could, heart pounding as she spoke the words she had rehearsed in her head so many times.

“My name is Aurina Bearskull, blooded and firstborn daughter to Chief Elga Serpentbane,” her voice carried clearly across the hall.  As soon as Berriam heard the name of his old comrade he closed his eyes and sighed as he rubbed at his temples.

“Of course you are, the only female I know more stubborn than you is her,” he muttered.    But Aurina saw him still as he made the connection and slowly looked up at her, peering more closely.  “Ah…how old are you again?  Exactly?”  She couldn’t help a small smile.

“Fifteen summers my lord.  I was born shortly after the Bloody Misfits retired.”

Berriam couldn’t help but stare at her as the truth slowly took form in his mind.  Fifteen years.  Oh bleeding bloody hells, it was little more than fifteen years to the date since the Misfits retired and he hosted their farewell feast in this very hall.  Fifteen years since he spent one passionate night with the only human female from that group. And now this child appears, this half elf child of the woman he lay with, the one he could have sent to her death or worse, was most likely his child, unknown for all these years.  Throat suddenly dry, he visibly swallowed before attempting to speak.

“And how is your mother?” he asked, his voice thankfully sounding stronger than he feared, at least to his ears.  Aurina inclined her head to him.

“She was well when we parted.  My mother sends her greeting and bids me to give you this,” Aurina reached inside her tunic and searched for a moment before drawing forth a much crumpled but still sealed parchment.  “She remembers her last night here in Beriaths’ Valley in detail and with great fondness. She hopes you do as well, and that one day she is able to return the favor.”

Berriam keep his eyes on his daughter’s as he reached for the parchment and broke the seal, looking away long enough to read the contents.  Long minutes later he took a deep breath and turned back to her, seemingly having had the chance to gather his thoughts.

“You know what this letter says?”  Aurina nodded.  “You do realize there was an easier way to go about this,” he indicated the stinking sack on the floor beside them.  Aurina nodded again and grinned.

“I would not be my mother’s daughter if I took the easy way.”  Berriam chuckled at that as he tucked the letter away.

“Very well then,” he turned towards the courtiers that were watching every second of this first true meeting between father and daughter.  “Ladies and gentle males, may I present to you Aurina Bearskull, my apprentice…and my daughter.” He laid his hands on Aurina’s shoulders as a flurry of whispers and murmurs arose at those words, and Berriam had to raise his voice to be heard as he continued.

“She will be named as my daughter and co-heir alongside my son, granted lands and titles, a position here at court, and shall be accorded every respect and privilege that comes with bearing my name even should she not take it.”  He winked at a very shocked Aurina and whispered so only she would hear.  “It’s mostly paperwork and formalities, but it will all be yours to do with as you please, to use as much or as little as you desire.”

Drawing her back up the dais with him, he motioned to young half elf male.  “Come and see to your sister.  Find her rooms to rest in until we can get her properly situated.  We will all speak over dinner tonight.”  And with that he turned from them to deal with the rest of the court who were understandably in an uproar, calling for order.

The two half siblings blinked at each other for a few moments before the male shrugged and beckoned Aruina to follow him.  In the quiet of the corridor beyond the hall, Aurina found the courage to speak again.

“That was…uh…unexpected,” she said softly.  The male turned towards her with a grin.

“Welcome to the Thornbursts,” he said.

******

Elga’s Letter:

Forgive me my friend, if I can still call you that.

I know you are no fool, and have by now guessed outright or suspected that Aurina is our daughter. Believe me when I say I did not know the truth of her parentage until after she was born. When I left you the possibility of conception never crossed my mind, and when I learned I was with child I had returned to my husband Tanta and assumed the child his. I would have sent word, but I confess fear stilled my hand, fear of upsetting your world for you already had one half breed child, and fear for Aurina herself. I felt that having me for a mother put her in enough peril, but having you as her father? A child of two Misfits, both leaders of their respective peoples, both heroes of the Realms? A fine prize she would have made.

I told Aurina the truth of you some years ago, when she decided the ways of our people were not for her and she wanted to walk your path. She had always been fascinated with your stories as a child. Tales of the Misfits are told often around the campfires of my people, and the stories of Berriam Elf Brother, Breaker of Hordes were always her favorite. Nightly she would beg of one more tale of you, ‘just one more Mata,’ she would plead. And I obliged as often as I could.

I had planned to tell you of her when she came of age, even before she made the choice to come train under you. I know not if you have accepted her as your apprentice or denied her. If you have, I thank you and I know you will care for our daughter well. If not, I hope you broke it to her gently, and that you do not extend an offer based solely on her blood. She is much like me in that regard, taking only what she has earned.

I know not what else to say, except that I leave this knowledge in your hands, to do with as you will. I know Aurina would love to have you in her life, she knows as well it was wholly in my hands why you two never knew of each other before now. But we have no expectations, and place no obligations on you. I can only imagine the effect this knowledge has upon you, and I can only pray the one day you will find it in your heart to forgive me.

Yours faithfully,

                        Elga

Death Is Not What It Seems

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It’s been a while since I last read any of the Sembia series, like a couple years at least, so I can’t really compare this with the others as I don’t remember really what the other ones were like.  I’ll have to treat this one as a stand alone and see how it goes.

