Serpentbane Dusk, Bearskull Dawning Pt 2: The End

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Part 1

Atar?” Berriam looked up from his field desk as Aurina walked into his tent, a much beleaguered Shadow in tow.  Berriam eyed the great cat as Shadow curled up as far away from the humanoids as he could get, closing his eyes with a great sigh.

“Aurina child, how are you?” Berriam rose to embrace his daughter, knowing the past three days had been hard. Something had happened to change his bright and precocious child into the brooding young woman who entered his tent, an event only exacerbated by the loss of her adoptive father – or hearth-father as her people called him – hours later.  She sighed as she returned the embrace.  “Well enough atar.”

Pulling away he looked her in the eye. “Is there…something…you wish to discuss?” he asked, confirming his suspicions when she looked away.

“Yes but…not now. I…am unsure how to speak of it,” she admitted with a wan smile.  Berriam nodded and released her, motioning for her to take a seat across from the field desk he just vacated.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. Aurina remained standing and glanced over at Shadow.

“Something’s wrong with Shadow,” she said simply. “I found him like this, wandering the camp alone and dejected.  I tried speaking to him as you taught me, but I’m either doing something wrong or he’s ignoring me.  We tried to look for mata but I cannot find her.” Aurina turned to her father, looking a bit sheepish.  “I was wondering, could you maybe talk to him?  Find out what’s wrong and where mata is?”

Berriam’s frown grew deeper with her every word, until he was almost scowling. Something was wrong indeed for Elga and Shadow to be so parted.  Aside from the natural bond that formed between such pairs when one trained as a ranger took on an animal companion, Elga had saved Shadow from death and then raised him from a cub.  He was much a child to her as Aurina and her brother Elgin.

“I will see what I can do,” he promised, Aurina sighed in relief.

“Thank you atar.  I’ll leave you to it in case he might be more open without me here, but please let me know when you find mata,” Aurina made for the opening of the tent, pausing as she drew aside part of the entryway.  “Is it odd or normal that I think of him more as a person than a tiger?” she asked over her shoulder.  Berriam made an amused noise.

“Both,” was all he said. Aurina gave a faint chuckle before ducking out.

Alone with the tiger, Berriam approached cautiously, not wanting to startle the great cat and cause him to lash out. But Shadow’s eyes remained closed, his breathing deep and even as if he were sleeping although Berriam knew otherwise.  He crouched down beside the great predator.

//Shadow?//  The cat opened one eye. //Berriam//

//Shadow sick?// Shadow closed his eye and did not respond.  That was new. Usually being the only other one aside from Elga who could communicate to him, Shadow often welcomed their ‘conversations’.  He tried again.

//Shadow hurt?// Still no response.  Alright, either the cat was perfectly fine or he was being really bloody stubborn.

//Shadow, where Mistress?// That got the tiger’s attention as Shadow opened both eyes and looked despondently at him.

// Shadow is good Shadow Berriam?// he asked.  Berriam rocked back on his heels.  Animals didn’t normally associate themselves with human moralities like good or evil.  To them there was only predator and prey, food and water, pain or comfort.  Animals had a basic understanding and grasp of emotions such as fear and anger, but usually nothing as complex as this.

//What mean?// he asked, hoping to get a better understanding of what the cat was asking.  Shadow sighed and lifted his head.

//Mistress sad since mate died. When Mistress sad, Shadow make smile.  Make happy.  Mistress no smile now, no happy, no talk Shadow since Mistress-mate died// Shadow started to pant in distress //Why Mistress no talk Shadow? Shadow do bad?//

Berriam rubbed at his forehead and the beginnings of a headache, liking less and less where this was all leading. To the Nine Hells, this was not good.  Three days since the death of her mate Tanta, and Elga had not said a word to her companion?  He needed to find Elga, and he needed to find her now.  But first he needed to calm the tiger down.

//Shadow good Shadow. Shadow no bad. No do bad// Berriam dared to reach out and stroke the great cat’s heaving flank, thinking furiously of something to say to calm him.  Hrast, how to put a human’s grieving into concepts an animal would understand?

//Mistress…Mistress sick// It wasn’t a total lie, anyone would be heartsick at the death of a mate.  And Thankfully Shadow’s ears perked a little and his panting slowed down.

//Mistress sick?// Berriam nodded.  //Berriam help Mistress? Make better?// He nodded again.

