Ash Blackbough wiped her feet twice before stepping over the threshold of her lonely home, having finished feeding the chickens and goats and put them away in their pens for the evening. She paused there, listening to the eerie quiet. The one-room house was dark, and too still. It had been several months since her aunt and uncle had passed, but she was still not accustomed to the emptiness of the place.
The chicken under her arm gave a slow, confused cluck.
“Yeah, okay,” she muttered to it. She kicked the door closed behind her as she adjusted her grip on the bird, making sure it wouldn’t fall or try to fly away.
She crossed the room to examine the book shelf on the far wall. It had been a while since she’d taken the time to organize it. A book on languages of the goblinoid races lay stacked on top of a catalogue of wild herbs with medicinal benefits. Laying open on top of one of the rows was a short text on wildlife of the Neverwinter Wood that she’d been reading the previous night. She moved all of them away, and found her mother’s recipe book behind them.
She gently set the chicken down in the middle of the floor. She had thought it would immediately get up and wander away, and that she would have to corral it back into place. Instead, it looked around, confused, then sat down on the floor, too tired to do anything else. Ash frowned. It was a bad sign. She hoped it wasn’t so sick that it was beyond saving.
She flipped through the book until she found the folded piece of paper stuck in the middle of it. She unfolded it, and scanned the carefully handwritten lines on it. The words were familiar. She’d said them many times. But it had been some time since she’d done this, and she wanted to be sure she remembered correctly.
She knelt beside the chicken and set the paper down in front of her, where she could read it again if she needed to, and looked up at the chicken. Its head was nuzzled into its feathers, its eyes closed.
Ash took a breath, then raised her hands, and began moving them in the patterns that would allow her to summon magic.
In her mind’s eye she saw her mother guiding her hands, saying the words with her. It was her earliest memory, and her only memory of her mother. In truth, she knew the spell more from the directions that her mother had written down than from any demonstration she’d been given. Her aunt and uncle had never been able to do magic--that talent ran only on her mother’s side, and had, for the most part, died along with her.
As she spoke the chant, she felt power rising slowly within her. She let her vision unfocus as she turned her attention inward, shaping that power into a spell. It was a thing you did by feel and instinct as much as by memory and precision of movement. The spell was guided by the motions and the words, but it was something deep inside her, something that didn’t have a name, that created the power that gave the spell life.
As she said the last words of the chant and waved the final movements, she directed the power outward, toward the animal in front of her. There was a burst of energy, like a bubble rising in her chest and suddenly bursting, as the spell was cast.
It was oddly anticlimactic. There was no flash of light or sound or any physical sign that anything had happened, except for her sudden tiredness. Ash waited, holding her breath.
Then, the chicken raised its head. It looked left, then right, then cocked its head to look up at her. Then it got to its feet to strut across the floor to the kitchen, where it began to peck at bits of something or other on the floor.
Ash sat back, grinning, and watched proudly as it bobbed around the room. It was as if it had never been ill at all.
“Not bad for a lowly hedgewitch,” she said to it. It did not reply.
The grin was wiped quickly from her face by a hard knock on the door.
She jumped, snapped the book shut, opened it again, threw the loose paper in, and snapped it shut again. “Who is it?” she called, the irritation loud in her voice.
In lieu of reply, the door opened. Ash glared at the doorway, squinting into the bright sunlight that shone in from outside. Her glare deepened when she saw the man standing on her porch.
Rainer Kendrick was almost exactly two years older than her, and an entire head taller and an equal proportion broader. His hair was meticulously coiffed above his head with some sort of oil mixture that smelled like stale hay and that, Ash had heard, he bought in bulk in Mirabar whenever his family made the trip up to trade their wool. Many in the village of Marwood called him handsome, which assured Ash that her own view of what ‘handsome’ was must be quite far away from everyone else’s.
But the thing that mattered more than all of that, of course, was that they hated each other.
She was not sure when, exactly, it had begun. They’d grown up together. He’d always hated her, for as long as she could remember. And she’d hated him back, as soon as she was old enough to understand fear and hate. They mostly tried to avoid each other, which was difficult since their houses were a stone’s throw apart.
He’d been calling her ‘witch’ and ‘sorceress’ for years, but only when no one else was around to hear the contempt in his voice. She had never taken too much offense, because it was true--although she tried to keep that information to herself. And in any case, she didn’t have much magical skill to brag about, even if she’d wanted to.
These days, she wondered how many of those curses he’d learned from his family, who had always had a similar dislike for her family, though they mostly were more subtle about it than Rainer had been. For how else does a child learn to hate from such a young age, if not by example?
He watched her from the doorway, wearing the vaguely superior look he always wore, and spoke no greeting. Ash rested her hands on her hips. Even the way he stood, too straight and with his chest out a little too much, irritated her.
“Can I help you?’ she said impatiently.
Still, he didn’t reply at first. It was only then that Ash saw there was a full crowd behind him, at least eight of the village men. None of them smiled. A cold crept over Ash’s skin. She could see in their demeanor that something wasn’t right.
The only sound, for a few moments, was the hen’s pecking at the floorboards, which everyone ignored.
“Do you have anything you would like to confess?” Rainer said, his voice low and languid, with the confidence of one who knew he was about to get his way.
She blinked at him. Had someone been peering through her windows? But all the drapes were closed. Who could have seen her?
When she gave no answer, Rainer turned to Karsten, who nodded. As Karsten stepped forward, Ash realized he was holding something large and limp. He dropped it on the floor in front of her with a heavy thump .
It was a dead goat. Ash looked down at the animal, then up at the men at her door. “What’s that?” she said.
The men exchanged glances. Rainer crossed his arms, giving her a disapproving, almost pitying look--the way one might look at a child who’d been caught in a lie. Gods, she hated him.
“It’s the third in a month,” he said, as if that were clear enough explanation.
“Something’s attacking the animals?”
“Not attacking,” Rainer corrected her, gesturing down at the goat. “I see no wounds.”
Ash looked down at the goat, making a face in distaste. It smelled.
“You’re going to have to explain to me why you’ve dumped a goat’s corpse on my floor if you want this conversation to go anywhere,” she said.
“You know why we’re here,” Talen said from behind Rainer, a grim resignation on his face. “Three of his stock dead, so close together? With no sickness, no wounds? That’s not natural.”
Ash stared at them. “You think...I killed them?”
“It’s witchcraft,” Talen blurted, and the word brought a nervous fidget to everyone in the group. “We all know that you…” He made a gesture, whose meaning was unclear, and lowered his voice. “That you do those things.”
It was not a thing that was usually said aloud, but she had always suspected that most of them knew. She, her aunt and uncle, her mother--they had all served as the village’s healers for decades. In most cases, that meant medicine or salves or setting bones. But sometimes, something more was required. Ash had found that folk were much less disdainful toward magic when it was saving their lives.
“There are all kinds of sicknesses,” Ash said. “Some of them don’t show warning signs before they kill. Why do you assume it’s magic? It could be anything.”
“And yet, only my animals have been affected, out of the entire village,” Rainer said, raising his eyebrows. “Our animals graze close together, Ash. If mine were sick, yours would be, as well. But they are not. Why do you think that is?”
“But they are,” she said. “One of my chickens—” She looked down at the hen, which was still circling around the room, quite lively, and very much not sick-looking. “Why should I want to kill your goats?” she demanded instead, crossing her arms.
Rainer stepped through the doorway and into the house, uninvited--a small gesture that, with disturbing ease, sent a shiver of foreboding straight to Ash’s core. She took an involuntary step back.
“I want you to know, Ash, that your aunt’s and uncle’s deaths were not my family’s fault,” he said, feigning sadness at the situation, as if it had been forced on him and not something he’d concocted. “That was a tragic day, but there is no one to fault but fate, and putting blame on others will not bring them back.”
Ash stared at him. “I didn’t...”
Her aunt and uncle had been out hunting with the Kendricks when they’d died. It had been a terrible accident. She had never thought otherwise. But Rainer, it seemed, had convinced the rest of the village that she still held a grudge over it.
“When I found the first one dead, I had not much concern. I suspected you were responsible, but I was willing to forgive you for it, seeing as you were grieving,” he said magnanimously. “But you wouldn’t leave it at just one. You kept going. And you were going to keep going until we confronted you, weren’t you? Tell us the truth--would you have left it at killing animals? Or were you practicing for something else? Something that stands on two feet?”
Ash looked at the others behind him. Their expressions showed varying levels of fear and discomfort and anger. “You don’t really believe any of this, do you?” she scoffed. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Do you have proof?”
“Do you ?”
“You’re a witch. We are not fools. We know bad magic when we see it. You won’t be able to persuade your way out of justice. You’ve already showed us how dangerous you can be. We can’t wait for something worse than this to happen.”
“This is--this is ridiculous,” Ash sputtered. “You can’t just come in here and--Get out of my house. Just get out.”
Rainer took a step closer, and lowered his voice, as if to speak to her in confidence--as if she was a friend he was trying to help, for her own good. “I cannot, in good conscience, leave you free to harm the village, when I know I can put a stop to it now. I will not be responsible for what you might do.”
“ I haven’t done anything ,” Ash said.
He put a hand on her arm, and she tried to tear herself away, which only made his grip tighten painfully.
“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, but suddenly there was a rush of movement from the door. Bodies and frantic, loud voices surrounded her. Several hands grabbed at her arms and pulled them roughly behind her back, and she felt ropes being wrapped around her wrists. She thrashed wildly against them, more out of terror and outrage than out of any real belief that she could escape them.
When she was tightly bound, the group stepped back, still watching her with either nervousness or disgust.
“Calm yourself,” Rainer said, still holding onto her arm. “Hysterics will do nothing to help your situation.”
“Now what?” she demanded. “You’ll have me killed?”
Several of the men looked at each other, or at the floor. No one answered. Ash felt the blood drain from her face.
“You’re going to face the consequences of your actions,” Rainer said flatly. He turned her toward the door, and pulled her along with him as he walked.
“You can’t do this,” she said, still in disbelief. “The rest of the village won’t stand for it.”
“Won’t they?” Rainer said. They stepped onto the porch, and stopped. Ash stared. The entire population of Marwood, all fifty-something of them, stood outside her house, watching.
They had known what he was doing. They knew what was going to happen to her. All of them. And none of them were going to do anything about it.
A horrible sinking feeling came over her as she realized that no one was going to speak up for her, that this was already decided, and it was really happening. The eyes on her felt like ice, judging and condemning in a single look.
She had known she wasn’t well-liked. She had never been as much a part of the village community as everyone else was, even though she’d lived there her entire life. And still, the betrayal struck her like a knife in the heart.
Ash looked around at all of them. Her voice wouldn’t come, at first. “You’re all just going to let him do this?” she said. “You really believe those things he says about me?”
Rainer pulled gently at her arm. “Ash—”
She whirled on him. “And I suppose this has nothing to do with the fact that there’s no one left to inherit my land after I’m gone, and that my family’s land is right beside yours?” she spat. “I suppose you could just move right in, couldn’t you? No one else will be using it, after all, will they? How convenient for you.” She looked around at all of them. A few looked away before she could meet their eyes. Most were unmoved.
“Zelda,” she called, to a woman about her age, who was holding a tightly swaddled baby. At the direct address, the woman clutched the infant closer to her chest.
“What are you going to do when the baby gets sick and needs healing? You won’t be able to come to me like you did last year. Remember that? You didn’t think witchcraft was so bad when it was curing Anna’s fever, did you?”
Zelda looked resolutely at the ground.
No one else said anything. Rainer had already convinced them. There would be no changing their minds. Not by her, the village recluse. The strange one. The one who went a little too far out of her way to avoid other people, and was a little too sharp with her words when she was around them.
Rainer shook his head disapprovingly. He took her arm, gently turning her toward the hills. The lightness of the touch felt less like a kindness and more like an insult--a reassurance that he hardly had to make an effort to exert control over her. “For the gods’ sake, have some dignity,” he muttered. “At least preserve what little you have left.”
Ash did not resist as they guided her into the trees, toward the forested hills west of Marwood. There was little point. She cast a glance over her shoulder, watching the houses and the people as they got smaller behind her. The last time she would see any of it, she thought. She took a long look at her family’s home before Rainer pushed her, pulling her gaze away.
There were eight of them along for the trip--as if she could have fought off even one of them, let alone seven more. It was only men who had come to escort her, she noticed. Maybe the women had enough conscience not to want to be a part of her death--or perhaps they were merely afraid of her.
Perhaps they thought that if they pretended she was dangerous, it would make it true. Perhaps they all had come to assure each other of the danger she posed--to assure themselves that what they were doing was right and necessary, and not just a scheme concocted by Rainer to get rid of her.
If she was honest with herself, she thought that a part of him really believed that what he was doing was right. He truly hated magic, and anyone who used it--that much she knew. Perhaps he really thought he was saving the village from an evil influence by removing her. Perhaps he really did think that she’d been killing his animals.
Rainer gave her a shove when she began to slow as they neared the top of the first hill, and she would have fallen if he hadn’t been holding her upright. He was making no particular attempt to be gentle now that they were away from the village, despite his frequent self-important speeches about the value of chivalry and goodness.
They walked for miles. Maybe they hoped to bring her far enough away from the village to be sure she was out of hexing range, or far enough away that, if she survived, she would be dead before she found her way back. It would work. These woods were dangerous, full of gnolls and bears and who knew what else. She couldn’t last long by herself.
As the sun was closing in on the horizon, they reached the top of another hill, and Rainer raised a hand, indicating they should stop there. There was a grateful murmur among the small crowd. They were all tired. Ash was sure they were all eager to get back to their homes. Dinner would probably be waiting for them when they arrived.
The hill had a stunning view over the neighboring valley, all illuminated in gold and shadow by the afternoon sun. At least she would have something nice to look at while she died. Along the spine of the hill was a large maple tree, its leaves just going from green to red and autumn orange. Rainer dropped her beside the tree’s trunk.
Talen drew a length of rope from a pack, and handed it to Rainer. He frowned at Ash as he unfurled it, as if he were a disappointed parent about to discipline an unruly child. She didn’t look at him. On the long walk there, she’d had time to consider what she wanted for her last moments of human contact, and she had decided that she would not show fear. Not to him, of all people.
“Don’t put up a fight, now,” Rainer said. “It will only make things worse for you.”
Ash rolled her eyes, and said nothing. She stared resolutely ahead as he tied the rope around her right wrist, then wound the rope around the back of the tree and tied it to her left, leaving her arms pulled uncomfortably backward around the trunk of the tree. It was a traditional method of execution in the region. A mercy on the executioners, but not on the one being executed.
When he was satisfied with his work, Rainer stood up and looked down at her. “It is unfortunate that it had to come to this,” he said, gazing out into the sunset in a way that he probably thought made him look philosophical. “I always saw a spark of good in you that few others did. I always hoped you would find your way. Instead, you sank further into the depths of immorality.”
It occurred to Ash that Rainer’s monologuing was probably going to be the last human voice she heard before she died. If that wasn’t a damned depressing and ironic spit in the face, she didn’t know what was.
“You may admit to your evils, here, among witnesses,” Rainer continued. “Maybe the gods will have mercy on you.”
Ash said nothing. After a long silence, the group began to shift uncomfortably. Rainer shrugged, putting on a regretful, holier-than-thou sort of face.
“Very well,” he said. “May the gods give you whatever you are rightfully owed.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the mocking smile he flashed her--only when he was turned so that the others couldn’t see him.
She didn’t look up as he turned and started back on the long walk toward Marwood. The others followed. Their footsteps, soft on the grass, faded quickly. When she could no longer hear them at all, Ash swallowed tightly and looked down the slope after them. She could still see them, very distantly, in the clearing below. After a few minutes, they disappeared into the trees, and then she was really alone.
This was it. No one was coming back for her.
She twisted her wrists. The rough rope bit into her skin. Her arms were pulled back so tight that she could hardly move them at all, let alone bend them enough to free herself. Rainer had intended this effect, of course.
Ash cursed under her breath. Her arms were already beginning to ache.
Birds chirped around her, and leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. At least there was pleasant weather. Sunny enough to keep her from shivering, and cool enough to keep her from sweating. She sniffed bitterly. Yes, indeed, she had a lot to be grateful for.
As the sun grew lower in the sky, she twisted and pulled at the ropes.
The sun rose. Ash was not sure whether she had slept. She didn’t think she had.
Her wrists burned from the rubbing of the rope. She could not bring herself to continue trying to escape them. The pain was too much. She’d felt blood lubricating her movements the last time she’d tried.
As the hours dragged on, her body complained more, until it was unbearable. Every part of her ached from being unable to move. Her arms throbbed with sharp, unrelenting pain which only got worse when she tried to move them. Her hands were going numb from lack of blood flow. Her empty stomach cramped from lack of food, and her throat was sticky and dry from lack of water. She was light-headed, dizzy, and her head ached. She felt like, and rather hoped, she would faint at any moment.
How long would it take her to die? How long would she be waiting there? It had hardly even been a day yet.
As the sun began closing in on the horizon again, she gingerly flexed her hands again. They were so numb that they barely responded to her wishes. Her fingers moved slowly, weakly. With each tiny movement, the rope cut into her skin, sending waves of pain up her arms. She winced, and despite her best efforts, a sob escaped her throat. She bent her head against the tree as tears ran down her face.
Curse you, Rainer Kendrick. Curse the lot of you.
If only she had the power to really curse them.
If only she could move her arms to work any magic at all.
She had heard that some sorcerers didn’t even need to move their arms to cast spells. Some could cast using only their fingers, or even no movements at all.
Sniffing, she closed her eyes and thought of a spell that would allow her to move objects using only her mind. It was one of the few bits of magic she was familiar with. She knew the spell by heart. Surely, if she could manage any spell, it would be this one. Perhaps, if she could get it to work, there was some small chance that she could use it to loosen the ropes?
She concentrated, chanting softly to herself, as she used her weak fingers to mimic the hand movements. For a brief moment, she could almost feel the magic stirring, beginning to coalesce into something. But no more came of it.
Tears sprang to her eyes again. Furious, she threw back her head and screamed wordlessly.
The sound scattered a nearby group of birds and echoed back to her twice. She might have been embarrassed if anyone had been around to see.
She refused to wish for death. That would be admitting that Rainer and the rest of them had won. Stubbornly, she continued trying to wedge her hands through the ropes, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Minutes crawled by like hours. The sun refused to set. The boredom, the nothingness that filled the hours, made the pain ever worse. She was tired. So tired. She could not sleep, but as the light dimmed, she faded in and out of consciousness.
So when she thought she saw a human figure appear in the shadows of the trees across from her, it took a long, careful look to convince herself that she was not hallucinating.
She blinked at the dark figure, struggling to focus her eyes well enough to see clearly through the shadows. Slowly, the blurring shapes came together into a complete image. She stared, with a dawning horror, as the figure took a slow step closer.
Ash had never seen a dark elf before, but she had heard enough to know one when she saw one. Her shock at seeing one before her almost overshadowed her fear, for a moment. No drow had been seen near Marwood, or any of the neighboring villages, for a hundred years or more. They were creatures out of fireside tales, or bedtime stories meant to scare children off wandering too far from home.
He--she thought it was a he—watched her with bright, violet eyes that seemed too eager to take in all of her. His hair was like snow, his skin the color of the night sky, and his clothes all a matching deep black. He looked so out of place in the colorful forest that it might have been comical, had it not been terrifying. As if his appearance were not absurd enough, he carried a long, curved sword on each hip. What kind of person needed two swords? To kill people twice as fast?
The drow stood still, watching her from ten or so steps away. She did not have any illusions that his hesitance was a sign that he might not kill her. To see a drow was to see death. The stories she had heard of things they did were enough to chill your very blood. Entire villages destroyed. Babies killed in their cribs. Folk flayed or burned to death, for the simple fun of it. Torment was a sport to them, it was said.
He gave a slow smile, and said something in his language. It sounded like a question, and it was too cheerful.
He was taunting her. Laughing at her. Whatever he was going to do to her, it would be worse than death. It would be worse even than the slow death Rainer had planned for her.
He took another step toward her, and his hand went to the hilt of the sword on his hip. Panic surged through Ash. She twisted wildly against the ropes, not caring about the skin that tore along the way. Her struggles were no more productive now than before. She turned away from the approaching drow to try to see her hands--to find some way to get a better angle. She pushed her thumb into her palm, trying to shrink her hand enough to fit through the rope. The rope only seemed to hold tighter in response.
A shadow fell over her, and she looked up, her heart pounding.
The drow had disappeared. She paused, looking left and right in a frantic search, and something hit the back of the tree with a heavy thunk . She pitched forward into the dirt.
Her arms exploded into splinters of pain as she moved to push herself up. She held her hands up in front of her. The rope had been cut. It hung from her wrists in two neat strands. Her hands were an ugly shade of purple-gray and were coated in dark, half-dried blood.
She staggered to her feet and backed away from the tree. When the drow didn’t reappear, she cautiously rounded it, at a distance. He was not there. In the bark on the back of the tree was a small slice where a sword had cut into the wood. It was the only sign of his presence.
She looked up into the branches of the tree, then at the forest around her. She could see no one.
Still breathing hard, still barely able to keep her footing long enough to remain upright, she turned and ran the other way, down the hill into the valley. She did not look back.
Ash awoke, long into the morning, sprawled in the grass at the bottom of the valley. She did not remember lying down there.
She winced as she raised her head, squinting into the bright mid-morning light. Her entire body ached like she’d been beaten up. Her thirst was the first thing she felt, after the aching.
She could hear running water nearby. Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet. Her hands, she noticed, had gone back to their normal color. She’d managed to untie the remaining rope last night, and feeling had returned to them. She flexed the fingers carefully, to be sure they still worked.
She glanced back toward the hillside. She could just see the tree she’d been tied against, at the top of it.
She felt a chill as she remembered. She could only imagine that he’d let her get away with the intention of chasing her down later, making a game of it. But drow couldn’t come out in the sunlight, could they? It was too bright at this time of day. Perhaps she was safe, for the moment.
Following the sound of water, she came to a stream. She climbed down the bank, waded into the water, and simply dunked her head into it to drink. The water was cold and clear.
She rinsed the blood from her hands, and carefully washed the wounds on her wrists. She could cast now, and that meant she could heal.
She let the water run over her hands as she began the chant. Her eyes unfocused as she lost herself in the words and the movements. She felt the magic rise up around her and sink into her wrists, mending the torn flesh.
When she’d finished, she held her hands up out of the water. Faint pink scars circled her wrists. She frowned, irritated that she would have to remember this event every time she looked at them for the rest of her life. Irritated that Rainer had found a way to permanently mark her body.
It was better than being dead, she supposed. Slightly.
She climbed out of the water, dripping and cold, to sit on the bank in the sun.
“I’m still alive, Rainer, you son of a kobold,” she spat, to no one but herself. The valley was a wide field that stretched as far as the eye could see. Grasses and a few trees swayed in the breeze. There was nothing there but empty wilderness. She was utterly alone.
She’d always been something of an outsider in Marwood. She had never possessed the type of effortless charm that people like Rainer had. She was too exhausted and confused by other people to make the effort to befriend them. It was not so bad. The strange looks people gave her only bothered her a little, and despite occasional bouts of loneliness she was mostly content to be alone.
She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised by everything that had happened. When Rainer told everyone that she was evil and needed to be cast out, it was not very difficult for them to believe him. What had she ever done to prove him wrong, after all?
Ash stared out at the empty landscape. She was alone. There was no going back. The home she’d grown up in was no longer her home.
She didn’t want to get up off the river bank. As soon as she got up, it would mean that she was officially starting a new way of life, however long that might last. It would mean having to find a new way to survive, away from her cozy house and her animals. For a while, she just sat, and listened to the stirring of the grasses, and pretended that she could just sit there forever.
Her stomach growled.
She climbed to her feet, teetering slightly as she did so, and went in search of food.
It turned out that the entire valley was completely devoid of anything edible--as far as she could see, at least. Near the end of the day, she plucked a bit of grass from the ground and, after a moment’s hesitation, put it in her mouth and chewed. It tasted like nothing and bitterness. If felt good to chew something, but she did not have the urge to eat more.
She’d been walking along the river for most of the day, following it as it wound around the bend of the next hill. Now the sun was setting yet again. She was so hungry that she was shaking slightly as she walked and it was difficult to stay on her feet. Finally she collapsed in the shade of a copse of trees between the river and the hillside. It was not a good hiding place, but she was too weak to go further.
As the sun began to disappear behind the hills on the horizon, she thought of the drow again. She knew she hadn’t dreamed it, because there was no other way she could have escaped those ropes. Why had he cut her loose? What was he planning?
She had not gotten far from where she’d started that day. It would be a simple task for him to find her again. As she thought this, she glanced around at the trees. Drow never traveled alone, she knew. They came to the surface in marauding bands before returning to the dark underground. Where there was one, there would be more nearby.
She leaned back against a thick tree, hugging her knees to herself as if to make herself a smaller target. She couldn’t stop scanning the forest around her. It grew worse as it grew darker. In the dark, every tiny movement of the brush seemed threatening, every looming shape seemed about to jump out at her.
At some point, without meaning to, she fell asleep.
When she awoke in the early morning, she found a large, ripe apple resting only a few inches from her hand. Her eyes grew wide. She grabbed it immediately and bit into it. As she sat up, taking another bite, she realized that there were more scattered around. How had she not noticed them last night?
She looked up above her as she chewed, thinking they must have fallen from a tree. But she saw no fruit trees anywhere, near or far.