For the most part I enjoyed it.  It did get a little confusing at the end when they were trying to explain how everything tied in together, but otherwise it was good.

We are introduced once more to the Sembian noble family the Uskevrens: Patriarch Thamalon, matriarch Shamur, eldest Tamlin, second son Talbot, only legitimate daughter Tazi, half elf bastard children and good old Erevis Cale.  Everyone is still kinda reeling in one way or another from the events of the first six books so there is a bit of catch up for the reader as there are brief recaps, but as soon as things seem like they’re about to get back to normal, Thamalon, Shamur, and Cale are drawn into a magical painting intended to kill Thamalon.  But instead of killing him or anyone eles, long dormant magics in the foundation of the family home Stormweather Towers transports the three to a world between worlds, where an evil scorcerer rules with an iron fist.

A sorcerer that looks like Tamlin and is actually Thamalon’s long-thought-deceased father.

Apparently when Thamalon’s father passed, this same magic trapped his soul in a nexus world, from which he found or was able to create the lands that the younger Uskevrens found him in.  But for the longest time he was essentially trapped in nexus world, until young Tamlin and his aptitude for magic was born.

Seeing a chance, the elder Uskevren sapped the magic and appearance of his grandson and eventually made his way to his new world where he ruled it with stolen magic.  When Thamalon, Shamur, and Cale are trapped in his world, Tamlin and siblings never give up the search for their family, a quest that eventually leads them to the right place and to a fantastical duel between grandfather and grandson.

Then back to Stormweather Towers to face yet another magical spellduel, a gibbering mouther, and the death of the patriarch.

Overall, I did enjoy this book.  My heart broke a little bit for Cale as he is in love with the Uskevren daughter and I know where that love will lead him.  But as I said when they were trying to explain all the magics as to how the nexus world existed and the grandfather was able to do what he did, it was hard to make sense of it all, but thankfully that did not detract any from my enjoyment of the overall story.

Ploughing along with the Realms (I am determined to read them all by the end of the year), we have book 3 of the Sundering series with The Adversary next.

As the chaos of the Sundering rages around her, young warlock Farideh faces a more personal turmoil wrought by a deal she made with a devil years ago. Hoping to protect her twin sister, she leaves everything she holds dear to assist a wizard in a scheme that pits the devils of the Nine Hells against the gods above.

But when Farideh casts the spell to enter the wizard’s remote mountaintop fortress, she picks up a stowaway &mdahs; a Harper agent named Dahl who isn’t so inclined to follow devilish demands. Dahl attempts to escape only to run into a village of odd people, lurking behind an impenetrable wall.

Forced to gaze into the villagers’ souls, Farideh points out the ones who seem different, only to watch as the wizard’s guard carts them off to fates unknown. Are these villagers or prisoners? Are they blessed or doomed by the gods? As the wizard’s guessing game proves more and more diabolical, Farideh resolves to unravel his secrets — even if it means she’ll lose her own soul to the Nine Hells.

Aurina Bearskull

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She ran blindly through the woods, tears blurring her vision as she slapped branches out of her way. She ran until her legs, pushed beyond their limit, gave way beneath her and sent her sprawling along the forest floor. Gasping and sniffling, she took a moment to regain her wind before making a shaken attempt to stand. Spotting a fallen tree nearby, she stumbled over and gratefully sat down on top of it as she took stock of herself and her surroundings. Aside from a few scrapes from her fall, she was unharmed and looking around her she found this part of the woods was unfamiliar. In her flight she had gone further than her previous forays around the lands her tribe called home. She held no fear however, for she knew no matter how far she had come she would find her way back again.

    The girl closed her eyes and breathed deeply as her heart rate slowed. She always felt more comfortable out in the wild than among the encampment of her people. A trait she attributed more to her unknown elf father than her human mother.

    She lost track of time as she sat there, eyes closed, soaking in the sounds and smells of the forest, until a twig snapped behind her and a chuff of hot fetid air blew across the back of her neck. Her shoulders slumped as the creature moved up next to her and reached for her face.

    “Not now Shadow,” she muttered as she gently pushed the muzzle away. Another chuff and the girl turned her head to watch the dire tiger step over the fallen tree and lay across her feet, rolling over and exposing his belly for a rub which she obliged with a small smile, scratching through the soft fur to the accompaniment to the giant cat’s contented rumbles. A rustling in the bush alerted the girl to the presence of the great predator’s companion.

    She looked over her shoulder, unsurprised at the huge barbarian woman standing behind her, a great axe resting on one shoulder and a bow peeking out over the other. To the girl’s tribe the woman was Chief, to her enemies she was The Serpentbane, to her friends she was Elga Greyskull, but the girl simply knew her as mother.

    “Hullo mata,” the girl greeted her mother, her voice flat and dull as she turned her attention back to the tiger. But the great cat only had eyes for his mistress now as he arched his back and reached out a paw big as a serving platter towards her, claws flexed out. Elga chuckled, stepping over the log and taking the tiger’s paw in her hand, avoiding the claws even as they retracted.