//Berriam try. Need find Mistress//

//Shadow help Berriam! Berriam help Mistress! // The tiger heaved itself up and trotted out of the tent quickly, tail lashing with excitement and Berriam scrambling to follow close behind.

*

//Mistress there// Shadow looked towards the hillock where the four of them had stood and watched over the field of dead three days ago.  Berriam followed the cat’s gaze and spotted a long figure standing against the skyline. His nose wrinkled as a change in the breeze brought the scent of rot to him.

//Good Shadow. Hide bushes.  Wait Berriam call//  Shadow looked at him doubtfully for a moment, before sighing and turning away, placing his trust in the elf lord to help his mistress.

Berriam made for the lone figure, shaking his head. Of course she would be here where he died.  The armies were breaking camp in the morning so there was little chance of anyone coming to disturb her.  Anyone but him that is.

“Elga my dear,” he called to her as he drew close. “What in name of all the good gods has brought you out to such a sad and desolate place?” Elga stood immobile, wrapped in her cloak – since when did she bother with a cloak? – and stared out over the darkening battlefield, giving no sign that she had heard him.  Berriam walked faster.  Elga was not the dark and silent type, and she doted on her tiger companion like a child.  Something was desperately wrong, he thought at he drew up beside her.  She was staring sightlessly over the battlefield, tears streaming unchecked down her cheeks though she seemed as oblivious to them as she did to him.

“Oh Elga,” he breathed out softly. She looked at him then, and what he saw chilled him.  There was complete and utter desolation in her eyes, the look of a woman already dead and for whom it was only a matter of time before she picked up a knife and her body followed.  Her face was a brittle mask of composure that began to crack as he watched, her face screwing up as small animal noises came from her.  Knowing she would not want others to hear her, he threw up a spell of silence around them and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her and guiding them gently to the ground as her legs gave out.  Rocking back and forth, he felt her shoulders heave as she screamed out her pain and anguish to a world that could not hear.  Berriam held her tight and offered what little comfort he could.

He could not imagine what she was feeling. This was a female who had lost everything as a child, fought for so long and sacrificed so much to help strangers throughout the life she had rebuilt herself from scratch, and she could not even save the life of her mate.   He knew she cared for the male she had chosen for herself, but until he heard her first screech of defiance and disbelief on the battlefield as she came upon his body, he did not know the extent of her feelings for him.

And she could not even grieve for him at first. She was a leader and many looked to her in this time of loss, for her mate was not the only one who fell that day.  Oh she had told her tales and raised her tankard with the others as they toasted to the memories of their fallen, but never was a tear shed.  It was not the way of her people to weep when one was lost, but to drink and make merry, to celebrate mortal lives past and the immortal lives their loved ones were surely experiencing in Tempus’ halls.

How she was able to function for the past three days Berriam would never know, but he knew she needed this. If the death of her mate had so damaged her she even turned from her companion, then the way of her people when faced with death was just not enough.  Perhaps even this emotional and physical cleansing would not work, but hopefully it would be a start.

All these thoughts and more ran through his head as Elga cried out her grief in the magically induced silence, until finally she stilled in his arms, tears spent. They sat comfortably together for a bit longer, watching the sun finish setting and washing the field below them anew in red.  Finally, his spell ended, the sounds of the world returned to them and she pulled away to stand.

“Forgive me, you were not meant to see that,” she said softly. Berriam made a rude noise.

“Forgive me my dear, but it seems that was a long time coming.  Do you…feel better?  At least?” he asked hesitantly.  She smiled softly but it did not reach her eyes, and it was as if his concern was the only key she needed to unlock the words that began to pour forth.

“Twenty years we were together. When we first joined I never thought I would love him, it was best way to unite the tribes so all I hoped for was a peaceful marriage with a male who was not cruel or abusive.” She looked back at the darkening sky.  “And I got so much more.  He was kind, smart, brave, funny, he had a great heart and a gentle hand.  I came to love him for who he was in time, but-“ her voice caught in a hiccup that threatened tears once more.  Elga was silent a moment as she fought them down.

“But I don’t think I ever truly told him that.” The wind sighed around them, ruffling their hair and the leaves on the brush behind them.

“I did not know what he meant to me, how much I cared for him, until I saw him lying dead before me,” Elga’s eyes were dull and flat as she looked at him.  “How could he have known how I felt, if I did not know myself?  That is what hurts most, that he died thinking I did not love him.”  But Berriam was shaking his head in denial before she could even finish.