Her chewing slowed, and she looked suspiciously at the apple in her hand. It didn’t look tainted. If it was, she was too hungry to care. She kept chewing, and picked up another.
When she was on her third apple, she heard a tiny sound--a leaf crunching under foot. She froze, and looked up. It took her a few moments to spot the source of the sound. Standing stock still in brush a little way up the hillside was a huge, black cat. Its eyes seemed to glow slightly in the morning dim. It stared at her, unmoving.
Ash didn’t move. She waited, her heart pounding, but the cat only watched her. Perhaps it was waiting for her to move first.
There was a spell she knew that she would use on the animals when they were being obstinate. It would calm them and encourage them to follow her commands. She had never tried it on something this big, but she had no reason to believe it wouldn’t work.
This cat was the only living thing she’d seen in some time. Perhaps it could help her, if she could get in range to cast the spell.
Whispering the words of the spell, she crept forward. The cat didn’t move, even when she came almost close enough to touch it. She held out her hand, but before she could make contact, the cat suddenly turned and disappeared into the brush. Ash paused, surprised. The cat did not reemerge. She shook her head, and went back to her copse of trees.
“First dark elves, now giant cats,” she muttered in disbelief as she gathered up the rest of the apples to stuff into her pockets.
Days passed, and then weeks. Ash spent her time building a new place for herself, in the trees beside the river. She’d carved a knife out of a chunk of agate, and built a lean-to against the hillside out of a collection of branches and broad leaves that she’d glued together with sap and secured with stripped vines used as thread.
She found the source of the apples--there were several trees full of them around the valley. In addition, she found multiple sources of berries and wild leeks, and after several tries she’d managed to weave a net that she could use to catch fish from the river. She collected firewood from fallen branches around the forest.
She also continued to find food and other items left for her near her camp. One day, there was a small pile of firewood. A few days later, there were a few half-burned candles. These she collected with especially great care, placing them under her modest shelter where they wouldn’t get wet in the rain. She didn’t have another way of carrying light with her after dark. She resolved to save them for some time when she really needed them.
She did not know where the things might have come from. She tried not to think about the fact that someone else was still nearby, keeping an eye on her. She might not have gotten by without the gifts, early on, so she could hardly complain.
She never saw any more of the drow. Though, she sometimes got the eerie sense of unseen eyes on her.
Aside from that, it became oddly comfortable. For the time being, she didn’t have to think about home, or her aunt and uncle, or anyone else in the village. Someone else would be taking care of her animals. She had nothing now--and that included responsibilities. The only thing she had to worry about was herself. And the work of simply keeping herself alive kept her mind off of things she would rather not think about.
Almost a month had passed before she found the road at the south end of the valley. She had resolved to walk all the way to the end of the valley that day, for the sake of exploring the land around her. When she got there, she found a wide, flat dirt road. She guessed it was the same road which ran all the way around the hills back to Marwood, if you followed it far enough northeast.
She guessed also, therefore, that their neighboring village, Greenwater, must have been only a few miles farther south from where she was. All this time, she’d been only a day’s walk from other people. It had seemed like she was the only person left in Faerûn at times, and she had only been around the bend from another settlement.
She paused at the side of the road, contemplating what this information meant to her. She was not ready to see other people again, she decided. She needed time for her anger to lessen, for her trust to grow back--if it ever would.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a heavy thumping on the ground, the distant cry of some large beast. She jumped, turning to face the sound, which seemed to be coming from down the road, around the bend. She hesitated, then crept toward the corner of the road.
As she came to to the edge of the hill, where the road curved around to the other side, she saw what had made the noise, and her jaw dropped. She stopped where she was, and dropped to a crouch in the tall grass.
It was a hill giant, engaged in battle with none other than a familiar black-skinned elf. Ash watched as the drow danced circles around the giant. It came at him with fists like boulders, its feet pounding the ground like falling trees, and the drow ducked around them like they were merely falling leaves. With each dodge he slipped in several stabs and swipes with his twin swords. She did not see him miss even once. Every movement was like lightning, so fast she could barely follow it. The giant was at least three times the drow’s size, and yet it was like he was fighting a child.
It was terrifying.
The giant was already covered in bleeding gashes. When its movements began to slow, the drow stepped back, grinning. He shouted something she didn’t understand. The giant roared in response, and brought up both fists in a final, clumsy attempt to smash the drow to bits. The drow stepped easily aside and drove a sword into the giant’s side. The giant twitched. Blood poured from its side, and the drow spun daintily sideways to avoid it.
After a long moment, the giant groaned, then tilted forward. The ground shook as the thing fell dead on the dusty road. Then it was quiet.
Finally, the drow’s swords came down to his sides. He closed his eyes, turned his head to the sky, and took a long, deep breath. It had looked like the fight was barely an effort for him, but now she could see he was breathing hard. From this close distance, she could see the thick coating of mud on his boots, and the surprising amount of wear on his clothes. The strange, shimmering black cloak he wore seemed to be in the process of dissolving around him.
He was just standing there, in broad daylight, like he belonged there. Ash had thought--hoped--that drow would simply burn up if they stood in the light of the noonday sun. Apparently not. Now that she was within range of his vision, she felt trapped. She did not want to move, for fear of drawing his attention.
Seemingly from nowhere, a large, dark shape ran down the hillside toward the drow. He looked up when he heard it coming, and smiled. It was a huge black cat--the same one Ash had seen when she’d first arrived in the valley. She watched, fascinated, as it approached the drow and wound itself around his legs. The drow rubbed a hand over its head, as if the thing were a mere pet, and spoke to it softly. Ash frowned, confused by the exchange.
Then the cat stiffened, and turned to look straight at her. The drow followed its gaze, and in a flash the swords were up again, still coated in bright red blood.
Ash froze, too afraid to so much as blink.
The drow raised a hand to shade his eyes, and squinted at her. He seemed to recognize her. The swords dipped down again as he relaxed. He looked down at the blades for a moment, as if he didn’t know what to do with them. After a moment’s hesitation, he shifted them both to one hand, looked up at her, and then...bowed.
Ash gave a snort of disbelief, despite her fear. He was taunting her again. Bragging about the show he’d given her.
The drow watched her for a few seconds more, then wiped his blades clean on the giant’s clothing before sheathing them. He turned and walked the other way, down the road. The cat walked beside him, circling around him and looking back at Ash occasionally.
He’d been lurking somewhere nearby all along. She’d known it, deep down. She’d known she couldn’t have lost him so easily--she’d known he must have been aware of her presence in the valley.
But what was he doing on the surface for so long? He was alone, except for that cat. And judging by the state of his clothes, he had been up there for some time. Almost like he was living there.
Ash watched them until they were out of sight. Then she sat back on her heels, and let out a long breath. She hadn’t realized she’d been barely breathing. When the strength came back to her legs, she stood and quickly walked the other way, eager to get back to the illusion of safety that her little camp by the river offered.
Over the next week, Ash kept an eye on the hills, even more closely than before. She never saw the drow, or his cat. She wasn’t really surprised. She hadn’t seen him for the entire time she’d been there, and she knew he’d been around during that time. It was clear that if he didn’t want to be seen, he wouldn’t be.
She had no other encounters with anyone, or anything, until one morning when she was awoken by a rustling in the brush.
She opened her eyes, instantly alert and afraid, and held very still beneath the woven branches of her lean-to. It was very early in the morning. The air was chill and clear. Light streamed through trees, casting shadows sideways along the forest floor.
Something large breathed heavily nearby. She heard whatever it was move from the south side of her camp to the north, passing within a few steps of her on its way. Its footsteps were clumsy, tromping through leaves and grass carelessly. It was too loud to be the cat again.
The sounds stopped near the edge of the camp, and there came a new scuffling sound as it paused there. When a minute had passed and the thing was still there, still scuffling, Ash very slowly rolled to her stomach and pushed up into a crouch. Taking her agate knife from her belt, she peered around the edge of the lean-to.
It was a black bear. There were much worse things to run into in the wild. Bears usually left you alone if you left them alone. But it was still a bear.
It was digging into something at the corner of her camp--a basket of berries she’d gathered the previous day, she realized. The bear had been drawn by the smell of food. She shouldn’t have left it out.
She could try to enthrall it into obedience with her spell. But she was feeling less brave than she had been on the day with the cat. Back then, she’d been half dead. She’d felt she had nothing to lose anyway. Now, she’d regained a little of her fear. The consequences of failure seemed too high.
Moving with slow, deliberate steps, Ash climbed out from under her shelter and backed away from the bear, holding her breath. She stepped on a few crunchy leaves on her way, but the bear was turned away from her and was so involved in its eating that, thankfully, it didn’t notice.
She kept moving until she was at the other end of the copse of trees, ten yards away, then knelt in the shelter of a tree and waited.
She never saw him approach. At some point, she noticed a presence beside her, and looked over to see the drow kneeling there, not an arm’s length away.
He smiled at her mockingly as she stared, perhaps enjoying her shock. It was jarring to see him so close.
He looked up at the bear, then back at her. He moved his hand slowly to his sword, watchful eyes on her all the while, and he pulled it out of its scabbard by a few inches. Ash still held her primitive knife in her hand, but it would be a fool’s errand, putting knife against sword. Swords, plural. She swallowed, struggling to find her voice.
“What do you want from me?” she whispered, hardly louder than a breath. “Why do you keep coming here?”
The drow cocked his head a little, looking at her closely, and still smiling. If he understood her, he didn’t show it.
The bear roared, drawing both their eyes. It turned to rustle through the camp, searching for more food. Ash gave the drow a sidelong glance as he watched the bear. He was close enough that she could reach out and touch him. After a moment’s hesitation, she began mouthing the words to a spell, and begged any gods who might be listening to let that to be enough. She couldn’t speak the words aloud without alerting him to what she was doing.
As she silently chanted, the bear wandered back and forth through the camp, nosing through her things, before apparently deciding there was nothing left to be found. It wandered toward the river, and went on its way up the valley.
Ash was hardly aware of any of this. She had almost finished the chant. As the bear left, the drow turned to look at her again. Before he could do anything, she looked directly into his eyes and grabbed his hand, still chanting. She spoke the last word of the spell.
He looked surprised for a moment. Then, his entire body relaxed. His eyes glazed, and his face lost all trace of expression.
Ash drew back and stared. It had actually worked. A bubble of excitement and pride rose up in her chest, but quickly was quelled by a sick guilt.
His eyes had gone so blank. It wasn’t right. It was different doing this to a person than doing it to an animal--even if that person was a dark elf. And now that she had him like this, she didn’t know what to do next. Would he follow orders, the way animals did? Did she want to find out?
But then, the drow frowned, like someone coming out of a bad dream. He closed his eyes tight, then opened them again to glare at her. Before she could react, he’d shoved her away from him.
Sprawled on the ground, Ash gripped her knife in front of her, for all the good it would do her. The drow shouted something at her. She gaped up at him helplessly. He hadn’t drawn his swords, but he looked so furious that she was afraid he would kill her right then and there.
There was a quiet moment that seemed to stretch forever, in which neither of them moved. But then, the drow’s expression softened. He only looked unhappy now, instead of angry. The change took her aback. It was not an emotion she had expected to see.
He shook his head, turned, and left. After the first few yards, he disappeared into the forested hillside, and try as she might, she couldn’t follow his progress any further. She let out an unsteady breath and dropped her knife, feeling foolish for having brandished it in the first place. She looked toward the river, to make sure the bear was gone, as well. It had wandered far north along the river, ignorant of the drama unfolding behind it.
Later that day, as the sun was nearing the three-quarters point in its path through the sky, Ash sat by the river, fishing. After using the net for several weeks, she had discovered a more fun way to go about it. Murmuring the words of a spell, she held a hand over the surface of the water. A school full of fish the length of her hand swam lazily in the shallows. Her eyes settled on two that swam beside each other. As she spoke the last word of the spell, she closed her fist above the fish.
A globe of water, with fish still swimming inside, rose out of the river. Ash smiled. Success.
She floated the globe over her basket, and let it drop, leaving the fish flopping inside. It would have been just as easy to use the net. But she’d rarely had a chance to practice magic back in Marwood, and now that she had the freedom to do so, she was eager to take advantage of the opportunity.
Her aunt had always told her she could be a powerful mage one day, if she wanted to be. Ash had a difficult time picturing that. Powerful mages were born into magical families, or at least ones with money. They went to fancy schools or had apprenticeships to wizards. She was just a farmer who happened to know a couple spells.
Despite that, she couldn’t help fantasizing about returning to Marwood someday to take revenge on Rainer and his friends with some destructive display of magic. To show them what she had become without them. To show them what a mistake they’d made.
It was stupid.
She knew it was stupid, but she kept thinking it anyway. She supposed it was unhealthy. She should move on. Go to another village. Find a new home--in a place where magic was accepted or even appreciated.
But the thought of Rainer going about his life back in Marwood, profiting off of her land and her home, of everyone thinking him a hero for kidnapping her and leaving her for dead, made her blood boil. Did even one of them care that she was gone? Did anyone even remember her, now?
The globe of water that she’d been attempting to float from the river wobbled suddenly, and fell apart, dumping her catch back into the water. Ash sighed. She’d gotten herself too angry to concentrate properly. Resigned, she picked up the net.
Her thoughts turned again to what had happened that morning. She’d been thinking about it all day, and all day her stomach had been twisted in a knot of fear and regret and confusion.
She replayed the morning’s events in her mind, for the umpteenth time. At the time, she had been so absorbed in her spell, and so nervous, that she hadn’t been able to think about what was happening until after the fact.
He’d appeared at her side, quiet so as not to draw the bear’s attention. He’d watched her face turn to a mask of horror when she saw him, and he’d smiled at her in reply, like he always did. He’d glanced at the bear, then back at her, raising white eyebrows slightly, almost questioningly, as he touched one of his swords.
“He was asking me,” she decided quietly, resting her hands in her lap. Asking her if he should kill the bear. Or just reassuring her that he could, perhaps. He had been trying to help her. As he’d been doing the entire time, since their first encounter. As he had been when he’d left supplies at her camp. She’d always known it was him leaving her things, deep down, even if she hadn’t quite been able to believe it. No one else had known she was there.
She was bad at understanding people. Her suspicion toward others, her misconceptions about folks’ intentions, had made her the butt of a joke back in the village more than once. They would have laughed at her for taking so long to read all the very clear signs that he hadn’t meant her harm.
Or, would they have laughed at her for being so gullible as to think that a drow had decided to befriend her, for no benefit of his own?
Frowning, she picked up her net and began walking home, still torn.
She stopped finding things left at the edge of her camp, after that.
A week after the encounter with the bear, Ash saw other humans for the first time since she’d left Marwood.
She’d been walking near the road, collecting firewood, which she had elected to float in the air beside her rather than carry, when she heard voices. She turned to see a short man and a tall woman coming up the road from the south.
Ash dropped the wood in surprise. Immediately she regretted being so careless so close to the road. They’d seen her using magic. If word got back to Marwood that there was a magic user in the valley, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to realize who it was. As much as she wished she did not still fear Rainer and the rest of the villagers, she very much did. She didn’t know if she would make it out again if they came for her a second time.
Even from a distance she could see that the travelers were well-dressed. The woman wore brightly dyed cloth, and the man wore leather armor. There was no one like that in Marwood or even Longsaddle. They must have come from somewhere further out. A big city, like Neverwinter.
The presence of other people gave her conflicting feelings. They were the first people she’d seen since she’d left Marwood, aside from the dark elf. She would have preferred to avoid them, but now it would look suspicious if she suddenly left. And aside from that, she felt a little surge of excitement at seeing other people. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in over a month. The loneliness brought on by the prolonged isolation was getting to her.
“Well met,” said the man as they approached. He adjusted the bow that hung over his shoulder, and did not offer a smile. His hair covered his ears, but she could tell by his willowy frame and fine features that he was an elf--a rarity in this area. She could count the number of non-humans she’d ever met on one hand.
“Well met,” Ash replied, guarded.
At the best of times she felt plain compared to folk from big cities like Silverymoon and Neverwinter. Travelers that passed through Marwood on their way east or west always seemed to look at her with a little pity or distaste, when they looked at her at all. Mostly they seemed to find the villagers beneath their notice. She doubted it was out of intentional rudeness. People like her simply didn’t have much to offer people like them.
But now, she felt their eyes on her, taking in her tangled hair and her stained and ripped clothes, and she shifted uncomfortably under their gaze. She must have looked suspicious, dressed like this, wandering out in a field by herself. Only an outlaw would live this way.
“This is the way to the village of Marwood, isn’t it?” said the elf. Ash looked down the road, then back at him. Marwood was not difficult to find, and she doubted they were unsure of where it was located. The question seemed more an excuse to start a conversation that led into some other question.
“It is,” she said shortly.
The elf looked out at the valley, as if searching for something, then lowered sharp green eyes back to her. “Pardon, but are you alone?”
Ash frowned suspiciously at him, and didn’t answer at first.
“We’re only concerned for your safety,” the woman explained quickly. “It’s dangerous to walk these lands unaccompanied.”
The woman was the far more interesting of the two, to Ash. She must have been six feet tall, perhaps forty years old, with dark hair cut close to her ears. She wore a bright blue tunic and leggings embroidered with strange symbols, and her belt was lined with far more pockets and strange items than any normal person should rightly need.
A wizard. That was what wizards looked like, wasn’t it? She had to rely on a guess, because she had never seen one before. She stared, impressed.
“Thank you, but I can take care of myself,” Ash said.
The woman raised her eyebrows, and smiled a little--an expression that Ash couldn’t quite decipher. She had a long, severe sort of face, but a friendly smile.
“We’re on the trail of a drow,” said the elf, crossing his arms sternly. “We know he is in the area. You should be careful not to cross his path.”
“You’re looking for a drow?” Ash said, suddenly interested.
The elf and the wizard exchanged a glance. “So we can arrest him,” the elf said, with a tone that suggested he thought she might be a bit slow.
“You’re with the city guard, then?” Ash guessed.
The woman laughed. “Oh dear, no. Do we look like we belong to the city guard? I hope not. We’re concerned citizens. Mercenaries, sometimes. Treasure hunters. Adventurers, you might say. From Neverwinter.”
“You know. People who go out in the wilds to do dangerous things for pay.”
“Have you seen the drow?” the elf interjected, impatient.
Suddenly Ash felt defensive. She didn’t know who these people were or what the drow had done to gain their pursuit, and neither did she know the drow’s purposes on the surface, but she did not feel eager to give him up. He may very well have been an evil monster, but he had saved her life, and that counted for something.
But she couldn’t lie. She already looked suspicious, and she could tell they would see right through it. “I’ve seen him,” she admitted. She nodded toward the south end of the road. “He killed that giant down the road.”
The wizard’s eyebrows went up. “By himself?”
The elf seemed less impressed. “He might have chosen to kill it somewhere else, rather than leaving a rotting giant blocking the road for weeks,” he said with distaste. “In any case, if you’ve seen him beat a giant in combat then you know how dangerous he is. I would advise you to keep as far clear of him as you can. But if you do see him again, you can send word to me. My name is Erith Amran.” He gave her a small, not quite friendly smile. “We will not be far, if you need us.”
Ash nodded, and didn’t give her name. As they turned to walk on, she gathered her courage and spoke up again.
“He’s not bothering anyone,” she said.
Erith turned to look at her again, his eyes hard and unreadable.
“Do you also go looking in badger holes, just to poke at them?” Ash said, crossing her arms.
The wizard looked amused. The elf only smiled thinly--condescendingly, Ash, thought--and didn’t reply. Ash decided that she didn’t like him.
Two days after she met the wizard and the archer, she saw the cat again.
It appeared rather suddenly at the edge of her camp. Bounding through the brush, it made no attempt to conceal its approach, and when it ran right up to her, Ash feared an attack. But the cat only paced in front of her, staring.
She got to her feet and watched the strange beast. The sky was rapidly darkening, and she’d just finished building her fire for the night. “What?” she said dully. “Come to spy on me again?”
The cat stared. Ash looked out into the dim forest around them. The dying light cast everything in a blue-gray tint. “I know you’re there,” she said to the darkness. “Come out, why don’t you, instead of sending your pet?”
No answer came.
The cat came forward and butted its head against her thighs, so hard that she nearly fell. It wound itself around her legs, then returned to the edge of the trees, where it stood still, twitching its tail and watching her.
Ash shook her head, and went to sit down again, only to find the cat butting her again before she could make it to the ground. As if to emphasize its point, it nipped at her leg before returning to the edge of the camp. It paced a few circles, then turned to watch her.
Ash stared at the cat. It was apparent that it was not going to leave her alone until she did whatever it was wanting her to do.
“Alright,” she muttered, kicking dirt over the fire. As soon as she started toward the cat, it turned and darted away, going north up the valley. It stopped a ways ahead to turn back toward her, making sure she was following.
She had to run to keep up with it, and several times she lost it in the dark and had to wait for it to circle back to her before they could move on. It took her a mile or so north before moving up the hill that ran along the east side of the valley, and then the going got slower. The hillside was rocky and steep there, and Ash had to climb with her hands and feet, rather than walk. By that point, it was late and she was hungry and exhausted, but her curiosity kept her on the cat’s trail.
The cat bounded up ahead of her, and then waited for her to catch up. Was that an irritated look it was giving her, or was she imagining it?
But even the cat seemed to be getting tired. It began to lie down while it waited for her instead of pacing, and she could see it breathing heavily.
Finally they reached an outcropping of flat rock that lead into a wide but shallow cave. This was their destination. The cat, having made sure Ash had made it to the cave, took a few steps inside as if to lead her further--but then it wobbled, and collapsed with a huff.
Ash went to its side and tentatively reached out to pet it. Before she could touch it, the cat dissolved into a cloud of smoke, and disappeared. Ash drew back in surprise, staring at the spot where it had been. Was it dead? Or had it only been an illusion all along?
“Drow magic,” she decided. The realization did not do much to reassure her about the cat’s welfare.
She looked around the cave. The drow was not there. There was a cold fire pit near the mouth of the cave, and a pile of grasses that she recognized as a makeshift bed.
Squinting through the dim, she spotted a dark patch of something on the ground near the corner of the cave. In the middle of the patch was a long arrow, broken in half and coated in blood.
Inexplicably, a wave of anger washed over her.
She realized the cave went further back than she’d initially thought. The arrow sat beside a dark crevice that led deeper into the hill.
“Hello?” she called out cautiously. She’d spoken softly, but her voice echoed back to her. No reply came. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a candle--one of the ones the drow had left for her--and some flint and steel.
With the candle lit, she got a better look at the entrance to the deeper section of the cave. The small circle of light offered by the candle did not reach the end of the tunnel--it kept going farther than she could see. Taking a breath to steady herself, she held a hand behind the flame and ducked into the tunnel.
The tunnel sloped down and in, quickly leading deep into the mountainside. After a few minutes of walking, Ash still had not come to the end of it, and still had not found the drow. It occurred to her that if he had gone this far into the caves, he probably didn’t want to be found. But that cat had brought her there for a reason, surely.
A line of wax dripped over her fingers. She switched the candle to her other hand and shook the wax off, hissing in pain. She’d reached a cavern that branched out in several directions. She paused, unsure which branch he might have taken. Then she spotted half a red-brown handprint on the wall beside the branch on the left side of the room. She frowned nervously, and followed the blood.
She came out into another, larger cavern--so large that she couldn’t see the end of it. Colorful stalactites and rock columns dotted the room. As she entered, her feet splashed through something. The entire cavern floor was covered by a shallow pool of glass-clear water.
She scarcely had time to notice this before a dark shape on her right moved. She gasped as silver flashed toward her, sure that she was about to die.
Instead, it cleanly knocked the candle from her hand, without touching her. There was a plunk as the candle dropped into the water some distance away and was extinguished. And then there was nothing but darkness.
Ash stood frozen, her heart pounding. She braced for another attack, but there was no more movement anywhere around her. Her eyes did not adjust to the darkness. There was nothing to adjust to. There was no light there whatsoever.
The handprint had been a trap. A rather transparent one. But she had not been expecting a fight, and so she had not been suspicious of it. She did not know how to communicate that she wanted to help him. He had no way of knowing she wasn’t with the people who’d hurt him. He had no way of knowing she hadn’t sent them to him.
Wherever the drow was, he was not moving. She would have heard his footsteps through the water. She heard nothing but her own panicked breathing and the occasional dripping of water from the ceiling into the pool. But she did not doubt he was still there, watching her growing terror.
The blackness was oppressive. It was as if the entire world had disappeared around her, yet was also pressing in on her from all sides.
She bent and reached into the cold water, searching for the candle, her only hope of escape. Panic gripped her tighter as she searched. It could have been anywhere. She could have searched for days and not found it. She could have searched for the path back to the surface for a week, only to wander in circles over and over, never knowing how far she was from the tunnel she’d taken down there. Already she had lost all perception of where she was in the cave.
She would die down there if he didn’t help her.
She stared out into the nothingness. “Don’t leave me here,” she whispered. Even the small sound echoed across the cavern. “Just cut me down now, if you want me dead.” Her voice cracked on the last words.
She listened to the echoes of dripping.
Then, she heard a soft exhale. Something moved through the water. She tensed.
A cold hand closed around her wrist, and she flinched. But the hand only pulled at her, very gently. She quickly got to her feet, obeying the silent guidance of the pull. Apprehension still rushed through her with every heartbeat, but she clung to the hand--her only light in the literal dark, her lifeline--with all of her mental and physical strength.