    “Good job Shadow mine,” she crooned as she sat next to her daughter. Shadow rolled to his feet as Elga set her axe down and reached out to scratch him behind his ears. “Good boy finding Aurina cub, yes good boy.”

Aurina rolled her eyes as her mother continued to talk to her animal companion like it was a baby, and in some ways it was since she had raised the dire tiger from a cub. This tale among others was well known among her people. Elga had traveled far with her adventuring band the Bloody Misfits in her youth, and on her journey they rescued a litter of dire tiger cubs for a tribe of tiger people called Rakastas. In payment for their efforts and at Elga’s request they bequeathed her one to raise and train as a companion mount. Elga named the cat Shadow Stalker, but rarely had his real name been used as his mistress found it highly amusing to give him the nickname of ‘Fluffy’ as they adventured, and now since retirement she simply referred to him as her Shadow.

    “Go lie down Shadow,” Elga bade the tiger, who obediently walked off a few paces before curling up in a great snoring heap. Mother and daughter sat quietly for a few moments before Elga turned to her child.

    “This is the third time in as many weeks you have run out of camp like a dragon was on your tail child,” Aurina hunched her shoulders at her mother’s bluntness and chiding tone. “What ails you my daughter?”

“Nothing mata,” the girl muttered, staring at her toes.  Elga sighed.  In so many ways were she and Aurina similar, but in this they were different.  Getting the child to speak a word she did not wish was like pulling teeth from a gibbering mouther.  Thankfully they were alike in that the girl never truly lied, but like all children she was partial to half truths to avoid trouble or answering difficult questions.  Elga tried again.

    “Aurina, daughter mine, you know you can speak truth to me and I will not hold it against you. Speak truth to me now. What troubles you?”

This time, Elga refused to break the silence before her daughter, and they sat in silence for a long while, the quiet forest noised broken only by the rumbling snores of the dozing tiger.

    “They want me to be like you,” Aurina finally murmured.  “I hear them talking when they think I can’t hear them, and the way they look at me sometimes. They think I’m going to be a great warrior like you. And I am trying mata!” she looked at her mother, a hint of desperation in her eyes. “I’m trying so hard, but I can’t do it. I’m not big or strong or brave, I’m not even human! And I don’t want to let them down. I…I don’t want to let you down.”

    Elga laid her arm across Aurina’s young shoulders, drawing the girl closer as she looked off into the woods, gathering her thoughts before speaking again.

    “I know what our people expect of you,” she began. “They honor the ways of axe and arm, sword and shield. Your grandfather was a great warrior and hero of his tribe, your mother is a chieftain, a famed warrior in her own right, a hero of the Realms. You and your brother both are under constant scrutiny, expected to follow me and become the next in a line of warriors, chiefs, and heroes.”

    She turned to her daughter and her voice grew grave. “But the ways of our people are not always my ways Aurina. And they do not have to be yours. If your heart is telling you to walk a different path then you must heed it. To the hells with what I or anyone else thinks or expects of you. What is important is what you think of and expect from yourself. What is it that you wish to become my child? How do you want the world to know Aurina Bearskull?”

    Aurina frowned and thought for a long moment on her mother’s words. “I…I want to become a ranger, a watcher of the woods like you mata,” she whispered at last, eyes downcast. Her mother made a rude noise at that.

    “I am a warrior, a killer more than a caretaker child, this you well know. Be honest in where your desire comes from.”

    Aurina refused to meet her mother’s gaze for a long time, watching an ant make slow progress across the fallen log where they both sat, before she dared look up again. Her mother’s face was stern but not angry, expecting only truth in the next words, not caring what those words might be and that in itself gave the girl courage.

    “I want to be a ranger, like Lord Berriam. The thought of being able to take down my enemies and protect my friends before danger can reach us, and to be able to slide along the shadows, silent and untouchable.” She grinned at her mother. “I want to be a ranger!”

    Elga returned her daughter’s grin and laughed her great booming laugh, the woods echoing with it. “Then a ranger you shall be my daughter!”

    Aurina squealed and threw her arms around her mother almost knocking them both over. “Thank you mata!” Elga chuckled and hugged her daughter back, unsurprised. Tales of her old band, The Bloody Misfits were favorite fireside and bedtime tales among her tribe. But for little Aurina, the tales of Berriam Elf Brother, Breaker of Hordes were the most cherished. It was not surprising to her that the child would choose her hero’s path. But Elga’s cheer quickly faded as she realized that the time had come to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage.

    “And since you want to be a ranger like your hero,” she whispered, voice hoarse and heart breaking. “Who better than your hero father to teach you?” The girl stilled before pulling away and staring at her mother in confusion.

    “Yes my child, it is time you knew. Lord Berriam is your blood-father.” Elga reiterated softly, giving the girl a moment to absorb this new information that would change her world. Aurina blinked at her mother. Elga had never hidden the circumstances of Aurina’s conception, but neither had she revealed the identity of her father, saying only that it would be known in time. She already knew that ten years ago her mother and the rest of the Bloody Misfits retired from their adventuring lives. And that on their last night together as comrades in arms Lord Berriam hosted a great feast for them in Beriath’s Valley where her mother lay with her father and unknown to both of them, left pregnant.