“He knew,” he said. “You can show how you feel about someone without knowing or understanding what you feel yourself.  And with or without words, you are not one to hide what you think of someone my friend.”  He placed a hand on her arm.  “Tanta loved you as much as anyone can love another that much I saw for myself.  And I am sure he knew you loved him just as well.”

She gave a soft laugh and shook her head. “Ah my friend, have you always been this wise?”

“I am an elf my dear,” he sniffed haughtily. “We are born wise and all knowing,” She chuckled at that and he broke out into a grin before the seriousness of the situation bore down on them once more.  Resting his hands on her shoulders he turned her to face him.

“Do not run from your grief my dear, it is not something you can hide from, and it will be with you for a long time. But I promise you one day it will not feel so large and overwhelming, and there are those about you who care enough to help you through this, if only you let them.”  He motioned to the brush around them and Shadow came skulking from them, head down and whiskers drooping as he looked imploringly at his mistress.  Elga’s eyes filled with tears anew as she knelt and held her arms open for the great cat.

“Oh! Oh my sweet Shadow, forgive me. Come here,” she whispered. Shadow’s ears perked up at the sound of his name and he eagerly went into his mistress’ arms.  Hugging the cat close, Elga buried her face in his fur as they rumbled to each other with joy at being reunited, then looked back up at him with eyes clearer and brighter than before. “Thank you, my friend.”

Berriam inclined his head to her and took his leave of the pair, no longer fearing to awake in the morning short one barbarian chieftain. Hopefully Elga had taken the first steps on the path to healing from her loss, but how long that road would be no one knew.

*

Aurina walked towards the field of death slowly and hesitantly. Her father stayed true to his word and told her were to find her mother when he returned.  But as much as she wanted to see her mother once more, the thought of doing so here threatened to overwhelm her.

But she was her mother’s daughter, stubborn to the end, and she walked up to the woman and her tiger sitting on the grass. Neither acknowledged her, but they knew she was there, and rather than disturb the quiet just yet Aurina simply settled herself on the grass beside her mother.  As the trio sat in silence Aurina was thrown back to that day in the forest so long ago, where her mother had told her the truth of her father, and where she had decided to walk his path.  It was Elga who broke the silence first.

“You have changed my daughter” she said at last. Aurina sighed.

“It has been years since you saw me mata. Of course I have changed.”  Elga turned and studied her daughter’s face for a moment, Aurina meeting her gaze.

“No,” she mused. “It is more than the passing of years or of turning from a girl to a woman.  I see a hurt on your face child, one too newly known to me to miss in another, and a hardness in your eyes.  Who was he?”

Aurina startled and was the first one to look away. How much should she tell her mother?  Should she tell her anything?  The weight of the days and weeks pressed down on her, the choices she did not make, the choices she prayed to all the gods that she could unmake.  But Elga had drilled into Aurina and her brother to always be truthful and honest in their words.

“His name was Darrak. A half orc,” she said finally. She waited for disgust or recriminations but none came.

“The battle?”

Aurina rubbed absently at her chest, at the ache and emptiness that resided there. “No, I killed him the night before you arrived.”  She looked at her mother again, face hard.  “He loved me.  But he put the fear of his people before that love and spied on the valley for months.  Numbers, strengths, weaknesses, defenses.  All the dead on that field-” she waved a hand before them “-can be laid at his feet.”

“You know this?” Elga’s voice was not accusatory, but curious. Aurina nodded.

“I saw him leaving the camp one morning. I don’t know what made me follow him but I did.  I saw him meet with the orc leaders.  I heard them planning, things I had told him of our battle plans he relayed to them.  He used and betrayed me.”

“So you killed him.” Aurina kept her eyes resolutely over the field as her mind replayed the events of that night.

“I took him out to the woods. I lay with him.  He tried to convince me to flee with him, saying we would both be better off without our people as neither accepted us for we did not belong in their worlds.  I confronted him with what I knew and he did not deny it.  I had originally thought they pushed him towards me to have someone spy on the elves from the inside, but no,” she sighed.  “Our meeting truly was chance, our feelings real.  But his people learned of us, learned of me, and they forced him into the role of spy.  He truly loved me.  And I killed him for it.”

Elga took her daughter’s chin firmly in hand and forced the girl to look at her. Her eyes were hard and her voice fierce as she spoke.

“You did not kill him for his love,” she said. “You killed him for his betrayal, for his lack of faith and trust in you and your love.  But do not let who he was change who you are.”  She gave Aruina a tiny shake before letting her go.