The drow slowly pulled her out of the chamber with the pool and into the next cavern, and then into the next tunnel. Ash could only tell the difference between them all by the closeness of the sound in the room, and by the fact that her shoulder began to brush the wall of the tunnel when the passage narrowed. She held her free hand out in front of her to keep from hitting her head on any low hanging rocks, of which there were many. The drow walked with steps that were sure but slow, dragging occasionally. He held onto her rather tightly as they walked, and Ash got the impression that he was using her to support himself at times.
Her heart leapt as she felt cool air blowing on her from somewhere outside. Then they rounded a corner, and she could see--not much, with only the scant light of a half moon, but compared to the nothingness before, it felt like midday. She sighed with relief and broke away from the drow to step into the silver-blue light in the mouth of the cave. She looked up at the open, star-dotted sky. The entire world had suddenly returned to her, and it was like being back from the dead.
When she didn’t hear the drow behind her, she turned to see if he was still there.
He was sagging against the wall of the cave, his head hanging down toward the floor. There was a very large, wet stain on his right side. Ash stared. It was a lot of blood. Too much. Even if he had been lucky and the arrow hadn’t pierced any organs, he could easily die.
“Hey…” Ash said, reaching toward him tentatively. He didn’t react. She carefully pushed his chin up to look him in the face. His eyelids fluttered. He seemed barely conscious. As she looked, he began to tilt forward and fall. She jumped to catch him, hooking her arms under his. Immediately she began speaking the words for the spell.
She struggled under the dead weight, but managed to drag him out to the mouth of the cave and laid him on the ground where she could see him properly. She held her hands over him as she whispered the spell. She had never healed an injury as grievous as this one. Her hands were shaking slightly with nerves. If only she’d started the spell sooner. If he had come to her instead of hiding.
She worked for a long time, chanting quietly. She kept going, repeating the spell over and over, until her entire body shook with exhaustion and her mind felt weak with the effort of channeling the magic. Finally, she stopped, hoping that whatever she’d done would be enough. If she’d tried to continue in that state, she might have only ended up hurting him.
He was unconscious, but she could see him breathing. The arrow wound seemed to have stopped bleeding, at least.
She sat back on her heels, and peered down at him curiously. She did so a little guiltily, half expecting him to open his eyes at any moment and catch her staring. But it was the first opportunity she’d had to study him up close, and she couldn’t resist.
He looked young--her own age, maybe. His long hair seemed to grow white naturally, rather than as a side effect of age. Even his eyelashes were white. She realized, also, that he was probably no taller than she. Somehow he had seemed more imposing, before. And his face was oddly pretty, for one belonging to a race known for merciless cruelty.
She wondered what had brought him to her valley. Who he was. Why he had taken so much effort to aid her. There were so many things she didn’t understand.
When he had collapsed, she hadn’t thought of anything but helping him. It wasn’t until now, after she’d finished, that she wondered whether she had done the right thing. When he woke up, he would still be a drow. But looking at him, lying helpless on the ground, she knew she wouldn’t have been able to leave him. She couldn’t have left anyone like that.
She retreated to the edge of the cave to sit against the rough wall and wait. Now that even the cat was gone, there was no one but her to keep watch. He would be in a bad way if the wizard and the elf found him again, or if his condition worsened in the night. She resolved to stay until she could gauge how much good her spell had done. She owed him at least that much.
She looked out at the darkened valley, and shivered in the cold. She contemplated making a fire, but worried about the attention it might draw. Sighing, she hugged her knees to her chest. At least the cold would help stave off sleep.
Less than an hour had passed when the drow gasped and jerked violently out of sleep.
The sudden movement made Ash jump. The drow was breathing hard, like he’d been running. The movement seemed to have inadvertently reignited the pain from the wound, because he winced and put a hand protectively at his side. His eyes darted around the room, and he seemed to remember where he was.
He looked over, and spotted her. His eyes narrowed at her suspiciously. Ash sucked in a breath, and tried to smile in a way that she hoped would be reassuring--the way he’d smiled at her before. He watched her a few moments longer, but seemed put at ease, at least a little, by her demeanor.
His breathing slowed as he calmed. He shifted his arms as if to try to get up. Then he made a pained sound, and quickly stopped. Ash watched him prod carefully at his side. He seemed to realize that his condition had improved, and he glanced up at her again, raising an eyebrow.
Ash shrugged one shoulder uncertainly. There was discomfort in the forced silence between them. There were countless things she would have liked to say to him. She didn’t even know how to ask how he was feeling.
The drow seemed to resign himself to his position. She saw the tension go out of his limbs as he relaxed. He said something softly to himself, in his language.
Looking around the cave, Ash spotted a waterskin lying in the small pile of his things nearby. She climbed to her feet, drawing the drow’s eyes again. He watched her warily as she crossed the floor to pick it up. When she brought it back to him, though, he accepted it readily.
She considered him as he drank. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and even in the dark she could tell that his skin had taken on a grayish pallor. He was better than before, but not enough. She couldn’t leave him if he wasn’t well enough to stand on his own.
“I want to try another healing spell,” she said to him, knowing that he wouldn’t understand but wanting to give some kind of warning before she began. Now that she’d had time to rest, she thought she could cast again. It might be just enough to set him right.
He lowered the waterskin away from his lips to look at her. Ash raised her hands, and started chanting.
The drow sputtered a rush of words she didn’t understand. She stopped, hands still poised in midair. The note of fear and anger in his voice made it clear that the words were a vehement protest. She glanced down at the belt he was wearing, where his swords still hung. She did not want him to think he was in danger.
“It’s only a healing spell,” she said. She nodded pointedly at his wound. “Relax.” She tried another smile.
The drow stared at her. Ash raised her hands again, and after a moment’s hesitation, began the chant again. This time, he did not interrupt her.
She closed her eyes to fully concentrate. The spell came together quicker this time, despite her exhaustion. After less than a minute, she was finished. There was a feeling, like something clicking into place, as she completed the spell. She could sense even before she opened her eyes that it had worked.
The drow held still for a moment after the spell had ended, looking dazed. Then, carefully, he pulled himself into a sitting position, still resting a hand on his side. He gave Ash an appraising look, then gave a small nod.
She sat back as he climbed to his feet and slowly paced a few steps. A wave of dizziness seemed to come over him, and he had to steady himself against the wall.
“Too much blood loss,” Ash noted, with not too much worry. It seemed that he would recover, in time. He sat down heavily against the wall opposite her.
“You don’t speak any common at all, do you?” she said, disappointed.
He only looked at her thoughtfully in response--answer enough to her question.
Ash sighed, and looked out at the valley again, but soon her gaze wandered back to him. He looked so strange--but not unpleasantly so. The more she looked at him, the more she wanted to keep looking.
“Do you know what’s funny?” she mused. The drow looked at her blankly. “I probably have more in common with you right now than I do with anyone else in on the Sword Coast. We’re both alone here. Everyone else wants us dead.” She smiled bitterly.
The drow spoke. It sounded like a question. Ash just looked at him.
He said something else--another question.
“I can’t understand you,” Ash said, resting her chin in her palm. “There’s no helping it.”
Then he tried again--another set of words. And these ones, she recognized. They were words she hadn’t heard often, and not for some time, and his accent garbled the sounds further in her unattuned ears. But she understood them.
“You understand the goblin language?” he’d asked, in goblin.
It took a long moment for her to overcome her shock at hearing real words that she could understand coming out of his mouth. She gaped at him before answering.
“Yes,” she said back, in goblin.
The drow’s eyebrows went up. He was equally stunned.
They both started talking at once, then quickly stopped. Ash was the first to start again.
“What happened?” she asked.
He gestured to his wound and looked up at her, confirming that that was what she was referring to. She nodded.
“I was attacked,” he said, a little defensively, as if he expected her to think it had been the other way around. His words came slow, and she guessed he was as unpracticed with the primitive language as she was. Ash nodded again, voicing no argument.
“A surface elf shot me,” he said, confirming what she’d already guessed. “There was a magic user with him. I ran.” His eyes were wide and bright as he spoke, even in the scant moonlight. They were a very pale violet that made them seem delicate, somehow.
“I didn’t send them,” Ash said.
His eyes narrowed slightly. “But you know them,” he said perceptively.
“I met them on the road,” she admitted. “They told me they were looking for you.” Suddenly she felt guilty for not doing more to stop them, or to try to warn him. “I told them to leave you alone.”
He studied her for a moment, then gave a rueful smile. “They did not.”
He still didn’t trust her--that much she could see. She didn’t mind. She didn’t completely trust him, either. Neither of them were fools, and that was not a bad thing.
“Your cat...it’s…” She hesitated, not knowing how to tell him what had happened.
“She has returned to her home,” he explained. His voice was strained. She could tell he was still in pain, and still exhausted. “She will be back.”
Ash nodded, relieved even though she still didn’t understand. “She brought me here.”
The drow’s brows went up again. He nodded, accepting this unlikelihood as truth. “I wondered,” he said. There was a pause as they watched each other, both obviously wanting to say more but not knowing what to address first. He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her clothes and hair. He seemed as curious about her as she was about him. Her short, dark hair and pale skin were the inverse of his.
She was talking to a drow. It was almost too much to believe. But, a lot of things had happened recently that, several weeks ago, she would have considered too far-fetched to believe.
She realized, with a little shame, that she had not been thinking of him entirely as a real person--not until he’d spoken to her. It was as if a completely different being was before her, now that they could communicate. She wondered if he’d felt the same about her.
“Who are you?” She asked--the question she’d been wondering since she’d first laid eyes on him.
He gave a small nod, as if in greeting. “Drizzt Do’Urden,” he said, in a rush that Ash had difficulty understanding.
“Drizdo…?” she began uncertainly, and could not remember the rest.
He smiled. “Drizz- t ,” he corrected her gently.
“Drizzt,” she said, imitating his pronunciation, and this time he nodded in approval. “Why are you here?” she asked, too hungry for answers to waste time with less blunt questions. The language lent itself to bluntness, anyway. There was little room for pleasantries in the goblin tongue.
The drow--Drizzt--got a faraway look in his eyes. He looked more tired, suddenly. “On the surface?” he asked.
Ash nodded once. “You’ve been here a long time. You…” She gestured around the cave, at the fire pit in the center of it and the bed against the wall. “You live here.”
He paused before answering. “I had a...disagreement...with my home city.”
“With your city?” Ash repeated, not sure she’d understood correctly.
He thought. “With everyone in the city,” he amended.
“Everyone?” Ash asked, no less confused than before. He simply nodded. And she’d thought she was bad at getting along with people.
“I came here alone, in peace,” he went on. “Not raiding. Not spying. Only me.”
She got the impression that she was not the first person he had had to explain this to.
He shifted one foot under him to sit more comfortably. “The world above ground is very beautiful,” he said. He tilted his head toward the mouth of the cave, looking out at the wide valley below. “But I am still not sure if I prefer the surface to the Underdark. The views are better here. There are fewer monsters. But everyone I meet tries to kill me. I suppose it evens out.” He gave a dry smile.
Ash could hear the genuine dismay in his voice, beneath the joke. She felt guilty on behalf of everyone he’d met. She could only imagine how those encounters had gone, based on how she’d reacted when she’d first seen him. He did not seem like someone who deserved that kind of reaction, drow or not. On the other hand, perhaps there was more to his story that he wasn’t telling her.
“Why were those people looking for you?” she asked. “Who are they?”
“I have never met them before,” he said. “I do not know what they could want.”
“They said they were going to…” She paused, trying to come up with a proper translation for ‘arrest’. She could think of none. “They said they were going to arrest you. That’s when you capture someone who’s done wrong, so they can be brought to justice.”
A look of annoyance crossed his face. “Well, they did not. They shot at me before I had even seen them. And I have not done anything to hurt anyone. They have no right to come for me, if they say they stand for justice.”
She did not doubt his sincerity, based on her own impression of the hunters. Ash didn’t know a word for apology in the goblin language. “People are afraid,” she said. It didn’t excuse what they’d done, but it helped explain it, at least.
“I know.” He looked unsurprised, but no less unhappy for it.
“You were the one leaving things for me,” Ash said, bringing up the next question that had been burning in her all this time.
“And you cut me down when I was bound to that tree.”
He gave her a bemused look. “I did not want you to die,” he said simply.
Ash stared at him. His expression was oddly open and honest, his feelings laid bare. It was so different from what she was used to. So many people in Marwood always seemed to be smiling at you through clenched teeth, speaking with kind voices while silently praying for bad things for you. Trying to understand someone’s true intentions could be like navigating a labyrinth.
I did not want you to die.
It was the kindest thing anyone had said to her since her aunt and uncle had passed. What a sad state of affairs that was.
She slumped against the wall of the cave. Suddenly there were tears seeping from her eyes. She covered her face with her hand. She sat there silently for a long minute, stewing in anger and dismay at her own misfortune over the past weeks. It was not the first time she’d felt that way, but it had been a while since she’d allowed her self-pity to overwhelm her so.
When she looked up again, carefully wiping her face, he was still watching her with those bright eyes, but now looked a little nervous and a little confused. He didn’t say anything. Ash sniffed. How could she begin to explain everything that she was feeling? Everything that had happened?
“I’m…” She could not think of a goblin word for ‘grateful’. She rolled her eyes to herself, cursing the language, and struggled to adjust what she’d planned to say. “It is good that you were there,” she said slowly. “I would have died there.”
He shook his head. “It was not difficult. It would have been cruel to leave you.”
“Yes, but there are many cruel people in the world,” Ash said. “It is an unlikely blessing that you are not one of them.”
He smiled, a little sadly. Ash sniffed again.
“You are...some kind of criminal?” he asked tentatively.
She frowned, defensive. “No. No, I certainly am not.”
He still looked skeptical. “Then, when I first found you…?”
“I had a disagreement with my city.”
He laughed, then. It was a nice, clear sound, in contrast to the unappealing grunting utterances of the language they’d been using. His mood was infectious, and Ash found herself smiling as well.
“There is a word in the drow language,” he said, “to express good feeling toward someone, when they have done something for you.”
“ Thank you ,” Ash said in the common tongue. “That’s how you say it in my language.”
“ Thank you , then,” he said. “I had no one else. I expected to die.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Not as glad as I am.”
Ash settled back against her wall. A stray bird chirped outside, far too early in the night, before quieting again.
“Do you think the people who attacked you will be back?” she asked.
“They sought me out once. I suppose they will do it again.”
“Then you should sleep more while you can. It will help you recover. I can keep watch for the night.”
“They will not come looking for me in the night. They know they are at a disadvantage in the dark.”
“But they know you’re injured.”
He gave her another long look that she couldn’t quite read. He did look tired. More than tired. Rest would do him good.
“I promise I won’t try to kill you,” she offered, in an attempt at a joke. She realized as she was saying it that it was not really appropriate--it was the type of comment that would have gotten her in trouble with people back in the village.
But, to her relief, he laughed again. “I believe you,” he said. He slowly stretched out on the mattress of grass, still wincing as he moved. He pulled his tattered cloak over himself like a blanket, and nearly disappeared into the darkness--just a black shape on the floor of the cave.
“ Thank you ,” he repeated quietly, his pronunciation only a little accented.
A warm feeling bloomed through Ash’s chest. She smiled a little to herself.
Drizzt awoke just before the sun crested over the hills. The light, it seemed, was enough to bring him out of a deep sleep. He rested a hand over his eyes before he had even opened them. He stayed that way for a minute, then sighed softly and moved his hand to squint into the light.
“How do you know when to wake up in the Underdark?” Ash asked. “How do you know when it’s day or night, without the sun?”
He tilted his head to look up at her. He smiled, amused.
Perhaps she should have said ‘good morning’, before asking questions. That would have been polite. Another thing she would have been chastised for in the village.
“There is no day or night,” Drizzt said. “But, we have Narbondel.”
She looked at him blankly.
“A clock,” he said. “A way to read time.” Slowly he sat up, squinting out at the valley with a strange mix of irritation and appreciation.
While he’d been asleep, she had been stockpiling questions. How had he gotten to the surface? What had happened to bring him there? What was the underdark like? What kinds of plants and animals lived there? What did drow cities look like? Did they even have cities? How had he gotten used to the sunlight? What would he do now?
“How do you feel?” she asked instead. “There will be some residual pain after the healing spell, but it will fade soon.”
He slowly climbed to his feet, then paced back and forth a few times, testing his strength. He looked up at her, smiling. “A great deal better than I did before you came.”
Ash nodded approvingly. “Good,” she said, and gave another nod. There was no more to be done there, but she found herself reluctant to leave. She got to her feet, and hesitated. The drow watched her, waiting to see what she would do.
“What will you do now?” she asked.
He looked out at the valley, troubled. “I am not sure. I do not want to fight them.” He tilted his head, considering. “And I do not think that I could, even if I wanted to. But if I stay here during the day, and go out only at night, perhaps I can avoid them. If they find me here, I can retreat into the tunnels.” He turned to her, with a strained smile. “Surely they will tire of hunting me eventually?”
Ash nodded. It was a sound plan, though probably not an ideal one. If he had wanted to stay cooped up in caves, he wouldn’t have come to the surface in the first place. “If I see them again, I’ll tell them what you did for me. But I don’t know if they will be convinced to stop pursuing you,” she said.
He looked surprised by the suggestion. “Thank you, anyway.”
Ash hesitated, then said, “We are both alone here. We should look out for each other.”
She half expected him to laugh at her. But again, he looked appreciative. He had a friendly, open smile. Ash didn’t know how she’d ever taken it as mocking. What an idiot she’d been.
“Is that not what we have been doing?” he said.
“One of us has, at least,” Ash said with an apologetic shrug. He did not seem irritated with her at all, which was probably better than she deserved. “If you need something...Well. Your cat seems to know how to find me.”
“She is good at that.”
“Until we meet again, then,” Ash said. She turned to leave.
“You did not tell me your name,” Drizzt said quickly.
She stopped. He was right. “Ash Blackbough, of Marwood,” she said. “Or, just Ash. I’m named for a type of tree.”
“Tree?” he repeated.
It took her a moment to realize that he hadn’t understood the word. Of course. There were no trees underground.
She stepped outside the mouth of the cave to rest a hand on the birch sprouting from the edge of the cliff. “Trees,” she said.
A pleased expression crossed Drizzt’s face. “Ah. Trees ,” he said with a note of satisfaction.
Ash smiled, amused by the joy he took in the simple discovery.
She walked back to her camp with a tentative smile on her lips. She did not know if she would see the drow again, but she was glad to have met him at all. A little of the hopelessness she’d felt at her prospects recently ebbed away. She hadn’t realized until then how good it would be to have someone look at her with something other than disdain, nor how much she’d needed to do something to feel useful. It had been a long time since she’d felt like she had a place in the world. At least, in the midst of trying to merely survive, she’d found a way to do a little good.
She was asleep on her feet by the time she was nearing her camp by the river, but all her hopes of dropping into bed were dashed when she heard voices ahead.
Sitting on a fallen log beside her cold fire pit were the archer and the wizard. Erith saw her first, even before she saw him, and was looking up at her with an expression that was somehow both bored and suspicious.
Ash froze. But she couldn’t run now.
A quiet anger stirred in her belly, mixing with her fear as Erith looked at her. This was her place. They were sitting in it completely casually, like they had every right to be there, not caring that it was the only thing she had left in the world that was solely hers. The only place left where she could feel almost safe. She could see that they’d gone through her things, as well, by the way that they were scattered carelessly about the camp. Ash realized that her fists were balled tightly at her side, and she forced herself to relax them.
The tall human woman looked up and spotted her. Her eyes brightened. She jumped to her feet. “There you are!”
Ash waited, guarded, as she approached. She didn’t know what else to do. The woman looked angry.
“You poor thing,” the woman said, and, to Ash’s surprise, pulled her into an embrace. Ash tensed but didn’t pull back, too confused to move.
The wizard turned back to Erith. “I told you,” she said. “She’s terrified. Just look at what they’ve done to her. An injustice if I’ve ever seen one.”
“Who?” Ash said.
“We’ve been to Marwood,” the woman said, allaying Ash’s fears only to replace them with new ones. “We heard what they did to you. Ridiculous,” she spat. “Just ridiculous.”
“Please don’t tell me you told them that I’m here.” They would surely come for her again, if they knew she was alive.
“Inadvertently,” the woman said, spreading her hands apologetically. “I didn’t know your history with them. Meaning no offense, but your village is full of backwards fools. Imagine being afraid of magic, in this day and age.”
“No offense taken,” Ash said. “It’s not my village anymore, after all.”
“I had quite a talk with them,” the woman went on, raising an eyebrow in a menacing sort of way. “I don’t think they will be bothering you again, at least while we’re here. But if they do—” She reached into a bag at her side and withdrew a small book with a black leather cover. “You can read, can’t you?” she said, hesitating.
“Yes,” Ash said, watching the book suspiciously.
The woman offered her the book. “Take this. Read it.”
Ash looked over at Erith, who was watching her silently, offering no guidance. Cautiously, she accepted the book, and opened it to a page in the middle. She flipped to more pages, scanning. Ash looked up at the wizard.
“This is a spellbook,” she said, disbelieving. It was the first time she had ever seen one, but she recognized one when she saw it.
“Yes. My own,” the woman replied with a gap-toothed smile and a humble shrug. “One of several. But I have known all these spells by heart for years now--I hardly need to keep the book around anymore, so someone else may as well benefit from it.”
“You wrote this?” Ash asked with even more disbelief, astounded that she would let her so much as touch such a thing. She held it a little away from her body, half afraid of somehow damaging it by her mere presence. She might drop it into a puddle or rip one of the pages by mistake. “I don’t think I’ll be able to read it all before you leave town,” she said.
The wizard waved a hand. “Oh, of course not. It will take years to master everything in that book. I want you to keep it.”
Ash stared at her. “Keep it?” she repeated softly. She looked down at the book, then back up at her. Surely it was some sort of trick--though she couldn’t guess how. The wizard was watching her reaction, probably waiting to see that Ash would be properly grateful, and therefore deserving of such a precious gift.
“Why would you give me this?” Ash asked quietly, her voice made frail with emotion.
The woman took her by the shoulders. “Listen to me, girl. Ash Blackbough, was it? How old are you?”
The woman nodded approvingly. “You still have a lot of time ahead of you. A lot of time to move on with your life, to learn, to become greater than all of them,” she said, waving vaguely over the hill behind them. “If they come for you again--if anyone does--you have to be able to defend yourself.” The woman smiled down at her fondly, in an almost sisterly way. “You have a gift. You deserve a chance to learn to use it.”
Ash nodded slowly, still in shock.
“And…there’s one more thing I wanted to ask you,” the woman said, clasping her hands in front of her, watching Ash closely. “We’d like you to come with us--if you wish. When we’re finished here, we can take you back to Neverwinter, and help you find a place there. You’ll have to pull your own weight, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, if you’ve been out here on your own all this time. Come with us, and we can help protect you. And I’ll teach you some of the things I know on the way, if you are amenable.”
If someone had told Ash a month previous that a wizard would be offering to teach her, and giving her the opportunity to start a life in the greatest city in the north, Ash would’ve called them crazy. It was beyond anything she could have ever hoped for. For a moment, she thought she would cry with happiness.
But then she remembered who she was talking to. The wizard was not on her own--she traveled with Erith. And Ash didn’t know them. They’d tried to kill someone in cold blood, according to the drow, at least. She didn’t fully understand the situation between them and Drizzt, but she could see that something wasn’t right. These were not people that she wanted to travel with. And she still didn’t know that she was ready to go to a city, either. Cities were full of people. People created complications more often than they created joy.
“No…” Ash said, watching the wizard apprehensively. The word was painful to speak, and already she almost regretted it. The image in her mind of the drow bleeding nearly to death kept her resolute. “No, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.”
“I...understand,” the wizard said, looking a little disappointed. Ash couldn’t tell if she was surprised or not. “Promise me you’ll study that book?”
“Demons couldn’t keep me from it,” Ash scoffed. She held the book close to her chest, with both hands. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“That will do,” said the woman wryly. “If you change your mind, find Oak Street in Neverwinter and ask for Kelle Millpond.”
Ash spared a glance at Erith. She was not surprised to find him staring discontentedly at her. He did not look particularly pleased with the result of the conversation. Perhaps he was merely frustrated by the delay caused by Kelle’s generosity.
“Dear, you’re bleeding,” Kelle said. She was frowning down at Ash’s side. Ash looked down. There was blood dotted along the side of her shirt. The drow’s.
“It’s not her blood,” Erith said. Ash looked up at him, nervous. His eyes never left hers. “You can tell by the pattern of the spotting that it came from without, not within.”
Kelle looked curiously from Erith to Ash, waiting for an explanation.
“It’s old,” Ash said quickly. The blood was dry by then, but had not gone the deep rust color that old blood always turned after time had passed. She hoped that they wouldn’t notice, or at least wouldn’t argue. “It’s from my wrists...from when they…” She trailed off, not eager to talk about the event, and held up her hand to show them her scars.
Kelle frowned, which Ash took as anger at Rainer and the others, rather than suspicion. Erith’s expression changed slightly in a way that she couldn’t pinpoint as easily. But, to her relief, neither of them disputed her claim.
Finally, Erith stood. “Let’s get moving. We have a lot of ground to cover and we’ve wasted enough time already.”
“Ah--There was one thing I wanted to ask,” Ash said.
They both paused, looking at her expectantly. Ash hesitated, and Erith gave a slow, irritable blink. She suspected he disliked her more with each passing second.
“Did you find him?” Ash asked. “The drow?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that one,” Kelle said. “We fought with him yesterday. My companion got a good shot on him and he ran off. Likely as not he’s dead already.”
“We don’t know he’s dead,” Erith corrected her.