    “You know most of the story already,” Elga unwittingly echoed her daughter’s thoughts. “What you don’t know is that Berriam is the male I spent the night with. We had always flirted with each other, and I had always drawn a line between us. But the night of the feast that line…no longer existed. We would no longer be traveling together, your hearth-father and I were wed in name only, so what was the harm?” She looked off into the forest, her memories going back through the years as her child watched.

    “I remember what happened during that long night,” she continued quietly. “And when morning found us in each other’s arms, we acknowledged what we did and moved on with our lives. We both knew it was a one night affair. Yes we felt for each other, it is hard to avoid forming such bonds among comrades who have lived as closely together for as long as we did, but we did not love each other. He needed to take a wife, and in the eyes of our people I had a husband. We parted ways and as you know have remained close friends ever since.”

    Mother and daughter sat together in silence for a time. Aurina’s mind ran through all the tales of her hero –no, her blood-father– that she had heard through the years. She knew that he had come to visit her mother and people once or twice since that night, the last being just a few years ago. She remembered being so excited and nervous when she was introduced to him, and her mind poured over every look, every word he sent her way, and it was then she realized the depth of her mother’s deception. She looked over at Elga.

    “He doesn’t know about me, does he? He never acted like he does.” Elga shook her head, knowing exactly what she was referring to.

    “I never told either of you about the other,” she explained. “By the time I learned I was with child I had returned to our tribe and my mated bed. It was not until after you were born that I knew your true parentage and by that time Berriam had already taken in one half breed child. I saw no reason to bring such drama upon his house, and I feared exposing you to more risk.”

    “More risk?” Aruina yelled, jumping to her feet and facing her mother with balled fists. This was almost too much for the girl, learning her mysterious sire is the hero she has adored for so long, and that her mother intentionally kept them ignorant of each other! Her eyes filled anew with tears born from anger. “What kind of risk could there possibly be in telling my blood-father I exist!”

    “Oh daughter mine,” Elga sadly shook her head. “You forget who your mata is? Who your parents are?” Aurina scoffed and made to turn away from her but Elga grabbed hold of her arm and made her daughter face her.

    “I am The Serpentbane, chieftain of the Bearskulls,” she said sternly. “Your father is Berriam Thornburst, Lord of Beriath’s Valley. We are both Bloody Misfits and lauded heroes of the Realms. Do you know how many enemies we have made in our travels? How many would gladly see us or those we care for dead in an effort to hurt us? And what of the enemies of our tribe, the orcs and giants who would love to get their hands on the chieftain’s daughter? Or the enemies of the valley? Oh the daughter of Lord Berriam would make a lovely prize for profit or vengeance!” Elga realized she was almost yelling and shut her mouth with an audible click of her teeth. Taking a deep breath, she continued more calmly. Kneeling before her first born so they were eye to eye, she released Aurina’s arm and clasped her soft, tiny hands within her own large, battle scarred ones.

    “You and your brother are in danger enough by being my children. Add to that you being the child of an elf lord and a second member of the Misfits? No.” She shook her head. “I would not do that. I swore I would not tell either of you until you came of age, or until such events happened that I deemed it more prudent to tell you beforehand. It may have been wrong of me to do so, but you are my child. My daughter, blooded and first born. I was and am willing to do whatever is necessary to keep you safe.”

    Aurina chewed her lip as she listened to her mother, held immobile by indecision. She wanted so much to scream and flail her fists at the women kneeling before her, a woman whose face begged for forgiveness or understanding. She felt like running all the way to Beriath’s Valley and up to her father and make herself known to him, or falling into the comfort of her mother’s arms and cry out all her frustration.

    “Does tata know?” she asked finally, using her nickname for the man who raised her as his own.

    Elga let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding. “Yes, tata knows. He knew of my night with Berriam before you were born and so realized your parentage the same time as I. And you should know that it doesn’t matter to him who your blood-father is. He may be your hearth-father, but he loves you for who you are. He has loved you since the day you were born and I laid you in his arms. Do you know what he said to me that day?” Aurina shook her head, eyes wide and no less tear filled. Elga smiled at her.

    “‘My daughter’, he said. ‘And damn any man who says differently.’”

    Aurina’s lip quivered as she fought back her tears, a battle she ultimately lost as they began rolling freely down her face and she began to sob. Egla wrapped her daughter in a fierce embrace and held her. Although most of her people seemed to accept and love her, Aurina knew there were pretenders among them. A look, a word, turning towards her too slowly or away from her too quickly showed her who those pretenders were. And her greatest fear was that among the better actors was her hearth-father, pretending to care for his mate’s half breed daughter to avoid Elga’s wrath. It was this fear that prompted her to try to appear more human, braiding her hair over her ears, wearing bulky clothes to hide her slim form, trying to speak like the others around her.

But now her mother had laid those fears to rest, and the girl felt a weight lift off her shoulders, for she knew her mother never lied to anyone about anything. Nothing of what Tanta showed to Aurina had been an act. He truly loved and cared for her as his blooded daughter, and a hope lit in her heart that perhaps if he felt that way then maybe there weren’t as many pretenders within the tribe as she had feared.