Tears finally welled in Aurina’s eyes, but still she refused to let them fall. “He was my first in so many ways mata.  First love, first lover, first…kill.  How can that not change me?”

Elga stood, drawing up her daughter and embracing her. Aurina wrapped her arms around her mother and held tight, burying her face in Elga’s shoulder.

“It will and it has. But only you can decide how.” Elga held Aurina at arm’s length and looked her in the eye.  “And no matter what these changes bring in you, you are my daughter and I will always hold you in my heart.”

Aurina simply nodded, not trusting herself to speak as her mother hugged her again, longer this time, before kissing her on her forehead.

“Walk well my daughter,” she murmured before turning and heading back to camp with Shadow, leaving Aurina to put her demons to bed.

*

In the darkest hour of the night, as most humans and elves slept, a form flitted through the shadows, between tents and around sleeping warriors, their destination unerringly leading to the tent of Lord Berriam. It was amazing the things one remembered after so many years, Elga mused as she walked with silent footfalls.  No guards were posted this night, with the lack of enemies and the camp ready to break in the morning he must have given them a night of rest.  Slipping between the tent flaps Elga allowed herself a moment for her eyes to adjust, making out the field desk, map table and chairs in the main space, with a curtain beyond them dividing the tent in two.

She crept silently closer and laid a gentle hand on his arm, whispering his name. Berriam awoke with a start, reaching for the dagger under his pillow before he saw who had woken him.

“Elga! What-” she gently stilled his furious hissing with a finger to his lips.

“Hush, no words,” she murmured back. “Just…hold me? Please?”  Berriam held still for a long moment, eying the woman who had crept into his tent. Wrapped in a cloak with silently pleading eyes, Berriam knew he could not turn her aside.  Sighing, he released the knife and held the sheets back in silent invitation, drawing her close as she slid in beside him.

Part 3

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Pirates Ho!

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The Reaver is the fourth book in the Sundering series, and the first one I had difficulties with.  Mostly because the first three were like ‘GASP! I KNOW THIS CHARACTER! I AM NOW SO INTERESTED/INVESTED IN THIS STORY!’ so I was able to get through them fairly quickly.  This one was a new character, never introduced to before, so I wasn’t as eager to read it at first.

But aside from that it wasn’t bad.  We are introduced to a Turmish prince-turned-pirate who is hired to kidnap a young prophet, a Chosen of the returned Lathander so he can be sacrificed on the altar of Umberlee by her Chosen.  And it just so happens that the boy is also pursued by minions of Thay, as Szass Tam has notions of godhood and is intent on capturing and sacrificing a Chosen of any god in order to absorb the spark of divinity that the Chosen harbors inside themselves and thus take on some deific mantle.

Chosen are popping up by the dozen as well, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.

Anywhoodle, this obviously does not happen, as the pirate turns back into a prince and does what he can to rescue the boy and keep him from both Umberlee and Thay so that he can help some Chosen of Silvanus stop the Great Flood.

Part of what happened during the original upheaval of the Spellplague was an incessant rainstorm over the Sea of Fallen Stars.  Sunlight rarely seeps through the black clouds, and the rain never stops, not once in a hundred year.  This has caused the sea to rise dramatically, and in correlation with the rising sea level, so too has the worship of Umberlee arisen.

But the boy intends to change all that, as Lathander says that a new world is being born and the storm was just the birth waters that precedes the great event of new life.  Now that this new life is to take hold, the waters must stop falling and start receding.  And only the combined might of Silvanus and Lathander can hope to halt the advance of Umberlee and her minions.

I cannot wait to get to the end of the Sundering and see what happens.  But before we move on to that, we’re going to check out Night of the Hunder, first in the Companions Codex trilogy by R.A. Salvatore.

See, I finally got smart and I’m reading them in publication order so I stop mixing up timelines and spoiling story arcs for myself 😛

Drizzt Do’Urden returns to Gauntlgrym with old friends by his side once again, as they seek to rescue Bruenor’s loyal shield dwarf-turned-vampire. But not only do Drizzt and his allies face a perilous journey through the Underdark and the dangers of the undead that lie within, but they must cross through a colony of drow, who would like nothing better than to see Drizzt Do’Urden dead.  