“I wasn’t worried about him,” Ash said. “I told you before that he hasn’t bothered me.”
“You’re lucky, then,” said Erith sharply. “There was an entire tribe near my place of birth that was slaughtered by drow raiders some years ago. Every single inhabitant dead, except the one they left to tell the story.”
“That’s...terrible,” Ash admitted.
“If you had seen him, you would tell us, I’m sure,” Erith said, raising his eyebrows at her. “Lives depend on it. This isn’t a game.”
Even Kelle was looking at her with a little doubt, now. Ash clutched the spellbook a little tighter. She could try to tell them about her conversation with Drizzt. She could try to convince them that their hunt for him was misguided. But by the way Erith was looking at her, she didn’t think he would hear any arguments on Drizzt’s behalf, even if they were true.
And, perhaps more importantly--they’d just given her a gift that would change her life. Would they take it back again if they thought she might use it against them?
“I...haven’t seen him,” she said, ignoring the twist of guilt in her gut as she did so. “Not since that first time.”
Erith watched her for a few seconds more, and Ash got the distinct impression that he knew how much she was hiding.
“Use caution where this drow is concerned,” he said. “He is not on your side, and if he is still nearby, he might choose any moment to make you painfully aware of that fact.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Ash said flatly.
“And our offer stands,” Erith added with a small, unkind smile. “If you decide you need our help, or you think of anything else that might lead us to the drow--come find us.”
“Of course,” Ash said with an equally stiff smile.
She’d meant to sleep as soon as she arrived home. Instead, she opened the spellbook and began reading, not even taking the time to sit down first. The book contained everything from spells to create gusts of wind and boil water to a spell that would cause an opponent to fall asleep where they stood.
Written in the hand of the one and only Kelle Millpond , read the inside cover. If you’re reading this book, it’s probably because you’ve stolen it, in which case kindly keep your grubby mitts off and shove them up your arse instead .
She awoke sometime later with the book still open in her lap. Reluctantly, she closed it. There would be time to read later. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes--which did little to alleviate her exhaustion--and began packing away her limited possessions. She couldn’t stay in the valley any longer. Not when everyone in Marwood knew where she was. Not when Kelle and Erith were keeping tabs on her. Her new home no longer felt like a home.
She considered going to find the drow before she left, to tell him she was leaving, but quickly discarded the idea. She knew Erith didn’t trust her. It was very possible that he was still watching her. She doubted Drizzt would appreciate it if she were stupid enough to lead them straight to him.
She packed her knife, the spellbook, and some food into her bag, which she draped over her shoulder. After some thought, she removed the knife and tucked it into her belt, instead. She had begun to think of the valley as safe, but she knew that was an illusion created by familiarity.
She stepped out into the sun, giving her camp one last look, and walked.
The sun that day was a welcome warmth on her skin. Soon, there would be less sun, and less warmth. She would need to buy more clothes eventually, which meant going to town. She tried not to think about it. There was still time before she needed to worry about that. That’s what she told herself.
As she followed the river north, she whispered the words to the wind spell she’d seen in Kelle’s book, trying to recite them from memory. Several times she had to pause to open the book and read them again. After half an hour of this, she could reliably repeat the words without help.
She stopped, dropped her things on the ground, and watched the currents in the river, letting the repetition of the motion focus her mind.
She began the chant. Her hands moved in the air like a weaver’s at a loom. She could feel power rising in her as the chant went on. She tried not to let her excitement steal her concentration.
And then, suddenly, there was wind. A massive gust whistled past her, so strong that she had to drop to her knees to keep from being blown into the river. Sticks and grass and other debris rushed past her in the vortex, and her hair obscured her vision.
None of that bothered her much. She was too delighted by the success to be upset by the mistakes in casting. She would improve it next time--perhaps by having it blow past her, instead of through her.
When it had stopped, she lifted her head, admiring the flattened grass and exposed mud she’d created around the river. She jumped to her feet and cheered for herself. Then she glanced around to be sure that no one was there to witness her foolishness. Of course, there wasn’t. Grinning, she walked on.
Not long after that, she was halted again by the sight of humanoid figures in the distance.
A group of very large figures stood by a bend in the river. Taller than any human, muscle-bound, and covered in fur. Ash stopped and ducked behind a tree. Gnolls. Five of them. She was so distracted by the appearance of the giant doglike humanoids that she almost didn’t notice the dark elf standing waist-deep in the river in front of them. She gave a soft, incredulous laugh. She couldn’t get away from him, it seemed.
He was bare-chested, and a pile of dark cloth and gleaming metal lay on the river bank under the gnolls’ feet. He’d been bathing in the river, and now he was trapped there without his weapons at hand. He watched the gnolls, and they watched him back, each sensing the other was an enemy but neither wanting to risk making the first move.
Ash edged closer, keeping low to the ground and darting from tree to tree to keep out of sight. One of the gnolls looked up in her direction, and she ducked behind the tree, her heart pounding. If they saw her, she was probably as good as dead. If she were smart, she would have left. But she had always been guided more by her feelings than by what was smart.
She peered around the edge of the tree. Drizzt was standing very still in the slow current, his empty hands flexing as if searching for the weapons that weren’t there. The tallest of the gnolls stepped forward and barked something at him. Another followed, waving a club that looked more like it had been torn from a tree than carved by someone’s hands.
Drizzt jumped a step back, then waved a hand, and then, to Ash’s shock, all five gnolls burst into blue-violet flames.
Panic erupted. One of the gnolls dropped to the ground and rolled. Two ran. Another batted wildly at itself as it yelped, trying to put out the fire. Only one, the big one, seemed unfazed by the spell.
But after a few seconds had passed, Ash saw the flames for what they really were. They did not burn. It was an illusion. It was taking the gnolls longer to realize the trick, but they would catch on soon enough.
With the gnolls occupied, Drizzt dashed forward toward his gear on the river bank. He was cut off by the tall gnoll, who brandished a spear and stepped in front of the swords, blocking his path. Wisely reconsidering, Drizzt turned and hopped as fast as he was able through the water, in Ash’s direction. His eyes found hers. They widened. Perhaps because of his surprise--perhaps merely because the river was a bit too deep and the current a bit too strong--he stumbled and fell headfirst into the river.
Ash jumped to her feet and ran to help, without any particular plan for how she would accomplish that. But before she passed the edge of the line of trees, his face emerged from the water, plastered in wet white hair. As the tall gnoll raised a powerful arm to throw the spear, Drizzt raised a dripping hand from the water.
A circle of black appeared above the river. Ash blinked at it, not understanding what she was seeing.
Then Drizzt emerged from the black, as if it were no more obstruction than a plume of smoke. There was an angry roar from the blackness behind him, and he ran a little faster. Ash ducked behind a tree, peering out at the river as he approached. Several of the gnolls stumbled out of the black, looking bewildered.
Drizzt rounded the tree to hide beside her, resting his back against the bark as he caught his breath. Bare skin touched Ash’s arm. She looked down. Then she quickly looked away again, her face burning. He was wearing only underclothes.
“I…regret this,” he said, and Ash could tell that he had been searching for a particular phrase and had settled on the closest he could find. She gave a nervous exhalation that was almost a laugh.
As he peeled the hair away from his face, Ash looked around the edge of the tree. The tall gnoll shouted orders at the rest, then leapt into the river to cross. Now that the fire was gone and they’d found their way out of the darkness, they were reforming into a group and raising weapons, looking fiercer than ever.
“I don’t think they’ve seen us,” Ash said. “But they’re coming this way. How many other spells do you know?”
“Just the two.”
“What about the cat?”
He shook his head. “She is not here.” He peered sideways at her. “Can you fight?”
“Well,” Drizzt said flatly. They both paused, thinking.
“We must run, then,” he decided after a moment.
“They’ll catch up to us,” Ash said. Behind them, the guttural barking voices of the gnolls were growing rapidly closer. In truth, no option seemed to offer the possibility of survival.
Drizzt gave a short, resigned nod. “Try to stay hidden,” he said. He looked up into the branches of the tree, then stealthily climbed halfway up it. There he waited, watching the gnolls from behind the trunk as they approached. Ash slid down into the roots of the tree, making herself as small as possible, and whispered a chant.
Footsteps, surprisingly light for such large creatures, brushed through the grass on the other side of the tree. A large, hairy leg appeared just beside their tree as the first gnoll passed, ignorant of her presence. Ash choked on the words of the chant. Struggling to keep her breaths quiet and slow, she started over.
More of them passed by, all slowly scanning the woods, and by some miracle, none of them spotted the drow or the witch hiding right beside them.
Bringing up the rear was the tallest gnoll. It paused beside the tree to shout more orders at the rest. Ash huddled deeper into the roots of the tree.
She saw the dark shape edging into position above her half second before it happened.
Drizzt leapt from the tree and landed heavily on the back of the gnoll. The thing roared and stumbled, but somehow remained upright. Drizzt had wrapped his arms around its neck and clung on, despite the gnoll’s batting at him. The angle was not quite right for the gnoll to easily shake him off. Ash rolled aside to avoid the gnoll’s feet as it shouted and stomped wildly.
The gnoll’s other arm came up, jabbing the tip of the spear at the unwelcome rider. Drizzt ducked, narrowly avoiding being impaled by the weapon, then grabbed at something around the gnoll’s neck. It was a necklace, strung with the teeth of some large, predatory animal. As the spear came in again, Drizzt took a handful of the teeth and tore at the gnoll’s throat with them.
Ash gaped as she watched, and somehow managed not to lose the spell in the process. Now the other gnolls were closing in. One passed by Ash, still not seeing her, and reached out to grab at Drizzt.
Ash jumped in front of it, grabbing its wrist, which so thick she could hardly wrap her hand around it. The thing looked down at her, snarling as it raised its club. But when its eyes met hers, it froze.
Ash stopped breathing. All her muscles seemed to go weak in her terror. The creature towered over her. From this distance it exuded an unpleasant heat that stank of unwashed fur. The skin under her hand was damp with sweat and grime barely rinsed by the river.
The only thing keeping it from smashing her into the ground with that club was her tenuous hold on the spell, and for a second, her fear nearly broke it.
She focused. She spoke to the gnoll with only her will, like she did with her animals. It was enough. The gnoll’s snarl faded into a look of dull irritation, which Ash guessed was what passed for a neutral expression for gnolls.
The gnoll, sensing her desire, snarled again. Abruptly it turned away from her and leapt at the others.
Drizzt, who was by then taking the spear from the hand of the dead gnoll leader, quickly stepped back as the enthralled gnoll barreled past. He glanced at Ash, raising an eyebrow. She was already saying the words to the next spell.
As Ash’s gnoll dove at two of its companions, club swinging in wide arcs all around it, a fourth gnoll was approaching Drizzt from behind. It raised a sword and stepped forward to strike. Ash spoke the last words of her spell in a rush, throwing her hands out in front of her as if to stop the gnoll in its tracks.
It almost worked. There was an impact, like something physically pushing against her, and she grit her teeth as she pushed the spell against the gnoll. A confused look crossed its face as the spell hit it, and suddenly its movement slowed, like it had come up against a wall of brambles. But it did not stop.
It gave Drizzt enough time to whirl, raise the spear, and jam it through the gnoll’s ribs. The gnoll roared in fury and pain, and raised the sword again. Drizzt, still gripping the spear, jerked it back out again. There was a gush of blood and other things that made Ash cringe. Drizzt didn’t flinch. The gnoll gave a pathetic, crying sound, and collapsed.
Of the last three gnolls, two were now lying dead on the ground--one of them being the one Ash had enthralled. An unexpected jolt of guilt went through her.
There was only one left alive. It turned to Ash and Drizzt, baring its teeth, but did not move toward them. Its right arm was hanging limp, and when Ash looked closer, she saw blood coating the fur around its shoulder.
After a long, tense moment, the gnoll backed a few steps away, then turned and ran.
Ash didn’t relax until the gnoll was out of sight. She let out a breath, and leaned heavily against the tree. Suddenly she felt so tired she could hardly move. The magic had taken all the energy out of her.
The area was littered with bloodied corpses. Flies were already starting to gather. Her happiness at having won the fight was quickly overshadowed by disgust.
Drizzt squinted after the fleeing gnoll for a long time before turning to her. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a hand, leaving a smear of red in the process. He was drenched with blood, though most of it seemed to not be his own. Ash recalled the time she’d seen him fight the giant, when he had casually sidestepped the blood drawn from his final strike. She supposed that not every conflict could be dealt with so elegantly.
“I thought you said you could not fight,” he said.
“Well,” Ash said, shrugging one shoulder, “I’d never tried before now.”
He gave her a look she couldn’t read. Ash thought it might have been surprised respect until he said, “Relying on your foe to give you time to cast a spell is not the safest course of action. It might have clubbed you to death before you could touch it.”
“It is not ideal,” Ash agreed. “Neither is leaving your swords out of reach and letting a band of gnolls sneak up on you.”
He gave a small laugh, breaking a tension that Ash hadn’t noticed until it was suddenly relieved.
Drizzt looked down at himself, then nodded toward the river. “Will you...come with me?” he asked tentatively. “I do not want to have the same problem again.”
Ash nodded, eager to leave the area, which now smelled strongly of blood. He still hadn’t let go of the spear, she noticed. It was only as they began walking that she noticed the stiffness in his steps, and she did not think it was from a new wound. He was still hurt from the previous day. She’d almost forgotten.
She sat on the bank of the river and looked carefully away from the drow as he washed. She watched the edges of the woods as she waited. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the blood. About the gnoll she’d bewitched and sent to its death. It had been so simple. She remembered how the people of Marwood had looked at her, like she was something dangerous and untrustworthy. Perhaps they’d had the right idea all along.
Drizzt, when he’d finished dressing and had his swords strapped to his sides again, approached her.
“I’ve never killed anyone before,” she confessed, looking up at him. “Animals, maybe, but nothing that could speak.”
He stopped, looking surprised by the sudden admission. He didn’t reply.
Ash shook her head. “You must think I’m being stupid. I suppose you’re used to this kind of thing.”
He frowned, looking deep in thought. “Should we not have killed them?” he asked slowly. He watched her, waiting for an answer, and it seemed that it was not a rhetorical question. Ash supposed he didn’t know about gnolls. They didn’t live in the Underdark.
She shrugged. “Gnolls are raiders,” she said. “Descended from demons. They try to kill everything they encounter. They cannot be bargained with or befriended.”
“Evil,” Drizzt summarized.
“I would say so,” Ash said. “Couldn’t you tell, when they attacked us without warning or mercy?”
“Humans and surface elves have also attacked me,” he said. “I used to believe they were evil, also.”
Ash snorted. “Well, the jury is still out on that one.”
He stayed politely silent, which gave Ash the distinct impression that he agreed.
“I do not like to make assumptions,” he said. “I have done my best not to harm anyone here. I do not know…” He hesitated, searching for a word. “I do not know enough of the surface to tell right from wrong here,” he finished, looking pained.
“You’re that concerned about telling right from wrong?”
“I think about it very often,” he said quietly.
Ash raised her eyebrows. She was beginning to guess what his ‘disagreement’ with his city had been about.
“But if they are like you say, then we were not wrong to kill them,” he said. “They would only have gone on to hurt others, if not us.”
“I know,” Ash said. She stared into the river. “But I…” She trailed off. She didn’t know how she’d meant to finish the sentence.
Drizzt scanned the woods now, eyes narrowed in the sun, as if waiting for another attack.
“You’re worried about the people who shot you?” Ash guessed.
He shook his head. “They are not here.”
“What makes you say that?”
He gave her a long, examining look. “They think they are the ones hunting me. But I have been watching them, as well. I am confident they are not here.”
Ash frowned at him. How close, exactly, had he been watching them? Had he seen her speaking to them? Did he suspect her of something? His face didn’t tell her anything.
“Good,” she said simply, raising an eyebrow.
He only smiled.
“I did not expect to see you this far north. I thought you were going to stay by the cave,” Ash said.
“I was. I changed my mind.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I thought to find you first, to tell you I was leaving,” he said, giving her a sidelong glance. “But I feared encountering the surface elf and the mage again.”
Ash looked up at him. He was watching her guardedly. She wondered if he’d noticed the subtle way his hands were nervously wringing in front of him. Ash slowly smiled. She should have just asked him before. She’d wanted to. It had not occurred to her that he might have wanted her to, also.
“You know,” she said, shrugging casually, “we might be better off if we stayed together. Neither of us could have escaped those gnolls without the other. We would both be safer if we were not alone out here.”
He gave a cautious smile. “You would travel with a drow?”
“Would you travel with a witch?”
“It’s what people call mages they don’t like. It’s what I am.”
He looked amused by the word. “I never liked mages much. But I do not think you are like the other mages I have known.” He hesitated, giving her a darker look. “But…that spell you used on me before?”
She didn’t have to ask what he meant. He was referring to when she had tried to enthrall him like she had the gnoll. “Yes?” she said quietly.
“Do not do that again.”
“It was a mistake,” she said apologetically--and it was. Even using it on gnolls, who would have killed them if she hadn’t, had made her uneasy. “I won’t do it again.”
He looked at her for a moment, as if trying to judge her sincerity. Then he gave a short nod. “Then perhaps we should get moving before we are ambushed again.”
“I could not agree more,” Ash said. He offered her a hand, and pulled her to her feet.
As they walked, the valley tapered into gentle hills and forest. They didn’t talk at first. Ash’s mind was still on the fight. There was something about narrowly avoiding death that did not put you in the mood for conversation.
The sky grew darker. Under the trees, it was darker still. Ash stuck close to Drizzt. He walked stiffly due to his lingering injury, at a slow but steady pace. He had a very even, soft way of moving, like he was always preparing to sneak up on something. Ash stole glances at him whenever he wasn’t looking. She probably should not have kept staring, but it was hard not to.
“Ash,” Drizzt said.
She stiffened, thinking he’d caught her, but he was looking out at the forest in front of them. “Yes?” she asked.
“What is that sound?”
Ash stopped and listened, afraid he had heard something stalking them in the trees. She didn’t hear anything at first.
Then she heard it, and laughed with relief. She was so used to tuning out the sound that she hadn’t noticed it.
“Crickets,” she said, using the common word for them. “Just a loud insect.”
“An insect makes this much noise?”
“Only at dusk.”
Ash looked up at him. “It must have been difficult when you first came to the surface,” she ventured. “There must have been so many things you had to learn.”
“There are still many things to learn,” he said. He looked thoughtfully at the sky. “I never knew there was a sun for the night, also,” he said, smiling at her. He said it with the same conversational tone one might use to compliment a neighbor’s roses. The absurdity of it almost made her laugh. She held back, not wanting to cause offense.
“The moon,” she said.
“Moon,” he repeated, as if committing it to memory.
“How long have you been on the surface, exactly?”
He thought. “I counted the days at first, but I lost track some time ago. Perhaps...one hundred days.” He looked up at her. “You are the first person I have spoken to on the surface,” he said.
Ash’s steps faltered in her shock.
“And the second human I have spoken to in my life,” he added.
She shook her head. What a mediocre first impression she must have made on behalf of the people of the surface. “Well. I hope you aren’t too disappointed,” she said.
She’d meant it in all seriousness, but he laughed as if she’d made a joke.
“You’re the first drow I’ve met,” she said.
“Hopefully the last, as well.”
Once they’d started talking, it became easier to continue. Once he realized that she didn’t mind explaining, he began to ask her about other things, as well. She could tell they were questions he’d stored up over his time on the surface, with no one to ask them to. Whenever she gave an answer, there was a spark of awe and excitement in his eyes that Ash quite enjoyed.
She found him easier to talk to than most people, even using a second language. He didn’t seem prone to taking things the wrong way. For once, she could relax and speak and listen without worrying about saying something wrong. She hadn’t had a conversation like that since her aunt and uncle had passed.
He explained more of how he had gotten to where he was and what his life had been like up until then. Somehow it was even more bizarre and horrifying than Ash could have ever imagined. His problems made hers pale in comparison, and the stories he told made her realize how boring her own were.
But when she told him about life in Marwood, about the people she’d known there, he hung on her every word. He told her about himself and his underground city with a dutiful straightforwardness, because she’d asked, but when she told him about life on the surface, he was rapt. When she talked about the time she’d gone to Mirabar’s midsummer festival, he seemed hardly able to believe what he was hearing.
“It is a religious event?” he asked, confused.
Ash thought. “No, I don’t think so. Just for fun, I guess.”
He stared at her, fascinated. “I would like to see that someday,” he said softly.
After they’d stopped and were making their camp for the night, she asked, “Do you miss it?”
He didn’t answer at first, as if considering the question. “No,” he said flatly. “I would not have left if I did.” He thought for a while, again. “But I am still a drow, whether I am a surface-dweller or not. I suppose Menzoberranzan will always be a part of me. The darkness will always be more familiar than the sunlight.”
He tilted his head at her, as if doubting whether she could understand his point. Ash looked away, feeling the weight of his words all too keenly. Drizzt had decided where he wanted to fit in the world, even if he hadn’t figured out how to get there yet. Ash still didn’t know where she belonged or where she wanted to be, let alone how she should go about getting to that place. It felt like the both of them had a long and difficult road ahead of them.
The next morning, she awoke to shouting.
She sat bolt upright, her heart racing, and pulled her knife from her belt. But she saw no danger--only Drizzt, sitting up and looking equally startled. His eyes were wide, his breaths coming fast. He was staring into the woods, but his eyes seemed unfocused, like he was looking at something that wasn’t there.
“What’s wrong?” Ash said.
After a beat, he turned to her. He shook his head. “Nothing. Just a dream,” he said apologetically.
Ash raised her eyebrows. “Quite the dream, for that kind of reaction.”
He lay back, closing his eyes with a sigh. “Yes,” he agreed quietly.
They traveled all of the next day, and saw no sign of Kelle and Erith. After that, they slowed to a more leisurely pace. They were not confident enough in having lost their pursuers that they were ready to settle anywhere, but they allowed themselves the luxury of taking longer breaks during the day.
They had circled around to the north and the west, so they had traveled some ways but had not actually gone too far from Ash’s village. If they went too far north, it would get too cold, and if they went too far west, they would start running into more settlements, which, at the moment, they both preferred to avoid.
In their time not spent walking, they separated, each going their own way for a time. Ash couldn’t have said what Drizzt might be doing, but she spent all of her free time reading the spellbook. She fully intended to learn everything in it eventually, but she had flipped through it to find the spells that seemed most useful and also not too difficult to learn.
She sat on a moss-covered stone with her back to the sun, trying to absorb as much heat as she could before nightfall, and read the page with the spell for creating light.
A spell that I have found useful for traveling at night, read Kelle’s annotation, written in a neat, flowing hand, for reading at night, for late night bathroom trips--perhaps I should just say that it’s good for anything one might want to do at night. A boon for those who sleep little, such as I. Don’t forget the flick of the fingers at the end, unless you wish to blind yourself or others--which, now that I think of it, I suppose one may want to do in some circumstances, actually.
She read the words to the spell over and over, mouthing them silently as she went. It was not such a complicated spell.
She listened closely to the quiet--to the soft blowing of wind through trees, to the occasional creak of branch against branch. Her eyes unfocused slightly as she pictured the light, imagining the result of the spell and willing it into existence as she said the words.
And suddenly, a ball of light appeared in front of her, like a tiny white sun. She smiled.
She’d never guessed magic would be this easy. How awful it was that, had she had the opportunity, she could have been doing this her whole life. How many years had she wasted already? Years that she could have spent with magic in her life, but didn’t because--why? Because people were afraid of it?
The success felt bitter. She wondered where she could have been in her life by now, had she started learning earlier. She had never done anything before that had made her feel this way. She’d never felt so powerful. She’d never felt so eager to learn something. In the village, there had never been much of anything worth learning.
A shadow appeared on the edge of her vision. She looked over and saw Drizzt, with his hand in front of his face to block the light.
“I just learned this,” Ash told him. “Next time I happen to get lost in a cave, I won’t need your help getting out.”
“It is certainly bright,” he said, squinting at her.
“Oh.” She looked back at the light. She didn’t know how to turn it off. She flipped open the book again. “Just a minute.”
The light disappeared before she could find a solution from the book. She looked up, and found that ball of blackness had appeared over the top of the light. She raised her eyebrows at Drizzt, who gave her an apologetic smile. She’d seen him use this particular bit of magic already, so she was not surprised. She had been a bit disappointed when he’d explained to her that it was an inborn ability, and that he was not actually a mage.
“You just learned that?” he asked, cocking his head curiously. “Today?”
She nodded, closing the book.
“Did you not learn another new spell just the other day? The wind?”
He wore an expression that she couldn’t quite read. “And you taught yourself from that book?”
She clutched the book a little tighter. “I did. What are you getting at?”
He gave her a long look. She recognized the expression now. Apprehension.
“You learn very quickly,” he mused. “Most mages I have known would take longer to master a spell, even a simple one. You have a great natural talent, if you find success this easily.”
Ash shrugged uncomfortably, not sure how to take this. She was not certain he meant it purely as a compliment.
He nodded to the book in her hands. “Where did you come by this book?”
“It was my mother’s,” she lied without missing a beat.
“Really?” he replied, surprised. “She was also a mage? But she did not teach you what she knew?”
“She died when I was young.” That part, at least, was true. “The book was not in my possession until very recently.”
“I see.” He said nothing more for a moment, and under his steady gaze, Ash began to worry that he’d seen through the lie somehow. But then he smiled. “So...you are reading it, then?” he said.
Ash smirked, bemused. “That is what one usually does with books, yes.”