    Tears spent, Aurina allowed herself to be held a few moments longer before pulling out of her mother’s embrace. Wiping her face dry, she looked around and noticed the afternoon sun was giving away to evening.     “We should get back,” she said as she glanced back at her mother. “But…what do we do now?” Elga stood and dusted forest debris from her knees. Sweeping up her axe, she motioned to her Shadow before answering.

“Now, we continue on as before. I ask that you keep your blood-father’s identity to yourself for now, I don’t care for the thought of the world knowing of his daughter before him.” Aurina grudgingly nodded, seeing the truth behind her mother’s words.

    “Second, you continue your training as a warrior,” she held up a hand to calm her daughter’s objection. “I will teach you what little I know of the ranger ways, but you will continue to train. No knowledge gained is ever wasted Aurina mine, remember that.”

    “And finally,” Elga looked at her child with a mix of pride and sadness. “If you wish to seek out your blood-father when you come of age, I will not stop you. I will even go with you. Berriam is a good male, but it might take more than your word to convince him to see the truth.”

    Motioning for Shadow to scout ahead, mother and daughter walked in comfortable silence until they reached the end of the forest, where Aurina laid a soft hand on her mother’s muscular arm, halting the large woman who looked back at her in puzzlement.

    “What if I don’t want you to come?” she asked softly. “What if I want him to accept me as…well…me? As Aurina Bearskull?” Her mother smiled.

“Then I will write a letter and bid you swift journey. Your life is your path to walk daughter mine, let none sway you form what you feel is right in your heart.”

    ruina smiled at her mother before turning at Shadow’s call and running ahead, her feet as light as her young heart, now suddenly full of hope.

..And Soul Trapping Gemstones

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Last but not least of DDTS, The Diamond brings it all home and ends all the anguish and turmoil on a very happy note.  But it starts of very sad.

The Open Lord is declared dead and the city is in mourning.  The paladins arrive in the nick of time with the missing piece of the Open Lord’s soul and revives him.  After relaying their tale they decide to hold a funeral for the Eidola-ganger, as to many within the city of Waterdeep she was a tragic figure and after so much hustle and bustle the city needed to come together over something, and what else is better to bring people together than the funeral of a lovely bride tragically taken from her husband and killed before her wedding?

Well the only thing better than that is a an actual wedding!  See the Eidola-ganger had actually based herself on the Open Lord’s first wife, who he had believed had died years ago. Turns out she was just in a magical coma like the Open Lord was, as the Eidola-ganger stole her soul to take on her seeming, and trapped it in the same gem with a fragment of the Open Lord’s soul.  So when the Open Lord was freed and went to lay one never-wife next to a past-wife, the last soul within the gem sensed it’s body and returned to it, returning the Open Lord’s first love back to life.

And since wedding vows are usually ‘till death do us part’ and both of them were technically dead, well.  Nothing to be done but get married again, isn’t there?

Overall impression of this series, I think it might have done better as one book, and if they consolidated some parts of it.  There was this thing where the Open Lord’s soul was exploring the confines of the soul gem and came across seeming’s of the heroes sent to rescue the Eidola-ganger and they were in a forest and there was a tree and some mirrors…

Honestly I skipped a lot of that, mostly because it was making little to no sense, but also because I was just impatient to get on with it.

Speaking of getting on with it, lookit what I missed a few years back!  Here I thought I had all of the Sembia series, and it looks like it missed one!  Let’s take care of that right now shall we?  Lord of Stormweather, by Dave Gross, book seven in the Sembia saga is next.

Thamalon Uskevren II — The heir to the Uskevren fortune never expected in herit so much so soon.

After a sorcerous attack on Stormweather Towers cuts the family in half; Tamlin must learn to lead the survivors before a deadly assassin finishes the job. Too bad nobody seems willing to follow his lead. Worse still, some of them want him dead.

Bloody Misfits Farewell Part 3: The Morning

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Part 2: The Night

Dawn was a mere thought on the horizon when Elga awoke next, replete and aching pleasantly in all the right places.  Opening her eyes she saw an empty pillow, but looking around the room she saw Berriam standing by the window watching the skyline.  She took a moment to watch him staring out over they valley, noting how the light caught in his hair as he leaned against the windowsill.  Good gods what a male, she thought to herself.  Lithe and handsome in the way of all elves, a stalwart fighter, a fantastic lover, here was a male she would be proud to have claimed as a mate if their lives had been different.  But what’s done is done.  No point in dwelling on what could have been.

“Berriam,” she called softly, “not that I mind the view, but why don’t you come back to bed.  We have time for one more round surely.”

“A moment my lady,” he responded glancing over at her, “I simply wished to see the sun rise before we parted ways.”

Finally mustering herself to rise, she padded silently over to the brooding elf, wrapping her arms around his waist as she rested her chin on his shoulder.