Serpentbane Dusk, Bearskull Dawning Pt 1: The Middle

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The din of battle echoed all around her as she hastened to her father’s side.  The clash of steel on steel, the screams of the fighters, the moans of the wounded and the dying were faint but distinct.  The elves of Beriath’s Valley were more wont to take out their foes from the treetops, but Lord Berriam refused to allow the attackers to come so far onto his land.  As soon as word reached him of the assorted orc, bugbear, and goblin horde descending upon the valley he rallied his people to meet the creatures on the neighboring plains.

Even this far back from the front lines Aurina could smell the blood, thick on the air.  Lord Berriam had seen a decisive victory for his people, but the horde that descended upon them was almost twice the size of what was reported and after three days of fighting she was beginning to have doubts as to who would win this battle.  Lord Berriam had sent out all call for aid that morning, a call she feared would be answered too late for the elves.

Aurina finally caught sight of her father, standing on a hill overlooking the battle, directing the flow as best he could through commands issued to his officers.  She quickened her pace.

“What are you doing here?” Berriam growled at his daughter as she approached him.  “I told you to stay back and help with the wounded.”  Aurina arched her brow at him, looking pointedly at his bandaged arm.

“I am helping.  I can help out just as well here with axe or bow atar, you need every able body fighting.” Berriam sighed.

“You do realize preserving your life protects mine as well?  Elga would kill me –literally– if  anything happened to you.”  Aurina stepped closer to her father, finally noticing her half brother on the far side of him, and pitched her voice so only they could hear.

“We need to retreat now atar, into the trees where we can take them from above.”  Berriam looked away from her, but she reached out and grabbed his uninjured arm.  “Do not let your pride and arrogance be the downfall of everything you have worked so hard for,” she hissed. “We thought this would be done and over with quickly but we were wrong.  We must retreat if we are to survive.”

Berriam’s eyes grew round before they narrowed at his daughter’s words.  Something was not right here.  Berriam knew nothing of his daughter’s existence until a few scant years ago when she showed up on his doorstep, demanding to be trained.  But in the five years since he had taken her in she proved herself to be much her mother’s daughter.  Elga Serpentbane was a loud and boisterous woman, prone to smiles and laughter among comrades, fond of drinking and merriment.  Their daughter Aurina was not as loud as her dam and more reserved regarding festivities, but the smiles and laughter came just as quick.

Neither were within her face now, and while she may have spoken the truth, never had she been so harsh or virulent with him before.  In one glance he took in the lines on her face and the hardness in her eyes, neither had been there the morning before.  Something profound had changed within her, but now was not the time to probe.  Aurina was right, they needed to retreat.

As he opened his mouth the give the order, the blaring of a horn echoed over the battlefield, drowning out all else.  The fighting slowed and then stopped altogether as friend and foe alike turned to look towards the sound as a second clarion call rang over the plains.  A line of warriors, some mounted, crested a ridge just over a league away.  The horn sounded for a third time as the mounted leader drew their weapon and brandished it over their head, bellowing loud enough for all to hear.

“FOR GLORY!”

“AND BEARSKULL!” came the resounding refrain from hundreds of barbarian throats echoed by the roar of dire tigers as the tribes swept down the ridge towards the fight, a handful of mounted figures bounding ahead of the rest of the line, led by the largest and loudest pair.

Berriam turned towards his daughter. “Your mother certainly knows how to make an entrance,” he drawled as the young woman drew her bow.

“No more than you atar,” she said grimly.  With a nod he motioned her away and she sped off towards the waiting line of archers.

*

Berriam stood on the hilltop, looking over the field of dead.  The arrival of his old comrade and her people had turned the tide of battle.  Taken by surprise, faced with raging barbarians, dire tigers, and elves infused with renewed hope, the goblin kin horde had broken and fled.  The mounted barbarians known as Claw Riders and a handful of their shape shifting brethren had followed, tracking and taking down stragglers, those too slow or wounded to keep up with the rest.  In a few days, after licking their wounds and bickering among themselves, the last of the horde would break up and the creatures would return to wherever it was that they called home.

Now, the surviving elves and humans looked to their dead.  The wounded had already been carried off, so most of the movement he saw below was corpse sorting.  The allied bodies would be burned, it was the way of the barbarians to cremate their dead, and there were too many elf dead to properly bury.  Berriam had already sent some of his people to scavenge as much fuel as they could.  There were spells to start and prolong the life of flames, but those flames would still need to be fed.  The goblinoid corpses would be left to the ravages of the wind and time.