“Perhaps you could teach me.”
“You want to read the common tongue?” Ash said, surprised by the request. “You would have to learn common first.”
He just smiled hopefully.
“Oh,” Ash said, wanting to kick herself. Of course. He had to learn from someone. Who else did he have to teach him? “Of course,” she said. “I can do that. I mean, I’ve never taught anyone anything before. I don’t think I’ll be much good at it. But I’ll try.”
He looked relieved. “Thank you,” he said--the first common phrase he’d learned.
Ash was relieved when the black cat, who Drizzt called Guen, returned from wherever she’d gone to that night at the cave, looking fully healthy again. As they walked east, the cat paced a short distance from them, weaving in and out of sight as she pleased. She had just come back close to them, as if to check in, when Ash heard the voices.
A hundred or so yards away, a group of humans had appeared among the trees. Drizzt stepped behind a broad tree trunk to keep out of their view. He cast a fearful glance in Ash’s direction. She had never seen that look on his face before, even when he’d been on the verge of bleeding out. It was not the prospect of danger that scared him--it was the possibility of meeting humans and being forced into a fight he did not want.
Ash crouched behind another tree and peered out at the group. There were ten of them, all wearing armor and bearing weapons. They talked loudly as they walked. Ash did not recognize any of them, which made her nervous. They were not from her village, nor, probably, any of the surrounding villages, and their clothing and weapons were not uniform enough for them to be from any army she knew.
The group was walking roughly in their direction--they would be spotted if they stayed where they were. Ash quickly edged sideways and ducked below a steep bank that would hide her from view as long as the group didn’t come too close. Drizzt followed suit, settling into a crouch on the ground beside her. Guen obediently hopped down next to them and sat low on the ground, waiting. As the group came closer, Ash could make out their voices more clearly.
“...took too long to track down the runners. You need to be quicker next time and get to them before they can get into the woods.”
“Gods’ sake, I got them anyway. What are you complaining about?”
“Because next time you might not get them. I don’t want someone catching on to us because you let one of them escape.”
“Well maybe if I’m going to have to go running all over the place while the rest of you sit back, I should get a bigger cut of whatever we find on them.”
“No,” a third voice cut in. “I bet I took down half the caravan. I killed the women when Gera didn’t have the stomach for it. So should I get a better cut? No. We start arguing about how much each of us deserves and it’ll never end. We split it equal, like we agreed.”
Ash looked up at Drizzt. He couldn’t understand their words, but when he saw her anxious expression, he frowned.
“Bad people,” Ash whispered to him.
His brow set in a resolute line. He rested a reassuring hand on her forearm. The warmth of the touch sent a distracting jolt through her, and suddenly, despite the situation, that was all she could think about. She realized then how infrequently she had physically touched other people, recently. Perhaps the last time had been when Kelle Millpond had hugged her, and before that, she could not remember.
“I will not let them harm you,” he said quietly, and there was such calm confidence in his voice, even at the prospect of fighting all ten with just the three of them, that she believed it was true.
But, by good fortune, the bandits passed by them and continued on without stopping, having never noticed the drow or the witch huddled under the bank.
They waited until the sounds of the group were long gone, then wasted no time moving in the opposite direction.
Rather than separate for the rest of the day, as they had been doing recently, they stayed at their makeshift camp and talked into the evening. Ash was finding herself more at ease with Drizzt nearby than not.
“I don’t know what I would have done if they had attacked us,” she said. “I am not a strong enough mage to fight well yet.”
Drizzt, who had just raised an apple halfway to his mouth, stopped in place to look over at her. “I could teach you to use a sword,” he said brightly.
She could not tell, at first, whether he was joking. He had to realize how ridiculous the suggestion was.
“I don’t think—” she began, but he had already hopped off his perch, dusting his hands off. He seemed so enthusiastic that Ash hated to disappoint him. She reluctantly followed him to an open space near where they’d been sitting.
He drew both his swords, and pressed the hilt of one into her hand. It was lighter than she’d expected, even having noted its thin blade.
“Like this,” he said, demonstrating how to hold it. Ash copied his grip. “And, like this—” He pointed to the placement of his feet and the slight bend of his knees, and Ash copied him again. Then he stood in front of her, sword raised as if to duel. The knowledge that it was not a real duel did not stop a nervous chill from going through her. She never wanted to end up on the opposite end of his sword in a real fight.
She angled the sword slightly to peer at its edge. It looked sharp. “I don’t want to accidentally hit you,” she said, not trusting her control enough to even avoid hitting something, let alone to aim it where she wanted.
Drizzt smirked. “You will not hit me,” he assured her. “But I appreciate your concern.”
Ash sighed. She was beginning to feel stupid, standing there in that awkward stance with a sword raised at nothing. “What do I do now?”
“Isn’t there a bit more to it than that?”
“Better to learn by doing than by discussing theory. Just try it.”
She frowned. She briefly looked him over, trying to decide where she should try to hit. She believed him when he said she wouldn’t actually hit him. But whatever she did, wherever she aimed, she was sure it would be wrong.
When she took too long, Drizzt’s sword suddenly darted forward and slapped at hers with a resounding clang . There was a shock that vibrated down the blade and into her hand. She dropped the sword in surprise, then shook her hand to relieve the pain.
Drizzt looked down at the sword with dismay. “Ah…” he said, running a hand over his hair. “You are supposed to hold on to it,” he said earnestly, as if she’d only dropped it because he’d forgotten to tell her not to.
“I was,” she said defensively, a little more sharply than she’d intended. “And then you knocked it out of my hand.”
He stared at her.
“I...see,” he said pensively.
Ash didn’t have to be able to read his muddled expression to guess that it was dawning on him how long it would take to make a half-decent swordsman out of her. She was not an easy student, she had to admit. She picked up the sword and handed it back to him, embarrassed. “The people where I’m from do not study swordsmanship,” she said, knowing that it was quite different in Menzoberranzan. “We aren’t conquerors. We’re farmers.”
He took the sword. “What do you study, then?”
“Nothing,” she said regretfully.
He looked confused by that. “I see.” He studied her as he placed the swords back in their scabbards, perhaps noting her dissatisfaction with the answer. “There is nothing so wrong with living a quiet life among people you care about,” he said.
“Maybe. But that’s not what I want. And I have no one left to care about, anyway.” She shook her head, smiling ruefully. “Still, I think that swords are not for me.”
“Maybe someday,” he insisted.
She snorted. “I don’t think so.”
He just smiled and shrugged, as if he knew better than she.
Over the next week, Ash awoke to alarmed shouts and gasps twice more. The third time it happened, she was hardly even startled--only rolled over to make sure it was only Drizzt before sighing and lying back down.
“Gods, will you stop,” she croaked, still half-asleep and annoyed at being awoken before the sun had risen. At this rate, she was going to grow sleep deprived from it happening so often.
Drizzt, having slowly recovered from whatever it was that had happened, looked over at her, looking pained and embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said quietly. He still looked shaken.
Ash bit her lip. She propped herself up on her elbows to squint at him with sleepy eyes. If she’d seen how upset he looked, she wouldn’t have been so abrupt. It was hard to think before you spoke, when you were that tired. “Are you...alright?” she asked tentatively.
He shook his head slowly, which seemed to be more an expression of exhaustion than an answer to the question. “I have a lot of bad dreams.”
He gave her a long, unreadable look, then just shook his head again.
She was poring over Kelle’s book later that day when she heard a shout from the hill near where they’d stopped that day. She looked up, searching for the source of the sound. She could see nothing through the line of trees but fluttering leaves and the occasional flitting bird. It must have been coming from the opposite side of the hill, where an old road passed by.
There was another angry shout. Ash got to her feet, snapping the book shut and placing it carefully back in her bag. She hurried up the slope, ignoring the brambles that poked at her legs. When she’d reached the top, she spotted a small group of figures on the road below. She bent to kneel behind the cover of a tree.
There were three of them, surrounding a fourth. To her surprise, Ash recognized two of them as part of the group of armored men they’d seen the other day. It took her longer to recognize the fourth.
It was a woman with gray hair, perhaps a few years older than Ash’s aunt had been. One of the men was holding her arms as the others searched her bag. She struggled, to no avail. As she twisted, she turned in Ash’s direction, revealing her face. It was Rachel Mochran, the widow who’d lived in the tiny house on the other side of the Kendricks. Ash had never spoken to her much, but she knew that the woman was not the traveling sort. She could not imagine what she was doing so far from home, and alone.
There was a soft step beside her, and she looked up to see Drizzt crouched beside her. He was watching the altercation below them with a perturbed expression.
“Will they kill her?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ash murmured. “That woman--I know her. She lives in my village.”
Drizzt raised an eyebrow. “One of the ones you had a ‘disagreement’ with?”
“No. Not exactly. I wonder what she’s doing all the way out here.”
They watched a few moments longer, and then a knife appeared in one man’s hand. He turned toward Rachel. Ash’s heart leapt to her throat.
“Will you help me—” she started to beg Drizzt, but he was already on his feet and running down the hill, drawing his swords as he went. Ash ran after him, beginning the chant for a spell.
As the man with the knife approached Rachel, a ball of blackness enveloped all four of them. There were several cries of confusion and surprise.
“I’m blind!” Ash heard someone shout, and then another, accusingly: “Wizardry!”
Eventually they stumbled out of the darkness, falling over each other as they did. By then, Drizzt was standing in front of them, swords before him. The three men stared up at him in disbelief, then horror.
“Gods,” murmured one of them, agape.
One of them simply turned and ran down the road, abandoning his companions. The remaining two exchanged a nervous glance. Their odds had gone down by one third.
Drizzt shouted something at them that Ash couldn’t understand--though the meaning was clear enough--and advanced a step closer. A second man turned and ran.
“Bastard,” said the last man under his breath, watching his friend run. He turned back to Drizzt. He took a step back, and Drizzt took a step forward without missing a beat. The man grinned nervously, and raised his hands in surrender. He’d never even drawn his sword.
“You can have her,” the man said, taking another step back, and then another. Drizzt didn’t follow this time, but watched the man back away until he, too, was running down the same way his companions had gone.
Ash never needed to use her spell. She stopped chanting--a little bit disappointed.
Drizzt waited until the man was out of sight before sheathing his swords. He turned to the black sphere floating on the road. He made a small motion with one hand, and the blackness vaporized into the air, revealing Rachel, crouched on the ground with her arms protectively hugged over her head. When she realized the darkness was gone, she cautiously looked up.
She did not panic when she saw him, at least--only looked fearful, and did not move, as if waiting for him to reveal his intentions. Drizzt shot Ash a glance.
Ash hurried to stand beside him. “Rachel,” she said. The woman’s eyebrows shot up.
“By the gods,” Rachel murmured, when she’d gotten over her shock enough to speak. “Little Ash.”
“Not so little, these days.”
“No, I suppose you aren’t, are you?” Rachel shook her head. “You really are still alive. I had heard the rumor, but I didn’t think…” A pained look crossed her face. “Oh, dear. You must think terribly of us. And I suppose you should, at that.”
Ash didn’t know what to say. The sentiment surprised her.
Drizzt stepped forward and offered the woman a hand, which, Ash realized, she had been rude not to think of. Rachel hesitantly took his hand, and let him help her to her feet.
“What are you doing out here?” Ash said to her. “You shouldn’t be alone on the road.”
The woman dusted the dirt from her knees. “I wouldn’t be, if I had the choice.”
Drizzt went to pick up her bag where it lay on the ground a few yards away, and brought it back to her. She accepted it, giving him a suspicious look.
“Your friend is awfully polite,” she said, giving Ash a sidelong glance.
“He’s trying to make a good impression, I think.”
“Have you...bewitched him somehow, then?”
“Not at all.”
“Well. I have heard of stranger things,” Rachel said, giving Drizzt an appraising stare. “Doesn’t get too much stranger than this, though, if I’m completely frank. A few minutes ago I never would have guessed a witch and a dark elf would come to my rescue.”
She sighed, raising a hand to straighten her hair, which had been pulled half out of its braid during the struggle. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what they did to you. I still remember when your mother saved my husband’s life after his accident. Magic isn’t all bad. Some of us still know that.”
“What happened, Rachel?” Ash pressed, because she knew something was wrong. There was no reason for her to be out there alone.
A dark look crossed her face. “The same thing that happened to you, more or less. The Kendricks.”
Ash frowned. She vaguely remembered that Rainer’s family and the Mochrans had had a long-term grudge over some slight that had happened before Ash was even born, that had never really been resolved. They’d always been cold toward each other. “What did they do?”
“We had an argument about their dog attacking my chickens. I told them they should put a fence up, and they told me I should do it myself. Then they accused me of planting my trees too close to their land and blocking the afternoon sun on their house, and—” She sighed, waving a hand. “It doesn’t matter. The point is, I lost my temper, and you were brought up. I should have said something earlier, when it was happening, but…” She looked at Ash. “I told Rainer he was a bastard for what he did to you and that he should have been the one made to leave, not you, and that the village would be better off without self-obsessed, pompous fluffs like him.” The old woman gave a small, self-satisfied smile at the memory, despite the bad turn that was obviously forthcoming.
“A group of them came to my house the night before last, Rainer among them. He said that he didn’t think I fit in well with the community--that I didn’t have the good of the village in mind--and that it would be best if I chose to leave.” She gave an irritated huff. “I refused at first, and then they informed me that they would be escorting me to the road momentarily.”
“Those scum kicked you out?” Ash said, outraged. It was one thing to do it to Ash, but to Rachel? They’d had the gall to cast out an old widow, who had lived in Marwood for nearly seventy years? Where else was she supposed to go?
Rachel only waved a dismissive hand. “To the hells with them all. I’ve not got much left in Marwood, anyway. Now that my husband and son are gone, what reason have I got to stay?”
Ash felt much the same at the point, but that didn’t keep the rage from bubbling up inside of her. She could hardly understand how anyone still believed Rainer was looking out for the village’s best interests. Everything he did, though masked with a veneer of polite charm and straight-toothed smiles, was first and foremost for his own satisfaction. He did things like this simply to stroke his ego.
Was he so bold, now? After having gotten away with casting out Ash, perhaps he thought he could get away with anything. Anyone who crossed him was fair game. He had the silver tongue to convince everyone of his righteousness.
“I’m not sure that people like us were ever meant to dwell in that place,” Rachel continued. “I think it’s time for the both of us to move on. Find a better place for ourselves in the world.”
Ash frowned. She would have agreed with her yesterday, and perhaps she still did, but infuriated her to know that Rainer was still doing things like this and getting away with it. Just moving on and forgetting about it felt like letting him win. And after all, it was hers and Rachel’s village too. What right did anyone have to take it from them?
But perhaps Rachel was right. They should just move on.
“Where are you going, then?” Ash asked her.
“To Greenwater, maybe. Or Longsaddle. What about you?”
Ash gave a half-hearted shrug, glancing at Drizzt, who was watching them with silent but attentive interest. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Rachel smiled at her, more warmly than Ash had expected. “You will.” She slung her bag over her shoulders. “I know you’ll be alright, Ash. You’ve got the blood of a fighter. Got it from your mother.”
Ash allowed herself a small swell of pride, despite her low mood. “There are more of those bandits around,” she said. “You should be careful.”
“Ah,” the woman said, giving Drizzt a significant smirk, “but now they think that I’ve got a drow elf looking out for me. I suspect they’ll leave me alone in the future.”
Drizzt, not understanding but probably appreciating the positive attention, smiled back at her.
“Thank you,” Rachel said to him. Drizzt’s smile grew. He gave a short bow in reply. Rachel turned to Ash. “And to you. Good luck in your journey to wherever you decide to go.”
Ash nodded, and Rachel walked with confidence down the road.
Drizzt turned to Ash, still smiling.
“That went very well,” he said.
“Yes,” Ash said absently. She couldn’t bring herself to smile back.
In the red-gold light of the evening sun, Drizzt took a long stick and practiced drawing the alphabet in a dry patch of dirt as Ash watched.
She wouldn’t have thought she would make a good teacher, but with such an attentive student, it was not difficult. His attention never wandered. It was a little uncanny the way he looked at her as she spoke, with watchful, unblinking eyes. She appreciated it anyway. Even when she struggled to explain things or realized she’d been going about things in the wrong order, he listened patiently and appreciatively.
He learned very quickly. They had developed something of an intermediary language, a combination of goblin and common, and he had taken to using the common words he knew in place of goblin ones, switching back and forth depending on the needs of the conversation. It was not enough for him to hold a conversation in common, but it was a start. The common tongue was quite similar to the goblin language, he said--Ash couldn’t really see it. She wondered if she ought to take offense at the comparison.
She took the stick from him, and scratched a phrase in the dirt. It was one she had taught him before, but only verbally. He stared at the words for a time before reading them aloud to her.
“There is no path but the one we make with our own steps,” he said slowly.
Ash smiled. It was something her mother had scribbled in the back of one of her recipe books, as if she’d been struck by a sudden thought and had written it down on the first surface she could find. She did not think he understood all the words on their own, but she had explained the meaning to him.
There was something unexpectedly wonderful about hearing him speak her language. It affected her more than she’d thought it would.
“Was that wrong?” he asked when she didn’t say anything.
“No,” she said, recovering. “I was just… You have a beautiful voice.”
He raised his eyebrows.
Ash tensed uncomfortably, and wondered what had possessed her to say such a thing. She felt her face turning red, and hoped he wouldn’t know what that meant. A drow’s skin was too dark to show a blush--perhaps he had not seen it before.
“Thank you,” he said--an unpleasantly neutral response, but it could have been worse.
Ash leaned back on the log they were sitting on, looking away as Drizzt studied the letters in the dirt. He whispered the sounds under his breath as he looked at each of them. Then he was quiet for a time.
The air was oddly still and quiet. Behind them, a small flock of birds burst out of a tree and flew into the sky. Ash peered over her shoulder, watching the forest nervously. Even now, having not encountered any danger for some time, it was hard not to take every unexpected sound or movement as a threat.
“I have not spent much time around human women,” Drizzt said suddenly, after Ash had thought the discussion over. She stiffened, not sure how to take the comment. Perhaps he did understand her blush, after all.
“They are strong and kind, by and large,” Ash replied, evading the point she suspected he was really making. She thought of Rachel, and Kelle. “Women look out for each other in a way that men do not, I think.”
“From what I have seen of you, I would believe it.”
Ash’s lips curled into a foolish smile. She didn’t say anything.
“In the Underdark, I never knew a woman who I would call kind.”
He laughed bitterly. “No.”
Ash quietly considered the implications of this comment.
It had been some time since she had wondered about what any particular man thought of her. But sometimes, looking at Drizzt, she found herself wishing she could read his thoughts and find out.
“Drizzt…” she began hesitantly, but suddenly he turned, his eyes scanning the brush behind them.
“Did you hear that?” he said quietly.
Ash watched him nervously, then turned to the woods. “Hear what?”
He didn’t answer, but took her arm and pulled her down behind the log with him. They looked over the log at the trees beyond. Ash still saw nothing.
Drizzt turned to look the other way, into the setting sun. He hissed in pain and annoyance. “I cannot see,” he whispered. He nodded to a clump of broad trees nearby. “We should move.”
“I see nothing,” Ash assured him, but moved to follow him.
But then, she did see. Just as they started moving, a projectile shot through the air toward them, too fast for either of them to react to it.
It hit Drizzt in the shoulder.
He cried out in pain. Ash screamed in surprise. There was a moment that felt very long, but probably was only a fraction of a second, when she watched blood spread around the shaft of the arrow, and was overwhelmed with panic. But then she caught his eyes, and saw her panic reflected there. She set her jaw, and quashed the sick feeling of horror that was rising up in her. There was no time for panic. She had to help him.
She positioned herself between him and the source of the arrow--she suspected she knew who had shot it, and she hoped they would hesitate to shoot her--then half walked, half dragged him to the copse of trees. Another arrow flew past as they ducked behind the largest trunk. Drizzt collapsed against it, flinching in pain. His breath came quick and uneven and his eyes were wide and alert.
Ash grit her teeth and quickly examined the wound. The arrow was embedded in his shoulder at a sharp downward angle. It had pierced clean through his back--she could see the arrow head sticking out of him. It would not be deadly, if they could stop the bleeding fast enough, but he would have a hard time holding a sword with his shoulder and back muscles so damaged.
“Are you alright?” she said, her voice shaking.
“I am not dead,” he replied optimistically.
“I can heal it, but it will take time. More time than we have.”
He nodded grimly, then reached up and gripped the shaft of the arrow with his undamaged arm. “Break it off,” he said to her.
The thought made her ill. But even she could tell the long arrow shaft would be a liability in a fight. She gripped the base of the arrow in one hand, and with a jerk, snapped it in two. Drizzt gave a pained gasp, and squeezed his eyes shut. Ash looked away, nauseous. She looked at the arrow shaft in her hand. The fletching was identical to the one she’d seen on the floor of the cave the last time he’d been shot.
She tossed the arrow shaft to the ground and began chanting, saying the words as quickly as she could manage while still speaking clearly. Drizzt drew one sword with his usable arm, and peered around the trunk of the tree, still wincing.
She couldn’t look at him now. She needed focus. She closed her eyes and whispered faster.
She spoke the last word, and a gale swept across the clearing. She leaned against the tree beside Drizzt to keep her balance. The wind rushed at their backs, toward the archer and at a slight angle. It would be near impossible for even a skilled archer to shoot with any accuracy. They could run now, with little fear of being shot at from afar.
Drizzt turned to give her an appreciative glance, the wind whipping his hair across his face. “Nicely done,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.
Ash could see Erith now, fifty yards away and struggling against the wind. He held one arm in front of him for balance, clasping his bow close to his body with the other. He looked up at them, and hatred filled his eyes. Ash turned and started away from him, pushing against the wind.
They had taken only a few steps when she spotted Kelle blocking their escape. She was in the middle of chanting, her arms waving gently through the air in front of her.
“She’s going to undo my spell,” Ash realized, horrified. “The archer—”
Drizzt hesitated only a moment, then turned and ran back toward Erith.
“Drizzt!” Ash cried in protest, but he didn’t even look back. Erith’s eyes widened as Drizzt charged toward him. He raised his bow, but Drizzt was already on top of him by then. His sword slashed out and cut the bow in half just as the wind stopped. Erith dropped the useless bow and stumbled back, drawing his own sword.
Kelle watched them with hard eyes as she approached. She stopped beside Ash, and spared her a quick glance. “Did you do that?” she asked, almost casually. “The wind? I’m impressed.”
Ash, for a moment, contemplated what spell she could use against Kelle, before acknowledging that all of them would be useless. There was nothing she could do that Kelle could not counter. She had to hope that mere words would be enough.
“Wait,” Ash said. “You have to—”
“It’s alright,” Kelle said, smiling. “You’re safe now. We’ll take care of this.”
Ash stared at her. Kelle still thought she was protecting her.
Behind her, swords clanged and scraped together again and again. Ash paused long enough to turn and look. Erith was a better archer than swordsman, Ash guessed. He was slashing madly at Drizzt, who had evaded each attack so far by parrying or by simply moving out of the way. Drizzt’s right arm hung limply at his side. Ash could still see the pain on his face, but the fight itself did not seem to be posing a serious challenge for him. It was making Erith angry.
Kelle started forward, raising a hand as if to cast something. Ash moved to stand in front of her.
“You have to stop,” Ash said more forcefully. “You’ve been pursuing the wrong person.”
Kelle looked down at her, confused. “We’ve been pursuing the drow,” she said, as if it was Ash who was confused.
“For the gods’ sake, I know! We’ve been trying to outrun you since the last time we met!”
Kelle stared at her, now looking annoyed in addition to confused.
“You can’t kill him,” Ash said, struggling to be patient. “I’ve been traveling with him since you chased us out of the valley. He saved my life. He isn’t a danger to anyone.”
Kelle gave Ash a long, skeptical look. “But…that’s...” She looked up at Erith and Drizzt, watching the ongoing stalemate.
“Why do you think your friend is not dead yet?” Ash said, gesturing to them irritably. “Look at them. Who do you think is the superior swordsman?”
Kelle watched. She could see that Ash was right. “Why is he holding back?” she asked, frowning.
Ash knew why. He was not willing to kill the other elf. Moreover, he was afraid that if he beat Erith--if he disarmed him, or put him in a position where it looked like Drizzt might kill him--that Kelle would act to stop him, and an attack from a wizard would likely be fatal. He was hoping to buy Ash enough time to convince Kelle to hold off.
“You wanted to help me, did you not?” Ash said, taking yet another step in front of Kelle to block her when she tried to walk past. “You’re not doing this because someone’s paying you to. You’re doing it because you want to do what’s right. So do the right thing.”
Kelle raised an eyebrow, considering her. Then she pushed past Ash and approached the two elves. Drizzt spared a nervous glance in her direction as she approached, but Erith didn’t so much as look up. He nearly got a hit in while Drizzt was distracted.
Kelle swept her arms up in a grand gesture, and as she did so, both of them flew into the air, up and away from each other, where they hovered in place. They looked down at Kelle in surprise, limbs swinging as they struggled to balance on their strange perch in the air.
“Kelle!” Erith cried. “What are you doing?”
“Just a moment,” Kelle said. “I have new information that requires consideration.”
“If you don’t put me down immediately—”
“Calm yourself,” Kelle said, waving her hands placatingly. This, unsurprisingly, only made Erith look angrier.
Drizzt had quickly found balance and relaxed, as much as one could, into his precarious position in the air. He watched Ash and Kelle with a wary eye. Each breath seemed laborious and painful. He shifted a little, and winced as the arrow pinched at his shoulder. There was a large, wet stain spreading down his shirt. Ash looked at Kelle, afraid of what she might do next.