“Come now.  Everyone in this valley has drunk and eaten themselves into a stupor.  I say we have at least until midday before people start wondering where we are and look for us, our comrades included,” she began to nuzzle at his neck, emboldened as he tilted his head to accommodate her.  “And if I’m wrong, the door is locked from the inside and my Shadow is sleeping in front of it on the other.  There is no way we will be disturbed.”  He gasped as she reached up and gently nipped his ear, pressing himself back against her.

“Gods woman, you are insatiable,” he moaned as he felt himself stir yet again.  “Have you not had your fill of me?”

“Obviously not,” she said as glanced down his body. “And it seems nether have you.”

Berriam laughed and turned in her arms, grabbing her hips and pulling her against himself as he kissed her.

“It seems not my dear, and I do believe we can make time for one more round.”  Elga grinned as she kissed him back.

“Good!” Elga began to slowly lower herself down, trailing kisses as she spoke. “For I believe it is time for me to show you how grateful of a guest I am for your…tender ministrations last night.”

Berriam hissed and threw back his head, threading his fingers through her hair as she began to show him just how grateful she was.

***

Several ‘one more’ times later, Egla and Berriam were finally getting dressed.  Dawn was just beginning to give way to morning, and the two knew they would have to move swiftly if they wished to avoid being questioned by friends or servants.  Thankfully neither had heard stirrings in the corridor beyond, but if that was due to a lack of traffic or just prudent avoidance of the no-doubt disgruntled dire tiger sitting just outside they could not tell.

With Berriam’s help retrieving her belongings that were scattered around the room, Elga had packed her bag and gathered her weapons.  As he watched her eschew her usual plate armor crafted from green dragon scales in favor of a plain cotton bodice with leather vest and soft calfskin breeches, the implications and possible repercussions of their time together tumbled through his mind.  Amazing what one was able to forget or ignore after dark with a few drinks in the belly and a naked woman spread out before them he mused.

He knew she was married, he knew as well she had taken other lovers between then and him.  Perhaps only once or twice, but a roll with a harem boy in Surina’s conjured manse was a far cry from bedding a neighboring elf lord and party member.  Her people may be more free with themselves than most others he had come across, so it may well be that her past partners would matter little to her current mate, but Berriam had not lived so long on ‘maybes’ and ‘perchances’.  It would be best to ensure.  He cleared his throat, drawing her attention to him.

“I wouldn’t possibly have to worry about any angry barbarians at my gate, seeking vengeance for besmirching your honor would I?” he asked bluntly as he tied his breeches shut.  Elga grunted as she pulled on the laces of her boot.

“No, you are safe in that regard,” she said.  “Tanta and I never consummated our marriage before I left.” That stilled Berriam’s hands.  “Oh we spoke the words, performed the ceremony, but I did what needed to be done to secure my position within the tribe and to ensure that they would be looked after in my absence.  I wasn’t even certain I would return after all, I did not wish to tie him too tightly in case he needed to take another.  In the eyes of my people we are married in name only, and that is what was needed, what mattered.  As for everything else…” Elga shrugged.  “I know he cares for me, perhaps even loves me, so I have hopes for everything else.”

Finished with the one boot, she turned her attention to the other as Berriam gave a mental sigh of relief and shrugged into his tunic.  “I am sure you will be happy, he would be a fool not to love you,” Berriam said placatingly as he padded barefoot to the door.

“And you Berriam?” she asked, halting him.  “Do you love me?”  Startled he turned to face her.  She stood at the end of the bed, fully dressed now with her bag packed and waiting by her feet as she strapped on her various weapons.  Glancing over at him and seeing his stare she shrugged.

“It is a simple question, and given we are essentially going to be neighbors it would be good to have a firm understanding of such things.”

He watched her for a moment as she turned back to her weapons.  Was she intentionally keeping her gaze from his?  Was she trying to hide something from him?  The problem for him, he mused, was that she was smarter and more cunning than most humans he knew.  And frankly more than he normally gave the species credit for. But he also knew her to be honest almost to the point of rudeness, and that she would not appreciate it if he did not deal with her in kind.

“No I don’t love you,” he said at last, and was relieved when she looked at him again and he saw nothing untoward in her eyes.  “I care for you deeply of course, but purely as a friend.”  She nodded and smiled softly at him.

“Good, that’s much as I feel.  Though I do admit that I think we might have been more, in another time, a different life.”

“Perhaps,” he murmured returning her smile.

Elga bent down and swept up her bag, striding purposefully towards Berriam. “Well my friend, this is farewell for now.  And…thank you.” She reached out and clasped his forearm, a farewell from one warrior to another.

“Well I’ve never been thanked for that before,” Berriam returned her gesture as he glanced at the still-rumpled bed behind them.

“No you ass,” she laughed as she released his arm and punched him on the shoulder.  “That was for always having my back on the road.”  She grabbed a fistful of his tunic, pulling him to her before he could react and kissing him passionately, releasing him long moment later.  “That was for last night,” she purred.  Then with a smirk and a wink she slipped out the door.  Berriam stood there for a moment, lips swollen from her kiss, and listened to the woman and her great cat greet each other with a series of rumbles before the sounds of them both faded as they walked away down the hall.  He looked up at the ceiling.