“Elf brother!” came an old familiar call.  Berriam turned to see Elga and Shadow walking towards him, her grin turning to a frown as she noticed his bandaged arm.  She had not changed much in years they had been apart.  Tall, broad, amazingly strong, the years had treated Elga well.  Even Shadow looked much as he did since he last saw him, full grown yes, but still little more than a cub.

“I would ask how you fare but I can see that plainly for myself,” she said as she drew closer.  “What happened here my friend that a cleric of Correlleon walks wounded?”

“What this? Oh nothing, an orc almost took off my arm with one blow,” he replied dryly.  “I’ve done what I can to keep it, and keep it functioning.”

Elga looked across the battlefield. “What of the other clerics?” she asked

“I would rather they use their prayers to keep my people alive.  I can ensure the survival of my arm well enough on my own.”  Elga nodded and motioned towards the wounded arm.  “May I?”

Berriam arched a brow as he held the wounded appendage out for her, for last time he saw her healing was not Elga’s strong suit, especially such of his magnitude.  Elga laid gentle hands upon his arm, closed her eyes and murmured a prayer.  Immediately Berriam felt a warmth suffuse his arm, and the last of the aches and pain fade.  He looked at her incredulously.

“Better?” she asked as he flexed, testing out the strength and flexibility of the newly healed limb. He nodded.  “How did you do that?” he asked.  She just grinned and stared expectantly at him, seemingly waiting for him to think of it himself.

Now that she was closer, he noticed that the years had not just treated Elga well, they had not touched her at all.  A quick glance revealed the same for her Shadow.  Frowning, Berriam took half a step back, readying to defend himself for surely this was not his friend of old before him.  But a whisper on his consciousness stopped him as a seemingly familiar energy ebbed off her and Shadow both.  A whispered prayer to his god revealed a bright light surrounding them, and the image of a great hammer above each of their heads, the mark of a god.  Berriam could only think of one god who would mark Elga so, and what she had now become because of it.

“Oh gods be good,” Berriam groaned, clasping the hand of his newly healed arm to his forehead in mock dismay. “You’re a Chosen of Tempus now?”  Elga winked at him and held a finger to her lips.  Catching sight of her children, she called to them and waved them closer.

“Berriam, this is my son Elgin,” Elga introduced as the pair drew close.  The lad was little younger than his half elf sister Aurina but almost as tall and broad as his mother, Berriam noted.  The lad inclined his head with a murmured “My lord.”  Berriam nodded his acknowledgement as Elga greeted their daughter.

“Ah daughter mine!” she embraced the young woman in a fierce hug then held her at arm’s length, appraising her from head to toe.  After a moment she nodded decisively.  “Yes, now THIS is the Auriana that the world will know hmm?” Aurina smiled weakly as her mother glanced around them with a frown before setting her eyes on her son.  “Elgin where is your father?”

The young man shrugged.  “I lost track of him in the fight mata.”

“Hmmm,” Elga stroked the head of her dire tiger companion. “Find Tanta, Shadow mine,” she bade the great cat who swiftly bounded off to carry out her wishes.  “Now that we are mostly assembled,” she said as she turned to the three of them again, face grave.  “In all seriousness my friend, what happened here?”

“You know as I do that these things happen,” he waved off her concern.  “Gruumsh and Magloybet get antsy for blood and call forth their minions to make war.”

Elga shook her head in denial.  “They war once a decade or so, it is too soon for it to be just another uprising of the tribes.  And I recognize some of the Black Shields among the orc dead, something more is at stake here,” she insisted.  Aurina felt a chill run down her spine.  The Black Shields were an orc clan whom, if not exactly friendly, were neither openly hostile towards the Bearskulls.  Something about a war between bugbears and orcs, in a hobgoblin stronghold taken over by hill giants that her mother was able to stop practically single handedly.

“Well whatever the reason they have been soundly put down now, thanks to your ever so timely arrival.  Ahh…” Berriam looked questioningly between mother and son.  “How did you know to be here?”  Elga nodded to her son.

“You can thank the eyes on this one,” she said.  “He was out hunting and spotted the tracks of a large group of goblins and such heading in this direction.  His report was not the first one I had heard, but it was the third and ultimately the last.  Thankfully the tribes were already gathering for a moot so I sent out the call to ride and here we are.”

“And just in time too,” another voice chimed in.  Berriam turned to see his son and introduced him to the others. “Yes we were sorely pressed before your arrival my dear,” he admitted.  Elga smiled and clapped her old friend on the shoulder.