“Do you speak common?” Kelle said to Drizzt.
He looked tired, but cautiously hopeful. “A little...” he said slowly, his voice tight.
“What are your purposes here on the surface?”
Drizzt looked at her blankly.
“A little, he said,” Ash muttered to the wizard.
Kelle thought for a moment, then pointed to Ash. “What is her name?”
Drizzt looked as confused by the question as Ash was. But they had gone over this phrase. He understood it. “Ash.” With his working arm he pointed the tip of his sword at a nearby tree that, indeed, was an ash.
Kelle raised an eyebrow, perhaps in surprise. “You travel with her?”
“Yes,” Drizzt said slowly. “Friends,” he elaborated.
Kelle considered his answers for a long moment, as if searching for deception.
“I told you this already,” Ash said to Kelle.
“You might have been under duress,” she replied, still looking at Drizzt.
“What does that have to do with my name?”
“I doubt he would have bothered to learn it if you were a mere prisoner.” She turned to Ash. “How have you been communicating with him?”
“He speaks goblin.”
“Does he?” she said, surprised. “And you do, too?”
“It is a common language around the wood,” Ash said. She guessed it was less common in cities, where goblinkind were less likely to be found.
“Ask him what he’s doing here,” Kelle said.
“I want to hear him say it.”
Ash sighed. She turned to Drizzt. “She asks what you are doing here,” she said, giving him an apologetic look. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her, like she was as much an enemy as the others. He had an arrow sticking out of his back and she was unscathed with her feet still planted on the ground, so she supposed it was a fair judgement.
“Trying to live,” he snapped, looking at Erith and then Kelle. “But I keep being interrupted by arrows.”
Ash, though not sure that the response was as diplomatic as it could have been, repeated the words to Kelle.
Erith glared at him. “Perhaps he should have stayed in his godsforsaken hole underground where he belongs, if he did not want to worry about arrows,” he said through his teeth. “Tell him that.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Kelle said, rolling her eyes. She crossed her arms and peered down at Ash. “Has it occurred to you that he has manipulated you into believing he’s harmless so that you’ll help him make his way on the surface?”
“Then you are less clever than I gave you credit for.”
“It hasn’t occurred to me because it isn’t true. Anyone can see that. Have you ever known drow to walk the surface alone for months? In the broad daylight?”
“He is a rogue,” Kelle said, nodding. “That much I can see. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be trouble.”
“And you’re going to be the judge of that?”
“Who else will be, if not us? He poses a possible threat to the whole of the North. If we were to let him go without scrutiny, any harm he did would be due to our carelessness.” She looked up at Drizzt again. He was looking down at her discontentedly, not bothering to hide the pain from his face. “But, perhaps we were...a little more aggressive in our pursuit than was necessary,” she admitted.
“He’s going to bleed out if you leave him up there forever,” Ash said.
She still looked conflicted. “Ask him if he will agree to put away his weapons if I bring him down.”
Ash repeated the question to Drizzt. He looked at Erith, who glared back. Drizzt slowly sheathed his sword. Kelle gave an approving nod.
“Kelle, he is a drow,” Erith said, wobbling awkwardly on his perch in the air. “He cannot be set loose again. You have not seen the things I’ve seen. You don’t know--”
“No one is setting anyone loose,” Kelle said. “I just want to talk like civilized folk for a moment.” She slowly made a downward gesture with her arms, and as she did so, Erith and Drizzt began to float back to the ground. They landed gently on their feet, a few yards apart. The two glanced at each other suspiciously.
“There,” Kelle said in the tense silence that followed. “This isn’t so bad, is it?”
There was a sudden movement in the corner of Ash’s vision, and by the time she looked over, Erith was on Drizzt, stabbing at him with his sword.
“Erith!” Kelle cried.
Drizzt was the only one of them who seemed unsurprised by the attack. He ducked sideways and grabbed Erith’s wrist and twisted it aside, causing the attack to hit only the air beneath his arm instead of flesh. Perhaps he had meant for the movement to disarm him as well, but the motion pulled at Drizzt’s shoulder and made him flinch in pain, and for a moment, he was off-guard.
Erith turned to take advantage of his moment of weakness with another strike of the sword. He was so focused on the drow in front of him that he didn’t see Kelle approaching, her hand in a pouch at her side. Before he could strike, she stepped forward and threw a handful of glittery black powder in his face.
Erith coughed once, and then, before he could so much as blink, he dropped to the ground, unconscious. Ash briefly wondered if he was dead, but then he began loudly snoring.
Kelle looked down at him, brows together, and Ash wondered whether she was angry at him, or if she was already regretting what she’d done. She looked up at them, her expression a little nervous now that she was alone.
Drizzt took a few steps back, holding a hand to his injured shoulder. Pain was painted on his face, and he looked on the verge of passing out. Ash went to his side, watching Kelle warily. “Let’s go,” she said quietly.
“Wait,” Kelle said. “Come back to Neverwinter with us. Let them judge you there. If you’re really innocent, we’ll clear your name for good.”
“You can’t be serious,” Ash scoffed, not bothering to translate the offer. “Didn’t you see what just happened?” she said, waving to Erith. “Why should we risk more of the same treatment? Why volunteer to be a prisoner?”
Kelle looked at them both, her expression still a mix of frustration and indecision. “Erith is...a little overzealous, but his intentions are correct. He is right--we can’t just let the drow go.”
“So are you going to stop us?” Ash asked, and was angry enough to let a threatening edge come into her voice.
Kelle just looked at them for a long time, and didn’t answer.
Ash took Drizzt’s arm, meaning to pull him away from the clearing. He shook her off and began walking away on his own. Ash frowned, but said nothing. She followed him toward the trees. Kelle did not come after them.
“An innocent man would not run,” Kelle called to their backs. Ash didn’t look back.
With no small amount of effort, and no small amount of pride once she’d finished, Ash healed Drizzt’s wound completely. She was beginning to think that she could fix any harm that might befall them. It was a small comfort. The stress of being hunted like some beast was not so easy to fix.
They walked northeast, eager to get away from where they’d left Kelle and Erith. Drizzt rubbed at his shoulder occasionally, testing the strength of the new flesh, and gazing listlessly into the distance as he did so. Something about this most recent encounter had taken the light out of his eyes.
Ash could see the change in him. She’d thought the mood wouldn’t last--as far as she’d seen, it never did--but for the next day he spoke little and smiled not at all. When they talked, it was about where they should go and whether Kelle and Erith would easily be able to follow them there.
She felt powerless. She had convinced Kelle to think twice about hunting Drizzt, and had managed to stop the fight before anyone was seriously hurt. But how long would it be before it happened again? Had anything really changed? How long would they be hunted? How long would they be able to keep running? It was all beginning to feel too draining, too pointless, too hopeless.
She found herself wanting something else to do. Something she could control. And, she thought, if she felt this way, then perhaps Drizzt did also. Perhaps the both of them needed to feel some purpose in life, for something other than merely surviving.
She thought of Marwood often. Her meeting with Rachel was fresh in her mind, and the more she thought about what the woman had told her, the more it bothered her. When she least expected it, Rainer appeared in her mind and filled her with renewed anger. For a while, after her initial escape, those feelings had lessened, but now they returned more and more often.
It seemed that wherever she turned, bad people were waiting for her. She was tired of the world being the way it was. She was tired of injustice and unfairness. She was tired of running and being unable to do anything about any of it. She wanted to be the one acting and not reacting, for once. She wanted to set things right.
And now--now she was not quite the helpless girl she’d been when she’d first left Marwood. Now, she had power. And perhaps, she thought, she had a responsibility to do something with that power. If she had the strength to fight back against evil, was she not obligated to do so? If people weaker than her were in danger, was it right for her to sit back and do nothing to help them?
“Drizzt,” Ash said as they walked the following day, frowning down at the scars on her wrists. “There is something you could help me with.”
He looked up, and slowed to a standstill. Guen paced beside him, confused by the sudden stop. “Yes?” he asked, looking like he’d been drawn from a daydream. He absently reached down and rested a calming hand on Guen’s head, and she stopped pacing.
“It would be a rather large favor,” Ash admitted.
He didn’t blink. “Yes?”
She hesitated again. The warm afternoon breeze rustled her hair around her neck, and she brushed it away. Drizzt was looking at her with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness now.
“I want to go back to Marwood,” she said.
His shoulders slumped slightly. “You do not want to travel with me anymore,” he said.
“No,” Ash said quickly. “That’s not what I meant. I want you to come with me.”
He gave her a confused frown. “I do not think that is a good idea,” he said slowly.
“Hear me out,” she said. “Some of the things that Rachel said made me nervous. I am afraid of how the village might be changing. I didn’t think I still cared what happened there, but...now I think I do. Maybe you can understand?” she asked, hoping that he could relate. “I want to make sure everything is still alright there.“
He thought for a few moments, looking at her with perceptive eyes. “Do you worry about Marwood because you still care for the people there, or because you still see the village as yours? Perhaps it offends you to see other people still there while you were made to leave.”
Ash blinked. She didn’t appreciate the challenge, and was a little offended by it, so she decided to ignore it. “The ones who left me for dead--Rainer, and the other men of the village—” she scowled at the mere mention of his name. A spike of anger flared up suddenly, and her voice grew more passionate. “They’re still there. There have been no consequences for what they did to me or Rachel. What’s to stop them from doing it again? Someone should do something. We could do something. We could stop them from doing this to anyone else again.”
“Tell them to. If a drow and a witch come to them in the dead of night and demand that they behave, do you think they’ll be brave enough to defy us?”
“And if they are?”
She bit the inside of her cheek, thinking. She would be lying if she said the implications of her plan did not make her nervous. But so had fighting the gnolls, and going after the bandits who were attacking Rachel. She would have to get over it eventually. “Then perhaps we should get rid of them. Like we did those gnolls. With the two of us together, we’re more than strong enough to do it.”
Drizzt raised an eyebrow. “Get rid of them?” he repeated. “You mean kill them.”
She didn’t like the judgemental look he was giving her. She hadn’t thought he would ask so many questions, and she hadn’t thought he would look this unenthused about the idea. “Well, that isn’t what I want, but if they force my hand—”
He looked at her for another long moment, then turned and walked a few steps away from her, staring into the forest. Ash waited, confused.
He shook his head, then turned to look at her again. “This is why you have befriended me?” he said. “So that I can kill your enemies?”
Ash stared at him. “No, but I—”
“You assumed I would agree to this,” he said. “You think I will kill anyone you ask me to? That is what drow are good for, is it not?”
“No. Of course not. But Rainer Kendrick hurt me, and Rachel too, and he might still be hurting other people as we speak.”
“Yes, well, we can investigate—”
“You are not concerned about other people. You are concerned about petty revenge.”
She frowned. She didn’t know what to say.
“You think you can just kill anyone you dislike?”
Ash stared at him, baffled and offended by his lack of sympathy. “You--You saw what they did to me!” she said, holding up her wrists demonstratively. “We might have killed those bandits if they hadn’t run off. Why is this different?”
“There is a big difference.”
“It’s not as if you’ve never killed someone before. What do you carry those swords for, if you don’t intend to do something useful with them?”
He raised his eyebrows in shock, and Ash realized she’d gone too far. “I intend to use them when necessary,” he said sharply. “Not whenever you demand them. I am not a dog to be sent on the attack.”
Ash threw her hands in the air in exasperation. “I was only asking for your help. You helped me before. I thought you would be willing to do it again. Apparently I was mistaken.”
He looked some mixture of hurt and disgusted by that. Ash imagined her own expression looked the same. She was only digging herself a deeper hole, but she couldn’t stop.
He turned away, as if too annoyed to look directly at her. Guen, sensing the tension between them, sat very still and stared at Ash, ears flat.
“I saw you talking to that surface elf and his friend, you know,” Drizzt said abruptly, setting his hands on his hips. “Back in the valley, after the first time they shot me. I saw her give you that spellbook. Were you ever going to tell me about that?”
Ash’s stomach clenched as if she’d been struck. For a moment she couldn’t speak. She’d almost forgotten about the meeting, and her subsequent lies about it.
“I wasn’t looking to talk to them,” she said. “They found me, not the other way around.”
“So why do you lie about it?” he said with an impatient shrug. “And why did that wizard not stop their attack until you spoke to her yesterday? Why did you not speak up for me after the first time, if you had the opportunity? You might have spared me a scar.”
Ash guiltily clutched the book in her bag. “I tried…” she said, convincing not even herself.
Drizzt opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. He shook his head, looking unspeakably disappointed and frustrated. Ash could see the feeling of betrayal on his face, and it made her chest ache.
He nodded to the east, the direction they’d been traveling. “Guen and I are going this way,” he said flatly. “I think you should find a different way to walk, from now on.”
The words struck a lot harder than she would have expected. The suddenness of the rejection filled her with shock and dismay, and then anger, like a branch drawn back and then snapped forward when released.
She was too angry and proud to try to protest. “If that’s what you want,” she said cooly. “Then go.”
He gave her one last look, and she hoped he was about to reconsider. But he turned, and walked on. Guen paused to send a judgemental look in her direction just before they disappeared into the brush in the distance. And then they were gone.
Birds chirped softly in the nearby trees. It was the only sound in the woods, now that Drizzt’s soft footsteps were gone.
“Fine,” she muttered. “Go.” Giving a snort of disgust, she turned and started south.
When she woke up the next morning, she looked around for Drizzt before remembering what had happened the previous day.
A deep, bitter sense of loss came over her. He had become just another in a long line of people who had rejected her for one reason or another.
As she got up and went about her morning routine, she felt a little heavier than usual, as if the loneliness were a physical weight on her shoulders. She frowned down at her things as she packed, punching each item angrily into her bag.
He was going to regret leaving her. Why was he being like this? How did he think he would get along without her? It would be his own fault if something happened to him. If he wasn’t so oversensitive…
A small spike of pain cut through her anger as that thought came to her. She didn’t really want anything bad to happen to him. And it seemed likely that something would, if she wasn’t there to help him. She had been his one connection to the rest of the surface world.
She looked up at the hills around her, with some small, impossible hope that she might suddenly see him or Guen somewhere in the distance. She saw nothing, of course. They were long gone.
She walked south, toward Marwood.
She played the argument over and over in her mind, without really wanting to. She couldn’t not think about it. The more she thought about it, the more she cringed at how she must have sounded. If she’d just had a little more patience, she could have explained things better. Sometimes she wished that she had more time to think about her words before she said them. For her, the first response that came to mind was usually the wrong one.
She should have tried harder to explain what had happened with Kelle and Erith before. There was no doubt that she had wronged Drizzt, but if he had understood her desperation to keep hold of the spellbook--her desperation not to anger the people who’d given it to her--perhaps he would have forgiven her weakness in that moment. She realized now that she had not even apologized for it, or for lying to him about it. Why hadn’t she just apologized?
This is why you have befriended me? So that I can kill your enemies?
That was the part that had hurt the most. She wondered if he really thought that.
The more she thought about it, the more her anger faded into regret and loneliness and frustration with herself.
She walked very slowly. The first few days alone felt extraordinarily empty. Being by herself had not felt so terrible back when she had first left the village, but now that she had been reminded of what it was like to have a friend, it was worse than ever. She was alone again, back to where she’d begun this journey.
And yet, things were so different now than they’d been a month ago. The wilderness was beginning to feel like home, and she felt nearly as comfortable in it as she did anywhere else. She read Kelle’s book obsessively--she had read it cover to cover five times already--and she practiced the spells she already knew for a large portion of every day. Six of them. She had mastered six spells now. And each time she cast them, they got a little easier, came a little faster.
After several days spent in self-indulgent depression while lazily fishing, practicing spells, and basking in the waning sun of the beginning of autumn, she reluctantly accepted that Drizzt was not coming back, and life began to fall back into a familiar rhythm. With it came another familiar itch.
She began to walk with a little more purpose. Because she had things to do, still. Things that she was free to pursue now that no one was there to shame her for them.
Maybe Drizzt was right. Maybe she was still just resentful about what had happened to her. But so what? Why shouldn’t she be? Wasn’t that her right? Didn’t she deserve at least that small freedom, after everything that had happened? And didn’t she deserve to find out what her would-be executioners had been doing since she left? Didn’t she deserve justice? Didn’t Rachel?
She was going to find Rainer, and she was going to do what needed to be done.
It was odd how little the village had changed.
It wasn’t really, she supposed. But it did feel strange, coming back after so long and finding it still there, unbothered by her absence. The Fletcher children played by the pond on the far end of the village. Holly and Reyna Gwyn were loading up a cart with goods to take to town, working quickly to finish before nightfall. Smoke rose languidly from chimneys as people prepared dinner. Life had gone on without her, as if she’d never been there to begin with.
She watched them from the trees on the hillside beside the village, where she leaned into the shadow of a large cottonwood. Now that she was there, she didn’t know exactly what she had meant to do there. For a long time she just watched, and was not sure what she was feeling.
The village was arranged roughly along a single large clearing between two hills, in a long U shape. Near the middle of the village was Ash’s plot. From where she stood, she could just see the thatch roof of her house. A morbid curiosity gripped her. It would do no good to go there. She knew that. But she had to see.
She backed up, careful to avoid any chance of being seen, and crept the long way around toward the house.
By the Kendricks’ house, where the open field behind their house met the brush, was a recently dead goat. Ash snorted. The sickness that had taken the other animals had taken this one also, well after the village witch had gone. Perhaps if they’d tried to find the real reason for the deaths instead of blaming her, the poor thing would have survived.
When she had rounded the entire village and lurked in the brush behind her house, she paused for a long time, waiting to be sure that no one would suddenly emerge from the house and catch her. That was not a confrontation she wanted to deal with at the moment.
The house looked mostly unchanged from her memory of it, though she noticed right away that a few things were not as she had left them. A rake leaned against the chicken hut, as if someone had been cleaning and hadn’t yet put it away, and a ladder that she’d been using while repairing the roof had been taken away somewhere. She felt a little surge of possessiveness, which she knew was foolish at this point. She disliked the idea of other people touching her things, on principle.
Her throat tightened as her eyes fell on the grave markers standing in the field behind the house. Those had been left alone. Whoever had moved her things had some respect for the dead, at least.
She took a breath, gathering her courage, then darted across the short field and approached the back porch.
“Stupid,” she said under her breath as she ducked against the back wall. “This is stupid.” But she had to know.
She looked up at the windowsill above her. It looked into the main living space, toward the front door. The curtains were open, and there were no sounds coming from within the house. She took another breath, then raised her head above the sill and peered inside.
It was undoubtedly her house--the shape of it was the same as when she’d left, but that was all that was the same. The flesh and blood of her family’s home had all been picked away, leaving only an austere skeleton of what had been. Her aunt’s charcoal drawings on the mantle had all been taken down, probably thrown away. Her mother’s books were nowhere to be seen--the shelf was now filled with pots and jars of something or other. The kettles and hearth that had been strewn with a proper, homey amount of ashes and spilled grease were now meticulously clean, as if no one had used them in weeks. A shield of Tyr decorated one wall.
Other things had been disgustingly cannibalized for the purposes of whoever was living there now. The bear pelt that had covered her bed, the one that her mother had shot and skinned for her and that Ash had used since she was a baby, now hung on the wall like a mere hunting trophy--like something created out of pride and garish violent impulse rather than love.
He had really done it. Rainer had taken the opportunity to move out of his family’s house and into hers. Blood pumped, cold and furious, in Ash’s ears. How dare he? How dare he?
Before she’d left, he had been courting some girl from Greenwater. Had this been his plan all along? To steal Ash’s home out from under her so that he could take it and ask his girl to marry him?
She ducked below the windowsill again, seething.
If she wanted to, she could take back what was hers, and she could give him what he deserved. She could show all of them that there was justice in the world--that she wouldn’t have people walking all over her. That she wasn’t powerless anymore.
She could kill him.
She could enthrall him, and order him to walk off a cliff. She could float him into the air and then shoot arrows at him until one hit home. She could burn the entire house down, for that matter. Her grandparents had built that house. If their lone descendant couldn’t have it, no one else should, either.
She closed her eyes, shaking her head. She should not have come back. She couldn’t really do any of those things. Could she? No, of course she couldn’t. Was she mad? Was she? Rainer had tried to kill her. Why should she feel guilty for wanting to return the favor? Clearly he felt no guilt for what he’d done.
There was a shout and a scream from the road on the other side of the house.
She jumped. All her grand ideas disappeared behind a curtain of terror as she searched to see who had spotted her. She pressed herself tight against the wall and looked for a place to hide. She tried to think of a spell, but suddenly all the words had gone from her mind.
Then more shouting came, and to Ash’s relief, it was growing quieter, as if it was moving away from her. She heard the voices grow muffled as they moved along the other side of the house and down the way.
As her racing heart slowed, she peered around the corner of the house. On the path through the middle of the village, people were gathering, staring at something down the road with concerned expressions. Frowning, Ash turned and crept around the back of the house to look around the other side. A small crowd--large by Marwood standards--had gathered on the road. They gave a wide berth to the men who walked in the middle of them. Daring to stand up to get a better view, Ash caught sight of the tip of a long bow, and short hunting bows in the hands of some of the others.
Standing on her toes, she was able to make out the group in the center of the crowd as they walked further down the road. Her heart sank. She recognized all of them. Erith on the left, Rainer on the right, and between them, Drizzt--the reason for the screams and stares. His arms were bound behind him, and five of the village men followed close by--but not too close, she noticed--with bows and arrows held ready.
What in the world was he doing there?
Ash pressed her hand to her forehead as she watched them continue down the road, shaking her head in helpless disbelief. Her concerns about Rainer and her house seemed so unimportant and far away, suddenly. How had things gone so wrong so quickly? How could they have captured him, even with Erith’s help? He didn’t seem to be injured. Surely he hadn’t given himself up? Guen was nowhere in sight. Neither was Kelle, for that matter.
Drizzt gave no resistance as they walked. There was little point. Even so, the men with the bows around him looked ready for him to attack at any moment. Parents pulled away their children when they got too close. Erith, who was looking quite smug, was the only one without a weapon drawn.
Ash followed the crowd from behind the houses, keeping low in the tall grass. No one looked her way. Why would they, when there was this spectacle to watch? She stopped beside a shed behind Sharlin’s house, her eyes still on the crowd.
She tried to imagine what she could possibly do to fight through an entire village to save him. She knew they would kill him if she didn’t do something. In fact, she wondered why they hadn’t they done it yet. Did they mean to interrogate him, if they could find a way to communicate with him? Maybe Erith really did mean to bring him back to Neverwinter?
Rainer pointed at something on the side of the road at the end of the row of houses--a rarely used hitching post. Erith gave a curt nod in reply. The crowd shifted, and someone shoved Drizzt to the ground beside the post. From there, the crowd obscured her view of what was happening.
Ash’s nails dug into her palms. She almost ran out into the street to beg them to stop. She had no other ideas.
But then the crowd parted enough for her to see. Drizzt sat with his back against the post. One of the men stood as he finished tying Drizzt’s arms around it. Ash could see the nervousness in the darting of Drizzt’s eyes. He tried to say something--earning himself a kick in the stomach from Rainer. Ash flinched, as did most in the crowd, startled by the sudden movement. A few of them clapped or sighed with relief, as if Rainer had saved them from some great danger. Ash felt the urge to vomit.
The crowd continued to gawk as Rainer bent down in front of Drizzt, smiling at him in an arrogant sort of way. He casually reached forward and grabbed a fistful of the drow’s hair, forcing Drizzt’s head back to look up at him. He said something very seriously that Ash couldn’t make out but she assumed was a threat--for the villagers’ benefit, not Drizzt’s, obviously. He was helpless already. Threats would not make it more so. The villagers seemed impressed by the show, anyway.
He said something else, and waited a moment, as if expecting a response. Drizzt either didn’t understand or chose not to answer. When the silence grew too long, Rainer suddenly struck him hard across the face. Ash gasped along with the rest of the crowd.
Rainer said whatever it was again. Drizzt glared at him. A line of blood leaked from his nose. He started to say something--something impolite, judging by his expression--and received another slap for his efforts. After that he ducked his head in a feeble attempt to shield himself from the attacks. But now Rainer was too caught up in the assault to stop, encouraged by the many approving voices behind him. He struck again and again, as if to beat all traces of rebellion from him. The gap in the crowd closed, blocking Ash’s view. They were cheering. They were actually cheering.
Erith stepped forward finally and rested a hand on Rainer’s shoulder, gently pulling him away. Rainer smiled and stood without acknowledging him, as if to convey that he’d already finished what he’d meant to do anyway.
Drizzt was somehow still conscious. His nose and mouth were streaked with blood. Still hunched in on himself, as if to defend from further attacks, he watched the crowd of humans around him with a resigned hurt and unease.
Ash spun around the corner of the back of the shed, resting her back against the wall. Her chest heaved with every tight breath. Her hands were balled in shuddering fists. She heard her own breath and the blood pumping in her ears, and the sound of the crowd faded behind her. Everything around her disappeared in the dizzying fugue of her rage. It took over all her senses, all her thoughts, consuming her.
She threw open the door to the shed. There was a pitchfork. A stack of wooden planks. Two shovels. An axe. A pile of shears, hammers, saws.
She chanted. Somehow the fury seemed to fuel the spell, rather than breaking her concentration. Power sprouted from somewhere inside her and whirled and grew, so strong that she almost feared losing control of it. As she spoke, she spread her hands, and all the objects around her jerked up into the air and hovered there, ready to do as she bid.