“So. That’s the death you’ve chosen for me, is it?” he asked of his god, shaking his head as he too slipped out and away, leaving an amused silence behind.

…Shapeshifters…

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Book eight of nine in DDTS, Easy Betrayals finally sees our heroes making their way back to Faerun and Waterdeep, the pirates having mostly stayed behind in the Utter East.  The paladins and company arrive underneath Waterdeep, once again in Skullport as they chase the doppelganger in Eidola disguise, finally brining her to a head and in the interim learning that…wel pretty much everyone who was anyone knew of her true abilities.  Blackstaff and company knew of the greater doppelganger, and knew too that it was sent by masters to control the Open Lord of Waterdeep Paladinson.  And instead of destroying the threat, they harnessed it to watch it in hopes that it would lead them back to the ones holding the strings.

Part of this plot was the use of a soul gem that the doppelganger used to capture a piece of the Open Lord’s soul, which would be the reason he had fallen into a coma.  With a piece of his sould torn so far away from his body, there was really nothing else for it to so.

But come the end of Easy Betrayals, Eidola-ganger is dead, and the diamond that holds the Open Lord’s soul is safely in possession of the paladins.

Gee I wonder what The Diamond will bring?  We’ll soon find out wont we…

An epic quest is over… or ist it? Piergeiron, Open Lord of Waterdeep, is dead … or is he? The search for the abductors of his bride Eidola has finally drawn to a close … or has it? As the paladins and mercenaries gather in Waterdeep for a solemn ceremony, the last act of this epic adventure is played out against a background of treachery and deceit. And the last surprise will be the greatest of all. “The Diamond” brings to an end the nine-book serial novel published by TSR and set in the exciting world of the “Forgotten Realms.” Be sure to look for the other parts in your local bookstore.

Bloody Misfits Farewell Part 2: The Night

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Part 1: The Feast

The hour grew late as the feast went on, and one by one humans, halflings, dwarves, drow, and elves alike left to find their beds until only the servants remained to clean the hall.  Well, the servants and one barbarian woman passed out in a corner with a huge wildcat that growled at any who came near.

Berriam sighed as he crossed the hall towards the snoring female and her overzealous companion.  He had been in the middle of getting ready for his own rest when his steward had quietly knocked on his door and asked if he would not mind speaking to the cat and letting it know the servants meant no harm? He was growling at any who came too near and giving the cleaning maids quite the fright.  So here he was, barefoot, hair tied loosely back, a plain cotton tunic and woolen breeches, about to ask a giant, fickle predator to stop ‘protecting’ it’s mistress.

“I need to find more sober comrades,” he muttered as he drew near.  Fluffy had seen him enter the hall but, not wanting to leave his sleeping mistress, had waited for Berriam to approach them before greeting the elf lord.

//Berriam!// the tiger was excited to see him, getting up and rubbing vigorously against his leg. Used to such enthusiastic greetings from the dire tiger Berriam was able to keep himself from being knocked over.

//Shadow// Berriam responded, calling the cat by his true name rather than the nickname most others used. He knelt down so he was face to face with the cat and began running his fingers through the tiger’s ruff.  Shadow’s eyes half closed as he began to rumble. //You no sleep?//

//Mistress sleep. Shadow watch. Shadow protect mistress from elf strangers// the great cat opened his eyes to glare towards the servants watching safely from afar, the rumbling turning into a low growl.  Berriam hastily soothed the cat.

//Mistress safe Shadow.  Elf strangers Berriam friends. They no hurt mistress. Shadow no growl elf strangers// Shadow laid his ears back.

//Too many strangers near mistress// he huffed.

Gods Berrriam’s head was starting to hurt.  This ability to communicate with animals was not intended for such a lengthy conversation.  He thought quickly.

//Wake mistress? Find her den for sleep?// Shadow’s ears perked up and he stopped growling.

//Yes!  Den for sleep.  Much better for mistress//

Shadow turned and nudged Elga with a paw as large as a dinner plate.  The woman mumbled something unintelligible but otherwise did not stir. Nuzzling her shoulder, Shadow managed to get his head under her arm and partially roll her over, where she promptly began to snore again.  Shadow looked over at Berriam with an almost sheepish expression.

//Berriam wake mistress?// he asked.  //Mistress drink too much rotten grass and fruit water. Shadow can’t talk to Mistress now until next sun//

Only Shadow would refer to the finest wines and ales in his cellar as ‘rotten grass and fruit water’ the ranger thought to himself as he bent to the task.

“Elga? Elga my dear?  Time to get up,” he called loudly as he shook her shoulder to no avail. Undeterred, he tried again. “Elga wake up! Humbrol has the Ever Lasting Beer Barrel and he needs your help to drink it!”

“Huh! Wha! S’ok! Fer glory and…skull…bears…” Elga started awake and sat up blinking blearily around her before focusing on Berriam.  “S’bed times?” she slurred.

“Yes, bed times, come on,” he held out his hand and helped the woman to her feet, ducking under one arm as she started to sway.