“Well, here we are!  And here we will stay, for a few days at least!” she laughed and hurried to reassure the look of mock horror on the elf lord’s face.  “Just until we can be sure that nothing else is forthcoming.”

It was at this point Aurina looked up.  Silent, brooding, and avoiding the gaze of all around her during the others conversations, she at last opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by the wail of a dire tiger rolling across the plain.

Elga went still and all color drained from her face when she heard it, and before the cry had faded she had turned to run swift as the wind, down the hill and across the field slippery with the dead.  Aurina and Elgin looked at each other in shock.  Berriam sighed.

“Follow her younglings,” Berriam said softly.  “She will need you both now.”  The maternal half siblings spared a glance for their hosts before following their mother as another of the great cat’s cries came forth.

“Should we go as well atar?” his son asked from beside him, but he shook his head.

“No. I need you to search out wood for a pyre, one great pyre set aside from all the others.”  His son looked at him quizzically.  “Shadow has found Tanta, but not as Elga would hope” he explained.  “Only a creature in mourning can make that sound.”  Father and son both winced then, as a very human, soul shattering scream of rage and defiance rolled forth from across the battlefield

Part 2

Moar Awesomeness Please!

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Wow…just…wow.  The Adversary is the third book in the Sundering series, third in the Brimestone Angels saga, and I could not put it down.  My fingers are itching to pick up the fourth Brimestone Angel book, Fire In The Blood, but alas I must wait.

 The Adversary brings us back to teifling twins Faridah and Havilar shortly after the events of Brimstone Angel’s Lesser Evils, and things swiftly go sideways.

 Once again, in an attempt to protect herself, her sister, and Lorcan her cambion pact holder, warlock Faridah makes a deal with another devil, and the three are held in stasis for almost ten years.  When they are released, the girls are now women grown and estranged from their friends and family who have thought them dead for almost a decade.

 Thankfully proving everyone wrong, the twins are reunited but it does not feel so good.  There is much anger towards Faridah and her choices, so much so that when the terms of her pact are called into play, she attempts to leave without alerting anyone, thinking they’re all better off without her.

 But not-so-fallen-paladin-of Oghma Dahl catches her as she tries to sneak out and is unwittingly whisked away with her to the tower of an old enemy, and what turns out to be a camp of Chosen.

 Lots more happens of course, but it all boils down to the devil-become-god-of-sin Asmodeaus and his bid for more/continuing power by stealing the sparks of other gods.

 See, when a god chooses a Chosen, the Chosen is imbued with a spark of power from that god.  What the god of sin is trying to do is find these Chosen and extract the spark of godhood that each has within them, although we still are not 100% sure as to why.

 We learn a bit more riiiiiiight at the very end about the infamous Brimestone Angel and ancestor of the tiefling twins Bryseis Kakistos, who is not as dead as we thought and has some interesting plans for the twins, both of whom we suspect are Chosen of Asmodeus himself.

 Dun dun duuuuuuuun!

 But anything more on them will have to wait a bit.  I decided the best way to not hop over important world plots was to read whatever I have left in publication order.

 Oh, and I also figured out that the little…poem?  Prophecy?  At the beginning of each of the Sundering books is actually speaking about the events of the series, with each stanza representing one of the books.  So for the first three stanzas I can draw the line right away between verse and book.  I’ll see if I can puzzle through the next one a wee bit before starting on book 4, the Reaver.

 Don’t got much time for pondering though, as The Reaver is what we’re going to be looking at next!

Endless storms wrack the Sea of Fallen Stars and the coastal regions surrounding it. In panic and despair, many have turned to the goddess Umberlee, Queen of the Deeps, offering her sacrifices with hope that they will be spared the inevitable reckoning of her perpetual tempest.

Evendur Highcastle, undead pirate captain, raised from the depths to assume the mantle Umberlee’s Chosen, takes advantage of the people’s desperation to strike for both spiritual and temporal power in her name.

Vying with Highcastle for the hearts of and minds of the people is Stedd Whitehorn, a little boy and the chosen of a god thought lost to time: Lathander, the Morninglord. In a time of such upheaval, Stedd’s message of renewal and hope runs in stark contrast to the savage ethos of Highcastle and his waveservants.

When Anton captures the boy in order to collect Highcastle’s considerable bounty, the reaver is quickly caught in the riptide caused by the sundering of the worlds.

 

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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.

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