It surprised her how easy it was--how easily she would be able to take all of these things outside and destroy anyone who challenged her. No one could stop her. A nervous sweat dripped down her temple. The things all hung in the air, trembling slightly with the latent power of the spell.
She paused, staring at the rusted tips of the pitchfork. She imagined them impaling a human body. A cold, hollow feeling settled into the depths of her stomach.
Suddenly she saw what she looked like--what she would look like to them. Her fury slowly transformed into horror. She didn’t know who she had become in those moments just then, but that person frightened her.
What had she been thinking this whole time? What had been in her head when she’d talked so brashly about killing Rainer with Drizzt, back before they’d separated? She couldn’t kill anyone. The people out there were people she knew. People she’d grown up beside. By the gods, what would her family have thought if they’d seen her like this?
She dropped the implements to the floor.
She covered her face with her hands, shaking her head. “Gods,” she whispered helplessly. Her shoulders shook with a quiet sob.
A knot of guilt tightened in her stomach. This was weakness. Someone with more courage would have done it. Drizzt needed her. Everything that was happening out there was wrong. She had to do something. But she couldn’t.
She leaned against the door. She was shaking and weak, as if all the energy that had gone into feeling so much at once had drained her. She took a deep breath, then opened the door and peered around the corner again.
Drizzt was staring straight ahead at nothing, avoiding meeting the gaze of anyone around. The crowd around him had mostly dispersed, probably more because Erith and some of the other bow-wielders had left than because their interest had waned. Three men stood on either side of him. Guards. Only one carried a sword--the others had hunting bows. Swords were not a common commodity in small villages without any soldiers. Ash spotted Orin carrying Drizzt’s swords off somewhere.
Rainer still loitered nearby, basking in his facade of heroism. Ash could not see where Erith had gone, but she didn’t doubt he was watching from somewhere nearby.
So they were not going to kill him quite yet. She had time, though she didn’t know how much. Taking a steadying breath, she went back inside the shed. She hoisted herself into the loft and behind some moldering bales of hay, where she would be hidden from anyone who entered. On the wall was a small ventilation window, through which she could see the road below. If she bent down, she could keep an eye on Drizzt, too.
She sat back, and started formulating a plan.
Ash decided to wait until nightfall, when most of the village would be asleep, or at least inside. The darkness would hide her from everyone but Drizzt and Erith--a net positive, she thought.
She craned her neck sideways so she could watch the hitching post. Every once in a while someone would pass by, and Drizzt would glance up nervously with only his eyes. The time passed achingly slowly. Heat rose in the shed, with the afternoon sun shining on it and with her sitting so close to the roof. The smell of damp hay was dense and close.
From somewhere far off, Rainer’s voice reached her. Loud, and too happy. She frowned. Even from a distance, the voice set her on edge. She bent until she was lying flat on the floor to peek through the window, and found him just on the edge of her range of vision, a ways down the road. A horse-drawn wagon--which must have been from a neighboring town, because Ash didn’t recognize the riders--was stopped beside the Kendricks’ house, and Rainer was approaching it. He was smiling. Not the same smile he gave Ash or Drizzt. A real smile.
As she watched, a girl around Ash’s own age leapt from the wagon and ran to him. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, grinning. Then the older man who’d been riding in the wagon beside her came and, not too gently, separated them. He gave them both a disapproving look. Rainer and the girl exchanged a knowing glance, and looked to be holding back laughter.
It was weird seeing Rainer look genuinely happy, without any pretense or malice. It occurred to Ash that he was not a very happy person, usually, though he made plenty of effort to hide that.
“You’re the one stealing my house, then?” Ash muttered to the girl. She wondered if she realized what a bastard she was involved with. What a day she’d chosen to visit, too.
She tilted her head to look down at Drizzt. His face was pointed carefully down toward the ground, but he was watching everyone who walked by, as if keeping track of them. Ash wondered if he was trying to find a way to escape. She wished she could tell him she was there. Perhaps he would find it reassuring.
Or, perhaps he was tired of humans in general and would rather not see her again.
A couple hours had passed before she heard the door to the shed creak open.
Ash sucked in a breath. She hunched below the bales of hay, and held completely still as she began chanting very softly. She had not thought anyone would come in, but she had prepared for the possibility. She couldn’t let anyone alert the rest of the village to her presence.
There was a scuffling as the intruder moved about the floor below her. Go away , Ash begged them silently.
There was a scrape and a single knock against the wood of the loft. When she looked over, a ladder had appeared against the edge of the loft. Footsteps tapped softly against the ladder rungs. She tensed, waiting for whoever it was to show themselves so that she could attack.
A small, brown-haired head and large, dark eyes appeared above the edge of the loft. Ash froze. It was Kala. Sharlin’s daughter. Her neighbor two houses down. She would be nine years old that winter.
Ash stopped chanting, without really meaning to, and all the power she’d built up into the spell dissipated. She didn’t move, afraid that any sudden action would send the girl running.
Kala stared at her, shocked. She looked frightened at first, but then must have seen the look of fear on Ash’s face. The girl grew emboldened by the realization that Ash was as alarmed by her presence as Kala was by hers, and her expression turned to one of indignant suspicion.
“What are you doing in my shed?” Kala demanded.
Ash tried to think of something she could say that would convince the girl to trust her. There was nothing she could think of that would explain her presence better than the truth, though she was loathe to speak it.
She sighed. “Hiding.”
It was only then that she noticed the sketchbook and charcoal lying in the corner of the loft, next to a neatly laid-out row of whittled wooden animals and a meticulously curated pile of walking sticks, stripped of bark and sometimes tipped in black from being poked in a fire. This was a child’s playroom. Ash felt stupid for not noticing before. “I didn’t know it was your shed. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
Kala tilted her head. She had expected a more combative attitude, no doubt. “You’re here for that dark elf,” she accused.
Ash raised her eyebrows. “Why do you say that?”
“That other elf said you would come to help him. They’re all looking for you.”
That was why they hadn’t killed him yet. Rainer and Erith still wanted her, for some petty reason she couldn’t quite understand. They were using Drizzt to try and draw her out, not realizing that they had parted ways some time ago. Ironic that the ploy had ended up working anyway.
“Why would you help him?” Kala asked, disapproving. “He’s evil.”
“Who told you that?”
She looked confused by the question. She shrugged. “Everyone knows.”
“Did they tell you I was evil, too?”
Kala bit her lip, looking a little embarrassed to say what she’d heard to Ash’s face. It was a lot easier to think badly of someone when you weren’t having a civil conversation with them, Ash thought.
The two of them had not been on bad terms, before she’d left. Ash generally liked children--more than she liked other people. They were straightforward and mostly happy and not very judgemental.
“I’ll bet that drow didn’t hurt anyone, did he?” Ash pointed out. “If he were really evil, wouldn’t he have attacked anyone he could get his hands on?”
“Because he was so scared,” Kala said, looking up at her with wide brown eyes. “That’s what Rainer said. They found him when they were out in the woods hunting. He was too scared to fight, because Rainer and my brother and the others were there. He just gave up.”
Ash frowned. She doubted that story, but now was not the time to question it. She gestured for Kala to join her on the loft. “Come here. Look.” She pointed out the window.
Kala paused, then climbed onto the loft and knelt beside her, apparently set at ease by Ash’s casual demeanor. She wore an incredibly stained and worn dress--not because her mother didn’t clean it, but because Kala spent so much time running through the woods and around the pond that anything she wore was ruined beyond repair within days. She was rarely seen without dirt smeared on her cheeks. More than once, Ash had seen her in the nearby woods, fighting imaginary monsters with imaginary swords. Usually she was alone. Ash could see more than a little of herself in the girl.
Kala peered out the window. Drizzt was staring dully at the road in front of him, looking admirably stoic considering his situation. Dried blood was smeared over his face, and dirt and bits of leaves stuck in his hair, presumably from falling or being dragged. Kala shifted uncomfortably.
“Does he scare you?” Ash asked.
Kala frowned at her, not wanting to admit any fear.
“Just because you’re scared of something, does that mean it’s evil?”
Kala paused. “No,” she admitted reluctantly. “But everyone says—”
“They’re scared, too.”
Kala considered this as she looked out at Drizzt, still mistrustful.
“Kala,” Ash said, worrying the hem of her shirt. “I know you’re a smart girl. You want to do the right thing. But the right thing is not always what folk tell you it is.” She raised her eyebrows conspiratorially at the girl. “Perhaps you should go speak to him. See if you still think he’s evil, after you see him up close.”
Kala’s eyes widened. But the draw of a challenge won her over. She nodded, then sat back on her heels, still watching the drow with undisguised interest. After a few moments, she turned to Ash. “Are you really a witch?” she asked, wrinkling her brow skeptically.
“Yes,” Ash said. “But I didn’t hex Rainer’s goats.”
Kala gave her a look that seemed, surprisingly, more impressed than disapproving. “The other day, Rainer yelled at me and broke my stick after I accidentally splashed mud on his nice shirt, and then he said he didn’t do it after I told my mom and brother. I told them he was lying, but they didn’t believe me. I hate him.”
Ash crossed her arms. “You should stay away from him.”
“He should stay away from me!” she countered.
The girl cast another cautious look out the window before grabbing one of the walking sticks and crawling back to the ladder. She paused at the bottom and looked up at Ash again.
“I won’t tell them you’re here,” she said with a mischievous smile. Clearly she enjoyed having a secret, especially one that would annoy Rainer.
Ash smiled, relieved. “Thank you, Kala.”
Kala gave a dutiful nod, then left, shutting the door behind her.
Ash waited only a few seconds after the door closed before leaping down to the floor. She cracked the door open, made certain that Kala had gone, then darted across the field behind the shed. She didn’t stop until she’d made it into the cover of the forest beyond. She ducked into a bush, and stilled. She heard no shouts of alarm, no footsteps. No one had seen her.
From her new hiding spot, she had a clear, albeit faraway view of the hitching post by the road. Kala wasted no time whatsoever in fulfilling her promise. She marched straight across the road, like someone on a mission of utmost importance, dragging her stick along as she went. She slowed when she reached the middle of the road, still well away from Drizzt and his guards. The four of them looked up as the girl approached. One of the guards made a motion, warning her not to come too close.
Drizzt eyed the stick apprehensively, then watched the girl curiously as she stared. Her posture was decidedly stiffer now that she was in front of him. She gripped handfuls of her dress nervously. Ash saw her say something to him. The guards exchanged a skeptical look.
Drizzt gave a small, amused smile, despite the circumstances, as Ash had guessed he would. He said nothing, but bowed his head once in a friendly nod.
One of the guards kicked him. Kala jumped in surprise. The guard shooed her away, more forcefully this time. Kala stared at the wincing drow a moment longer, then turned and looked directly at the window in the shed behind her, frowning with confusion and disapproval. Ash cringed, and was glad she’d moved.
The only person in Marwood who wasn’t out to get her was an eight year old--but Ash supposed that was better than nothing.
Ash waited until well into the night, when the entire village was cloaked in darkness and most of the lights had gone out, before emerging from the forest.
Torches were lit along the road through the village, casting dim orange light in flickering spheres around them. Two of the guards near Drizzt held torches of their own. Ash did not go to them just yet.
She crept around to one of the houses she’d passed earlier--Orin and Zelda’s home. Crickets chirped as she shuffled softly over the grass. She listened at a back window for a minute, then peered inside the house. There was a low fire still burning in the hearth, and Zelda and her young daughter, Anna, were asleep in front of it. No one else was in the room.
She lifted herself over the window sill and into the room, her feet barely making a sound on the floor. She paused, looking around the dim room. It didn’t take long to locate what she was searching for. Drizzt’s swords sat in a bundle, still on their belt, on the mantle above the hearth.
She crept up to the fire. Every sound seemed magnified in the quiet, with only the crickets and the soft crackling of the fire to cover any sounds she made. A floorboard creaked beneath her. She froze, wincing, and waited to see if anyone had heard. The girl in front of the fire shifted, but didn’t wake.
Ash reached forward and lifted the swords delicately from the mantle, somehow managing to make no sound while doing it. As she was buckling the sword belt around her waist, her eyes fell on a long, dark wool cloak hanging on a hook by the door. It was Zelda’s--one of her most prized possessions. The intricate embroidered design along the edges made it instantly recognizable as hers. Ash smiled.
She grabbed the cloak from the wall, fastened it over her shoulders, and left the way she’d come in.
If what Kala had said was true--and Ash had no reason to doubt her--Erith and the others would be expecting her to show up. She hadn’t seen Erith since he’d left earlier that day, which she guessed meant that he was hiding out somewhere, waiting for her to appear so that he could catch both of them. There would be little chance for her to take them by surprise. Her best chance would be to get to Drizzt and get out as quickly and quietly as possible. She still had seen no sign of Kelle, which she hoped meant that the woman wasn’t there. The presence of another wizard could destroy any possibility of escape.
She did not particularly like her chances, overall. But the other option was doing nothing, and that was not truly an option.
The one advantage she had was that they did not know how much power she had gained in the short time since she’d left the village. She reminded herself of that as she crouched in the tall grass at the end of the village. She looked out at the quiet, torchlit road, and began a chant.
There was a soft footstep behind her, and she choked on her words in surprise. She started to turn to look, and then cold metal touched her throat. A sharp edge nicked at her skin. She stopped moving.
“Stay where you are,” came Erith’s calm voice.
Erith, still holding his shortsword at Ash’s throat, walked around to look at her straight on. In the darkness, she could hardly see him, but she could still make out the bored look on his face. She glared up at him from her crouch in the grass.
“I knew you would come back here,” he said, raising a judgemental eyebrow.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Do I look like a common murderer to you?”
“No, I’m not going to kill you.” He paused, then added smugly, “I am not a drow elf, after all.”
“If you bring me to Rainer, he will kill me.”
“Rainer?” he asked. Then a spark of recognition came over his face, and he snorted. “The one with the hair? I cannot understand how someone so young and so annoying became the leader of an entire village--even a village like this one.”
Ash might have laughed, if her circumstances had been less dire. “He is no one’s leader. He just acts like he is.”
“Whatever he is, he does not seem like someone with the heart to kill. That’s why they left you for dead, rather than finishing the deed themselves. But that isn’t my concern.” He tapped her chin very lightly with the sword. “Get up.”
Ash slowly stood. Erith’s sword followed her all the way up.
“Keep your hands up,” he said, and circled around behind her again. The sword finally left her throat, and she felt his hand grip the back of the collar of her cloak. “Walk,” he commanded.
She walked. He steered her toward the road to the center of the village.
“Kelle left you?” Ash guessed.
There was an annoyed hitch in Erith’s steps. “She will not be here to sabotage me this time, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said. “She has returned to Neverwinter. She claimed to be having doubts about our objective. I suppose I can blame you for that?”
“You can blame her good conscience.”
He didn’t reply. They were getting closer to the torches. Soon, they would be in view of the rest of the village. Ash swallowed hard.
Still feeling the phantom of the blade against her skin, she began soundlessly chanting. Her fingers wove, very slow and very slightly. Her hands were in full view. If she moved them any more than that, he would notice. Casting without the aid of voice or movements was difficult even for skilled mages. She did not really expect it to work. But she had cast a spell silently once before, hadn’t she? She had seen Kelle cast without chanting at all.
“I tried to help you,” Erith commented, apparently oblivious to her casting. “I don’t think you are like him. You are misguided, that’s all.”
Ash kept chanting. They had reached the road. Their feet padded softly over the dirt. The guards posted ahead still hadn’t seen them.
“But there is no reason you shouldn’t be held accountable for your own decisions. It’s a shame you were so invested in this foolishness.”
Ash’s lips moved, silent but brimming with the full force of her will. She could feel the spell forming inside of her. The magic struggled against her, frustrated by the tiny motions of her hands and the silence from her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced all of her anger, all of her desperation and fear, into the spell, and commanded it to work.
And then, suddenly, the magic snapped into place. Ash’s surprise almost broke her concentration. Almost. The spell held still inside her, caged by pure, perfect focus and waiting to be released on her word.
She was afraid to even breathe, but she made herself speak. “Erith…” she said, careful not to let the spell break as she spoke. She stopped walking, because walking and talking and holding the spell was too much to handle at once. “You said you could help me.” She swallowed, nearly shaking with effort. “Would you let me ask you a favor?”
He paused. Ash was relieved not to feel a swordpoint at her back yet. “Yes?” he sighed finally.
She slowly turned toward him. She was not sure if it was out of pity or out of a lack of faith in her abilities, but he let her. She looked into his eyes, and put her hand on his wrist.
He had tried to pull away as she reached forward, but it was too late. She watched his eyes go from surprised to blank and heavy-lidded. His body seemed to relax. The arm that held the sword lowered to his side. He looked at her, his expression vague and lacking all hostility.
Ash stared. It had worked. And it turned her stomach just as much as it had when she’d done it to Drizzt.
Now that the spell was out of her, her mind raced. She had to figure out a way to get rid of him. A dark part of her wondered how much he would resist if she just took his sword and killed him with it. She shook her head, wondering where these thoughts came from. Erith just stared at her.
When she used this spell on her animals, she had found that commands that aligned with the animal’s wants were more likely to work. A command that seemed too difficult, or too undesirable, would not always take.
She remembered Drizzt breaking out of the spell, not long after she’d cast it. The spell had a delicate hold, at best. If she asked the wrong thing of Erith, would he break out of the spell’s influence? He was not a gnoll. His mind was strong. He would not listen if she simply told him to stop chasing Drizzt. His emotions towards the dark elves ran too strong.
What did Erith really want? What could she ask of him that he would want to agree to?
The elf frowned slightly, as if silently questioning something. Ash panicked. She had to say something before the spell wore off.
“I am not your enemy,” she whispered, looking directly into his eyes. He stared back at her, rapt. “You don’t want to fight me.”
The frown faded slightly as he stared. The unblinking focus of his eyes made her shift uncomfortably. It was unnatural.
“You’re tired,” Ash went on. “You don’t need to be here. The village is safe now. You want to go home to Neverwinter. You want to find Kelle and apologize to her.” Ash tensed. Perhaps that last part had been too much.
Erith stared at her for a few long seconds, and then his expression changed in a way she’d never seen before. He looked...sad.
“Go,” she whispered, nodding down the road. Erith stared. Then, slowly, he slid his sword into its sheath, turned, and started down the road.
When he was nearly out of sight and showed no sign of stopping, Ash breathed a relieved sigh. She did not know how long the spell would last. Certainly it wouldn’t be enough for him to make it even a quarter of the distance to Neverwinter. But perhaps it would be long enough for her to get out of Marwood once and for all.
It was only one obstacle out of the way. There were many more still to go.
She moved to the shadows of a house nearby, and started her chant again. Compared to the spell she’d just cast, it felt like nothing. A few moments passed as she chanted, and then a fog began gradually rising in the village, seemingly out of the very ground. The gray haze slowly thickened until Ash could not see more than ten feet in front of her. She saw the guards by Drizzt exchange a concerned look before the fog obscured them from view.
Satisfied, Ash climbed to her feet, tucked her dark hair behind her ears, and pulled her hood up over her head to shade her face. She was about Zelda’s age and size, and their features were not so dissimilar. But the hair would give her away. Zelda’s was long and bright red.
She pulled Zelda’s cloak around her sides to cover the swords at her hips, then jogged toward the hitching post, making sure to breathe hard as if she’d been running for some time. The scabbards slapped against her legs as she ran. How did anyone manage to wear these all day?
The guards by the post looked up, raising bows, as she approached. Talen, Oskar, and Elva. All three of them had been present during her pseudo execution. She recognized them more by their posture and builds than by their faces. They were hard to make out in the darkness and fog. Exactly as she’d intended. Drizzt spared her a sideways glance, hardly moving. He’d probably been kicked too many times not to be wary. He did not seem to recognize her.
“Help! Please help,” she said, managing a fairly spot-on imitation of Zelda’s soft voice. She slowed to a stop several yards away from them. “Ash Blackbough is here. She was in our house. Orin’s gone after her.” She waited, breathless. Drizzt glanced up at the mention of her name.
The guards exchanged a glance, hesitating a long moment. Ash held her breath, her heart pounding. They were going to see through the disguise.
But then the tips of their arrows lowered slightly.
“Which way did they go?” Talen asked.
“There,” Ash said, pointing down the road toward the pond at the end of the village, where the road curved. “They went into the woods, and I saw them heading that way.”
“Go get Karsten or Reyna,” Talen said. “We can’t leave the drow. Where is that damned elf? He was supposed to be watching the road.”
“I already knocked on Rainer’s door. He’s still getting himself together. He said to get one of you to go after Orin. No one else is awake.” She put on the near-crying whine that Zelda’s voice sometimes took on when she was upset. “Please, there’s no time. They could be out of the village by now. Orin could be hurt. I can’t go after them alone.”
Another exchange of nervous and frustrated glances. Talen sighed. “Elva. Go.”
Elva’s eyes widened. He was the youngest and most nervous-looking of the three. But he nodded obediently, took one of the torches, and followed Ash as she turned to run back down the road. He was Kala’s older brother, but he shared none of her adventurous spirit or confidence.
“Slow down, will you? I can hardly see,” he said as he hurried to keep up with her.
“There are lives at stake, Elva,” she reminded him.
“Yes...of course. Sorry,” he said, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. The fog covered everything. For all he knew, there may have been something lurking only a few feet away.
They stopped beside the pond at the edge of the village. Beyond it was thick forest, impenetrably dark in the night.
Ash whispered and made a quick motion with her hand, disguised to look as if she were brushing hair away from her face. As she did so, a small indentation appeared in the mud at the edge of the pond--almost the shape of a footprint.
“Look,” Ash said, pointing it out. She nodded toward the trees. “They must have gone in there.”
Elva stared into the trees, pale-faced. He swallowed tightly. “I don’t hear anything.”
He watched and listened for a few moments longer, holding the torch out in front of him. The light revealed little.
“It might not have been them, Zelda,” he said quietly, clearly hoping to be let off the hook. “That print could have been from earlier today. Maybe Orin went back home already.”
He turned to look at her, holding the torch aloft. Ash quickly shielded her face.
“Don’t shine that in my face.”
“Oh. Sorry.” He bit his lip. “Maybe...maybe we should wait for help. I don’t know if I should—”
“The others told you to help me,” she said, her voice dropping to a tone that was probably just a note too sharp to realistically pass as Zelda. Elva winced anyway, too nervous to notice the discrepancy. Ash thought Elva would do almost anything if someone demanded it of him. She almost felt bad using his meekness against him. In less desperate circumstances, she would have found it distasteful. “Just go look, please?”
Elva shifted uncomfortably, then started forward. He peered over his shoulder once as he entered the trees, to make sure she was still there. Ash clasped her hands in front of her, the picture of a worried wife. Elva turned and walked further into the forest. “Orin?” he whispered into the darkness. “Are you here? Ash?”
Ash waited until he had taken fifty steps into the forest and his light was dimming behind the trees. Then she turned on her heel and started back to the village. Elva continued to call softly into the night.
With Erith and Elva gone, only two guards remained. Ash could not have taken all four of them in a fight--but two, perhaps, was possible.
She circled around behind the hitching post, keeping low and out of the torchlight. She could hear the guards’ voices before she could see them. She crept just close enough to see their outlines in the fog, then stopped.
“We should wake the others,” Oskar said. “Rainer is taking too long. Something’s wrong.” He peered up the road, where they would have been able to see houses if the fog had not been so thick. The hitching post was at the edge of the village. Slightly outside of it, even. Only one of the houses was within easy shouting distance.
“That elf is the one who should be taking care of that,” Talen grumbled. “Where in the world is the bastard? What, did he fall asleep?”
“I don’t know, but we need help. One of us should go.”
“I’m not staying here alone with the drow,” Talen snapped, glancing down at Drizzt suspiciously. Drizzt sat very straight and still, clearly aware that something odd was happening, but avoiding any movement for fear of arousing suspicion.
“He’s tied up. He can’t do anything.”
“You stay here with him then, and I’ll go!”
Oskar stiffened uncomfortably, and didn’t reply. Neither of them made a move to leave.
Ash sighed, and whispered a chant.
“You shouldn’t talk like that while he can hear,” Oskar said quietly. “You can’t show fear around a dark elf. It only makes them more bloodthirsty.”
“He can’t understand us. He only speaks his demon language.”
“The elf said Ash can speak to him,” Oskar pointed out.
“The witch also knows demon language. What a surprise.”
A long silence passed. Oskar gave a small, nervous laugh. “You know how Zelda is,” he said. “She probably saw a raccoon.”
As he spoke, Ash’s wind spell took effect. Her control had improved over the past weeks. A small, targeted gust rustled a bush across the road, sounding very much like a large animal or a person moving through the leaves. Both of the men jumped.
“A raccoon?” Talen said dryly.
“Go--Go look,” Oskar said to Talen.
“ You go look,” Talen whispered back harshly.
Oskar shot him a glare, then raised his bow and started toward the opposite side of the street.
Ash took a steadying breath. She was beginning to feel the strain of too many spells in too short a time. She didn’t know how many more she would be able to cast. But she had no time to rest. She began another chant as soon as Oskar started walking.
“Who’s there?” Oskar said to the bush. As he reached the middle of the street, he faded completely into the fog.
Talen gripped the hilt of his sword and peered around nervously.
Ash closed her eyes, summoning all the strength she had left in her. She stood, and stepped forward into the glow cast by Talen’s torch. He turned just as she swept her arm sideways, commanding a magical blast that sent him flying into the house closest to them. He cried out as he slammed into the wall, then slid down it and stilled on the ground. Drizzt flinched. The torch fell to the ground near the post, dimming the light.