“Ok now let’s go.  One foot after the other leaning on me yes?”  Elga nodded as she frowned in concentration as she stepped forward. Shadow stood up and pressed gently against Elga as they walked, bracing her from the other side.  //Shadow helps// the cat flicked his tail across the back of the legs of human and elf.

Nodding to the servants to continue their work, Berriam and Shadow carried and supported Elga down long hallways and up several flights of stairs.  The trip becoming easier the more they walked as Elga swiftly sobered up.  The one good thing Berriam and the other Misfits had learned about being around a barbarian on a drinking binge was that they sobered up quickly.  Finally, they arrived before Elga’s chambers.  Not quite able to juggle opening the door and supporting a still-drunk Egla, Berriam turned to her companion for aid.

//Shadow open door?// he asked.  The cat obligingly lifted a paw and levered the door handle down, pushing as the latch disengaged. //Grateful.  Berriam set mistress to sleep, let Shadow in//

Shadow huffed his acceptance and laid down outside the door as Berriam stumbled into the room under Elga’s weight.  Thankfully the room was large and spacious so he did not have to worry about crashing into anything.

“Well that’s a problem,” Berriam muttered as he caught sight of the bed.  It was strewn with the contents of Elga’s backpack, her clothing weapons and armor piled in a disarray across the plush bedding.  “Alright my dear lady, do try not to fall over while I take care of this.” Slipping out from under her arm Berriam began moving items so his friend could sleep. Finally having cleared everything off, he turned around to help Elga into the bed.

“Come along now my dear, you must get your beauty rest before you return to your people…in…the…” Berriam’s words trailed off as he looked up to see Elga hopping on one foot while she tugged her boot off the other, which just so happened to be the last article of clothing she had on.  Berriam just stared at her for a moment as he tried to decide what was more surprising: that she was able to keep her clothes on for this long or the fact that he was still surprised by anything this woman did.

“Elga,” he finally asked. “Why are you naked?”

Elga made a rude noise as she weaved towards the bed. “Can’t sleep with my clothes on silly,” she muttered.  “Oh!  Wait no, can’t go to sleep yet.  Need to find an elf for the night.” Changing course and making her way around the end of the bed with a surprising amount of grace for a drunk naked barbarian, she made for the door but Berriam wisely intercepted her.

“And why dear lady would you need ah…how did you put it…’an elf for the night’?”

“This is my last night as a Bloody Misfit!” Elga proclaimed dramatically.  “I must partake of debauchery to the highest degree!  And this means drinking, feasting, fighting and fucking! I have had ample of the first three both here and abroad, and am at a loss for the third.”  She made to move past him again but the elf lord stood his ground. “Berriam,” she sighed “you have two choices.  Find me a bed mate or stand aside while I find one for myself.”

He shook his head. “At least put some clothes on first-“

“Nope!” Elga said cheerily as she made another attempt to get past him. “I shall find that lucky elf in all my glory!  Unless you want to be that elf?” she winked saucily at him.

Berriam sighed and held up his hands in defeat.  “Fine, I know better than to argue with you when you’re like this.  Just…sit down before you fall.  I swear you are the only barbarian that can get black out drunk and still be as eloquent as me,” he muttered as he steered the woman back to the bed.  Elga giggled as she flopped down on soft mattress and laid back across the bed, drumming her heels off the floor as she began humming a nameless tune.

Berriam made to leave but hesitated at the door, one hand on the latch as he gazed at the woman laid out across the bed before him and  His eyes ran along her naked form. He remembered once when he was wounded she carried him to safety to be tended, and held him in the night when nightmares plagued his fever dreams, stroking his hair and murmuring comfort into his ear.

She was such a paradox.  A human with higher than average intelligence. An educated barbarian prone to prose.  A warrior who thought first and fought second. Her body hard and corded with muscles honed from fighting, but she still had the soft feminine curves that drew the eye of most every male around her.  She could take lives in the morning, swinging her axe with abandon to fell her foes, and tend to her comrades with the softness of a mother’s touch in the night.

To the hells with it, he thought as he felt himself stirring.  He slid the lock on the door in place before he could change his mind.  Elga looked up as she heard the lock engage, a look of confusion on her face as Berriam began crossing the room towards her, tugging off his tunic and letting it fall behind him.

“Berriam?” she asked as she sat up.  “Why?”

“Why not?” he asked with a shrug pulling out the tie that held his hair back, letting it fall around his face and shoulders. “You said to find you a bed mate or take his place.  I’m taking his place.”

Elga’s face closed and became guarded, but before she could voice a protest Berriam reached out and gently cupped her face in his hand.

“Believe it or not, you are a beautiful woman Elga Serpentbane,” he murmured. “Beautiful, fierce, and wild.  Any man would be honored to lay with you, and a fool to turn such a chance away.  And I am no fool.”

He leaned in to kiss her, using his forward momentum to gently push her back down across the bed until he was stretched out on top of her.

“Besides, you are among my most special and honored guests,” He purred, trailing his lips down her neck, punctuating each word with a kiss, “I would be remiss if I did not dedicate myself to ensuring your full enjoyment of my…hospitality.”

Elga’s deep throaty chuckle swiftly melted into a moan and they did not speak again for a long time.

Part 3: The Morning

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