Ash staggered, leaning against the post. Her head had begun to ache, and she felt suddenly weak.
“Talen?” came Oskar’s voice from the fog. He edged closer to the hitching post, bow raised cautiously. Ash could see it shaking slightly, from the effort of holding it or from fear. Probably both. “Talen…?” he ventured again. He was close enough now that Ash could make out his face. His eyes darted from Talen’s unmoving body to her.
Ash, breathing hard, threw back her hood and started toward him, arms raised as if to cast again. She didn’t know what came over her to make her think herself capable of intimidating anyone. A month ago, the idea would have seemed absurd. But as she stepped toward Oskar, the man stopped, eyes wide. A strange, exhilarated rush went through her.
“ Leave ,” she commanded him, her voice harsh and bold and frightening.
Oskar, realizing who she was, and that he was alone, gaped at her. He paused for only a moment before turning and running the other way, shouting for help as he went.
She turned, and Drizzt was looking up at her in blank surprise. She was lost for words for a few moments. As soon as violet eyes met hers, a warm sense of relief and ease went through her. She was so glad to see his face. She was so glad he was alive. She hadn’t fully realized, until that moment, how much she had missed him, nor how glad she would be to find him relatively unharmed.
His eyebrows twitched into a tiny frown, looking torn between several kinds of surprise, like he could hardly believe she was really there. “Ash...” he said softly, in a tone of complete bewilderment.
She didn’t know what to say. Should she apologize for before? There was no time. Oskar was still shouting in the distance. Doors were opening and lights were appearing. So she said nothing, and went to look at the ropes around his hands. They were too tight, digging into his skin, and were knotted over in several places. She would have to cut it.
“Are you alright?” she asked as she unbuckled the sword belt from her waist. A foolish question.
“Never been better…” He looked up at something behind her, and his eyes grew wide. “ Ash —”
She followed his gaze to the left in time to see Talen advancing on them through the fog, sword drawn. She didn’t have time to draw one of Drizzt’s swords, and she wouldn’t have known how to wield them even if she did.
As Talen raised his sword to bring it down on her, Ash gripped the belt in both hands and, with a wild roar, swung the swords up like a pair of clubs. He hardly even had time to look surprised. The still-sheathed swords slapped him across the jaw, knocking him back. Before he could recover, she hurled the swords at him again with another grunt of effort, managing to hit him in the temple this time.
Astonishingly, he went limp and fell backwards into the grass, eyes closed and chin bloodied. Ash glared down at him, gasping for breath. She kicked him once to make sure he was really unconscious this time. He didn’t move.
Shaking slightly, she turned back to Drizzt. He was smiling crookedly at her in disbelief.
“That is a style of swordsmanship I have never seen,” he said, amused. Ash thought he sounded a little impressed, as well. A smile tugged at her lips. She took one of the swords from its sheath as she knelt behind him.
“If you keep practicing, maybe you can learn it one day,” she said. She angled the blunt side of the blade against his back, and easily cut down through the ropes. He slipped the ropes off and climbed to his feet, far less smoothly than he usually would have. Ash knew from experience how sitting bound for so long could stiffen your limbs. He shook out his wrists. He looked up at her seriously then, and looked as if he was going to say something else. Ash waited, his expression making her apprehensive.
But instead of speaking, he glanced back at the houses in the fog. More and more clouds of light were showing through the fog, and a number of shadowy figures were approaching.
Ash sheathed the sword and handed the belt back to him. He fastened it around his waist without looking at it.
“Can you run?” she said.
“Then we should run.”
She turned, stepped over Talen, and quickly moved away from the approaching figures, doing her best to keep her steps quiet. They ran in the shadows near the base of the forested hill beside them, parallel to the road. Alarmingly close voices followed, but she didn’t think they had been spotted yet.
“Where is the archer?” Drizzt said softly.
She didn’t have to ask which one he meant. “I took care of him. Don’t worry.”
“Took care of him?”
“I…” She hesitated, knowing he disapproved of the spell she’d used. She disapproved of it, herself. But things had not turned out well the last time she’d lied to him and she was reluctant to do so again. “I used the spell I used on you before. To...influence him. I suggested that he leave, and he did.” She glanced nervously over her shoulder to check his reaction. His expression didn’t tell her what he was thinking, and he said nothing. She kept running.
Finally they began to outpace the voices and lights behind them. When they neared the bend in the road, she allowed herself to slow. Her entire body felt weak and exhausted. The spells had taken a heavy toll on her. Running had made her light headed, and she feared she would faint if she pushed too hard without resting. When she began stumbling, Drizzt reached out and took her arm. She gratefully leaned against him as they walked.
The road curved, and they passed close to the pond. Suddenly Drizzt put up one hand to stop her, and rested the other on the hilt of a sword. Ash looked up, and spotted a shape in the darkness.
“Zelda?” Elva called. “I dropped my torch. Do you have—” He choked and stopped short, and he was close enough now for Ash to see the look of terror on his face. He fumbled for his bow, and was shaking so badly that he dropped it. He froze, waiting to see what they would do.
“Was he one of the ones kicking you?” Ash asked Drizzt, without moving her eyes from Elva.
“No. That was mostly the one you knocked out.”
Elva’s eyes darted between them. Ash didn’t think he understood their speech, but from the look on his face one might have guessed they were discussing the best way to prepare him for breakfast. He glanced up at the village lights behind them. He could get their attention, if he called for them. So far, he had stayed quiet.
“Throw your bow in the pond,” Ash said to him.
He swallowed, eyes wide, feet shifting uncomfortably. “And...and then what?”
“And then we’ll leave.”
Elva hesitated. Then, still shaking, he slowly bent to pick up the bow. He moved his gaze from them for only a second as he tossed it to the side. It disappeared beneath the surface of the water with a soft plunk .
Ash nodded approvingly. “Goodbye, Elva.”
He continued to stare, bewildered, as they left. After a while, Ash heard hard footsteps moving away from them as he took off running back toward the village.
They followed the road long enough to lose sight of the village, then cut sharply away from the road to head north through the woods.
They spoke little as they went into the woods, away from the village. They were too occupied with misdirecting anyone who might have been tracking them, and too out of breath to have a proper conversation.
When they came to the edge of a wide lake with no clear way to cross it, they stopped. Ash’s legs trembled. Standing still was somehow more effort than walking. The combination of exhausting her magic reserves, running through the woods for half the night, and not having slept since the day before, was too much. Drizzt’s arm kept her standing.
“Do you think this is far enough?” he asked, looking out at the lake suspiciously, as if something might be waiting for them to lower their guard so it could leap from the waters and pounce on them. The first hint of the sun had just begun to lighten the eastern horizon.
Ash leaned against a tree as she examined him tiredly. He looked no better than she. They needed to rest. “Yes.”
He nodded, looking still skeptical but perhaps relieved that she’d given him the excuse to stop. He put his hand to his face, then pulled it away to look at the flakes of dried blood that had come off on his fingers. He shook his head, and went to the edge of the water.
Ash watched as he very carefully splashed water over his bruised face. She hardly knew what to say. She was brimming with embarrassment and guilt on behalf of her people, and for herself.
Only now was the fear of what might have happened truly beginning to settle on her. Things could so easily have gone so much worse. They had narrowly evaded horrible fates. It made their presence there in that moment, safe and free, feel all the more fragile and valuable.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Drizzt dried his face with his sleeve, and looked up at her.
He gave a slight frown, and didn’t answer. Ash fiddled with the hem of her shirt.
“I am not like you. I am not a good person,” she admitted bluntly. “Those things I said before… I didn’t mean… You know that I…” She sounded like an idiot. She changed tracks. He was still just watching her, his eyebrows raised at her now. As if a dam had been broken, the words were suddenly spilling out of her, quietly with shame and quickly with urgency. “If I’d known any of this would happen, I wouldn’t have let you go off alone. I should have said something. I know you’re not just a sword. I know we can’t kill without good reason, and I don’t want to. I don’t know what I was…” She shook her head, giving a soft, bitter laugh.
“You were right,” she went on. “I could have spoken for you when I met Kelle and Erith that day in the valley. But I didn’t. I traded you for the book. That book is the only spell book I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s my only chance to make something of myself. After they gave it to me, I was afraid to take sides. I was afraid of what they would do if they thought I was helping you. Erith hates you so much. He can’t be reasoned with. I—”
Drizzt stood and came to her. Before she could react, he’d reached up to hold her face in both hands, and kissed her.
Ash froze. Her heart raced. A violent cocktail of emotions jolted through her--surprise and fear and elation all at once, and something else that was tingling and tense and pulled at more primal parts of her.
He pulled away, looking, strangely, a little surprised--as if it were she who had done it to him and not the other way around.
“Oh,” Ash said stupidly, because her mind was not working well enough to find real words yet. Her face burned. It had happened too fast for her to properly respond. He was looking at her. She should say something now, shouldn’t she? Or do something?
A small line appeared between his brows. His surprise at his own actions began to grow into visible mortification. He took a step back, and Ash’s hand darted out to grab his arm, because she almost feared that he would run off again if she didn’t. She pulled him to her. She had meant to kiss him. Instead, for reasons even she didn’t really understand, she dodged his face at the last moment and merely pulled him into an embrace. She stared at the ground over his shoulder, the corners of her lips turning downward, and silently cursed her cowardice. Her heart hammered against her ribs.
She heard him let out a soft breath. As if too tired to put his arms around her, he simply rested his chin on her shoulder, leaning into her slightly.
“They were going to kill me,” he said.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“You saved my life. Again. No one else was going to come for me.”
“That doesn’t change what I did before.”
“No,” he agreed. “That cannot be changed. But it can be forgiven.” He pulled away from her to look her in the eyes. Ash found herself wanting to kiss him again. She turned and sat down at the base of the tree behind her instead. Her heart was still beating too fast.
Drizzt hovered in front of her, looking uncomfortable. “Sorry,” he said shortly.
Ash gave a weak smile, and looked away. She was relieved when he changed the subject.
“I...should not have left you,” he said slowly, looking down at her. “Perhaps you would be willing to put that argument behind us?”
“I would very much like that,” Ash said. Then, with a small smile, she added, “I missed you.”
He gave a slow smile, relieved. “I missed you, as well.”
He paced slowly in front of her, looking down. He moved stiffly--a result of the bruises on his ribs, Ash guessed. She made a mental note to heal him when she was rested enough to do so. “After we parted ways, I realized I was being foolish. The last time we spoke, I heard things I expected to hear, and not what you really said. I acted out of fear. I returned to the village to try to find you again.”
That surprised her. She had expected to be the only one apologizing. Then she was met with another wave of guilt. He’d been caught because he’d been searching for her. “How did they capture you?”
He stiffened. The discomfort on his face worried her. She could not think of very many things that would frighten him. What could they have done to coerce him into surrender?
“I am not sure how to explain it,” he said hesitantly.
She crossed her legs under her, settling in against the tree. “Tell me, and I’ll try to understand.”
He wrung his hands, watching her unhappily.
“You don’t trust me?” Ash said, teasing.
“I trust you,” he said, still unhappy. “But it is embarrassing to talk about.”
Ash raised her eyebrows.
“I suppose you should know, in case it happens again,” he said eventually, frowning. He hesitated, as if deciding which words to use. “There is something in my head that is broken.”
Ash rested her cheek on her hand. “I could’ve told you that.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, confused.
“That was a joke,” Ash said quickly, already regretting it. “Sorry.”
“Maybe we should not talk about this.”
“Don’t be like that,” Ash said, frowning. “You must know I’m an idiot already. Try not to hold it against me.”
He rested his hands on his hips, watching her suspiciously. He started pacing again. “You know I have bad dreams,” he said. “But there are other things, too.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes dark. “You know that drow revel in violence,” he said. “It is in our blood. Even I do.”
The look in his eyes sent a creeping unease through her. She tried not to show it. “Not in the same way that others do,” she said.
“Maybe,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “But you know that I lived among other drow for most of my life. Fighting and raiding and killing are a part of everyday life for us. For all of us. You cannot abstain, even if you want to. I have seen many things I wish I had not. I have also participated in some of those things.” He frowned a little at her as he said this, as if waiting for judgement.
Ash was afraid to ask for clarification, and he did not offer any. She thought of all the horrible things that had run through her mind the first time she’d seen him. Now she wondered how many of those things had been true about him, at one time or another.
“There was one day...” He shook his head, and seemed to revise what he’d been about to say. He stopped pacing and sat down, as if hoping the change would help calm him. “I have dreams about those things. About the...the blood, and...screaming. But it is not only dreams. It happens while I am awake, too.”
“Dreams while you’re awake?”
He gave an uncertain tilt of his shoulders. “I know no other word for it. When something reminds me too strongly of those times, the memory can overcome me. I can feel it coming, but I can do nothing to stop it. I forget where I am. I am unable to think of anything but how afraid I am, and there is nothing I can do to escape it.”
Ash sat back, quiet. She wished she hadn’t made fun of him earlier.
“That is what happened the other day. That is how they captured me. It is a great weakness,” he said, frowning to himself. “I had hoped not to burden anyone with any of this, but it has been happening more often since I came to the surface.”
She wanted to tell him that she did not consider it a burden, that she was glad for the opportunity to help him, because she liked him. But she always had trouble coming up with the words for things like that. It was the same sort of awkwardness that kept her from kissing people she wanted to kiss.
“It’s the fear after war,” she said. She was grateful it was not anything worse. He had been so ashamed to confess it that she had half anticipated something far more gruesome. She supposed that he might have expected a less than sympathetic response from her. Someone from Menzoberranzan would surely have laughed at the idea of someone feeling guilt or fear over raids they had been a part of.
Drizzt inclined his head. “The what?”
“The fear after war. I have heard of others who experienced it. It’s not uncommon for people who have seen battles.”
He looked taken aback. “I did not know it had a name.”
“It doesn’t happen to other drow?”
He paused, as if considering it for the first time. “I suppose it probably does. But they would not say so, if it did. In the Underdark, to show weakness is to die.” He looked at her sideways, trying not to look too hopeful. “Do these people you have heard of ever...recover?”
The subtle desperation in his voice almost made her want to lie. She resisted. “I’m not sure,” she said.
He nodded slowly, deflating slightly with disappointment.
“How long has it been happening?”
“Well,” Ash said, “when it happens again, we will deal with it.”
A little of the tension went out of his shoulders, but his tone was still dull when he said, “I do not know that it will be so simple. I do not know how to fight something that exists only in my own mind.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Ash said, because it seemed like he needed the reassurance.
He did not speak his agreement, but he didn’t disagree, either.
He sighed, and moved to sit beside her against the tree. “Did you finish what you meant to do in Marwood?”
“No. I didn’t have the chance before you arrived.” She tilted her head at him. “Was that your plan all along? To get yourself captured in order to interrupt me before I could do anything?”
He gave a crooked smile. “Unfortunately, no.” He peered over at her, searching her face. “Do you still want to kill Rainer?” He seemed more curious than judgemental, at the moment.
She shuffled her feet, looking away. Going back to Marwood had made her rethink her feelings about the place. After so long away, she had almost forgotten that it was a real place with real people to take into consideration. It was not as simple as going in and killing one of them. “I don’t know,” she said. “After what he did to you, I was thinking about it.”
It seemed to take him a moment to realize that she was talking about the beating he’d received. “Ah.” His face fell a little. “You saw that?”
A renewed spike of anger towards the villagers shot through her, reignited by the embarrassment in his face.
“I have had worse,” he assured her, and with a bright, innocent look that said the following statement was meant to lighten the mood, added, “My sister hits much harder.”
Ash’s brows pinched together slightly as she looked at him. Sometimes it was hard to tell when he was making a dry joke and when he was merely matter-of-factly mentioning some odd bit of drow culture. Frequently his values and opinions about his people lined up with her own, but occasionally he would say something like this and not seem to realize there was anything strange about it.
“They aren’t all like that,” she said, reminding herself as much as him. Little Kala, at least, didn’t deserve to be put in the same category with people like Rainer or Erith.
“I know. You are not.” He shrugged. “They were only trying to protect themselves. I cannot blame them.”
Ash gaped at him. “I can!” she protested. “Don’t convince yourself they’re too stupid to know better than to act like this. They’re not. They choose to be cruel because it’s easy and because no one’s stopping them.”
He looked tempted to agree with her, but said, “There is too much history attached to my coloring. Their cruelty comes from well-earned fear. They think they are stopping something dangerous. Just like you thought you were when you wanted to confront Rainer.”
Ash frowned at him, irritated by the comparison but not quite enough so to argue. “You really think that? That they are not wrong to treat us this way? That they’re secretly good at heart?
His eyes looked suddenly distant and tired. “I have to believe that, because if it is not the case, then I am no better off here than I was in Menzoberranzan.”
“You might not be. Cruelty exists everywhere--even on the surface.”
“I think I had hoped it would be otherwise,” he said quietly.
“I wish I could tell you it was.”
The sun had almost risen, and the sky was streaked with vibrant gold and rose. Drizzt squinted at the display for a few seconds before turning away, rubbing his eyes.
“I reached my limit of spellcasting today,” Ash noted. “If anything else had gone wrong, we might not have made it out. I had no energy left for another spell.”
“You have never done so much in such a short time,” Drizzt guessed. “You will recover after some rest.”
“Yes, but I have to be stronger next time. Other wizards can cast far more than that before tiring. I need to get better.”
“You have already grown your skills tenfold since we first met. I would not have thought you capable of the things I saw you do today.”
“Making up for lost time,” she said dismissively. “I still have a long way to go.”
He laughed at her refusal to accept the compliment. “I admire your ambition, but for now you should allow yourself some rest.”
“So should you.”
“No. Someone should keep watch.”
He thought, then shook his head. “It has not been long enough since I last summoned her.” He smiled at her reassuringly. “I am alright now, Ash. You can sleep.”
She considered arguing, but the idea of sleep was too alluring.
A weight had been lifted from her shoulders after finally freeing Drizzt and having a chance to apologize. Everything seemed right again. Things were still far from peaceful, but after all the fear and regret she’d felt over the past few days, she was the closest to at-peace she’d been in a long time.
It was only then that she realized there had been a subtle tension between them before--because he’d known she was lying to him all along. He had only half trusted her, and had stayed with her anyway because he’d had no better options. That tension was gone now. It was a relief.
She wrapped Zelda’s cloak around her as a shiver went through her. It was the coldest part of the day, just after the night had ended and before the day had begun. She curled onto the ground beneath the tree, touching her back to his outstretched legs. She was too tired to make a proper bed, but the cloak alone made a better bed than she’d had since she’d left her house in Marwood. She pulled her hood up to block the sunlight.
“Wake me if anyone tries to kill us again,” she muttered.
Drizzt’s feet shifted beside her as he moved into a more comfortable position. “I will just kill them. I would not have them interrupting your rest.”
A week of welcome solitude passed.
Ash read Kelle’s book, taking note of a particular passage she had read on the first day she’d received the book, and had reread several more times since then:
A tolerance to the draining effects of magic can be built with practice, just as a laborer’s body grows stronger through continued work. For the exceptionally skilled, spells can be cast many times over without tiring.
I have, in fact, been known to hold minor spells for days at a time without resting. When, for example, a certain elf, who shall remain unnamed, through foolish action landed us in the grasp of a hostile tribe of goblins, I held a rather powerful invisibility spell over the both of us for over a day in order for us to escape their camp. It is at times like these that one truly understands the value of building one’s strength beforehand in preparation for difficult and unexpected circumstances. (My elven friend, by the by, was not nearly so impressed by this feat as he should have been, but alas, that is besides the point of this passage.)
In addition, I have found that with continued daily practice with magic, a kind of permanent attunement to magic can be built, and in some cases nearly no preparation is needed to cast simple spells. With proper mindfulness, casting can be almost instant.
In my younger days, I practiced idly bringing a light in and out of existence, much the same way that a musician might strum out the same notes over and over until they come out flawlessly every time. It became like a reflex, requiring no more thought than moving one of my own limbs, and no more effort. Where once the mental effort of summoning a light over and over would have exhausted me, it became no more tiring than walking.
My purpose in writing this is only to say that there is no secret to mastering magic that is any different than mastering any other skill. It comes from endless days of tireless practice, like all else in life.
On days when little else needed to be done, Ash would exhaust herself with spellcasting, just to see how far she could go without resting. She tested herself with Kelle’s light spell, flashing it on and off again over and over. The first day she tried this, she managed it only ten times before having to stop. By the sixth day, she could do twenty in a row.
On one occasion, she passed out in the middle of a spell--one too many, evidently--and awoke to Guen licking her face. She was grateful that Drizzt hadn’t been nearby to witness the event. She took note of her state of exhaustion during the spell, and resolved not to cross that threshold again.
The spells grew easier, but even with all her practice, she was nowhere close to the type of instant, chantless casting that Kelle described--not even with the simplest ones like the light spell. The lack of progress in this area frustrated her most, because it was the skill she needed most. If she could only cast properly when she had the time and freedom to chant and wave the spell into existence, she would never be able to hold her own in a fight the way Drizzt could. Magic was not much use when someone could run up and cut you in half with a sword before you had the chance to finish a chant.
When she wasn’t thinking about spells, she was trying and failing to forget about Drizzt kissing her.
Neither of them had brought it up again, after it happened. She suspected that he regretted it. It had been an impulse, a whim, because he’d been so glad she’d come back for him. He hadn’t really meant it. Had he?
Broaching that subject with him seemed, somehow, like more work and more emotional stress than she could take on in addition to practicing spells, keeping an eye out for danger, and teaching Drizzt common. So she carefully avoided the subject. If she didn’t know what he wanted, she could reside in a comfortable limbo in which she could not be rejected.
Usually, she went somewhere she could be alone in order to practice. Casting the same spell over and over again until she nearly fell over made her feel a little silly, not to mention that it would probably annoy Drizzt, even if he wouldn’t say so.
She went to the top of a nearby hill and climbed halfway up a tree, where she could look out at the valley below while she read and cast. It was after she’d practiced her twenty daily light spells and moved on to a new spell she’d been trying to memorize that she saw several figures moving on the road far below.
She squinted down at them, but the trees between her and the road blocked most of her view. She could see that they had weapons, and she could see that they were not merely passing by--they lingered and walked back and forth, as if searching for something.
“Afternoon,” someone behind her called in common. Ash jumped. The voice seemed so loud, so gratingly crisp and booming compared to Drizzt’s soft voice that she might have jumped even if she hadn’t been caught by surprise.
The speaker was a smiling man, clad in mismatched armor and wearing a narrow sword on his hip. Two others in much the same garb stood beside him.
She snapped her book shut, slipped it into her bag, and stood up on her branch, resting a hand against the tree trunk for balance. The men were a good two yards below her, though they could have reached her if they jumped. None of them seemed to have bows, at least.
“Didn’t mean to interrupt your reading,” the man said. “Is it a good book?”
Ash didn’t bother to answer. It was one of those pointless comments men liked to make as an excuse to talk to a woman they didn’t know; they never actually cared about the reply.
She was immediately put off by the group. There was an air that people took on when they wanted something from you but weren’t saying what it was--you could smell it on them.
“Are you traveling alone?” the man asked instead, sounding surprised and impressed in an obnoxiously patronizing way.
“I’m with my caravan,” Ash said impatiently, nodding vaguely toward the road. “Who are you and what do you want?”
The man looked taken aback. “No need to be so short,” he said. “We’re friendly types.”
“I’m a solitary type,” Ash said. She was inclined not to trust folk who carried swords for unclear purposes--let alone ones who approached lone women in the woods like this. “So if you could be on your way?”
The men exchanged glances. The one who’d been speaking stepped forward, crossing thick arms over a broad chest. “You’re an awfully rude girl,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “Most people would take the hint.”
He only grinned toothily. “Why don’t you come down from there?”
Something about his expression put her on edge, and her fingers flexed over the knot in the tree she was holding onto. She stared at him, not moving.
The man shrugged. “Or I could come get you down.”
Ash stiffened. The man started toward the tree. A wave of dread went through her. She jumped and pulled herself onto the next branch up.
Below her, the man pulled himself easily up to the branch she’d just been on, and reached for her feet. Ash scrambled up to the next branch, which was a bit too thin to fully hold a person and bent dangerously under her weight. She crouched and held tight to the tree trunk to keep her balance.
“Drizzt!” she shouted into the forest.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings,” said the man. He paused on the branch below her, in no hurry. “But everyone in your caravan is already dead. No one but us is going to hear you, so there’s no point screaming.”
She started to chant, but then the man grabbed at her ankle. She shouted and kicked at him until he let go, then kicked him again in the side of the head, nearly knocking him from the tree. The men on the ground below laughed as the one in the tree groaned and held his head.
Ash leapt to a branch on the other side of the tree, buying herself another moment. She chanted. She had to be faster. There was no time.
The man, glaring at her, climbed up another branch and then around to her side of the tree, and then he was right next to her. She felt the power she’d built into the spell disappear into fear.
“Get away from me or I’ll hex you into oblivion,” she said fiercely.
That gave the man pause, but only for a moment. “Watch yourselves,” he called to the men on the ground. “She’s going to hex us!” More laughter.
She tried to kick him again. This time he caught her foot in a large hand, shoved her backwards, and then she was falling.
Thin branches whipped against her as she tumbled through the tree. A large bough slapped into her side. The ground rushed at her, and then she hit hard dirt.
She’d landed flat on her back. Everything spun. Her chest felt tight and she couldn’t breathe. Her vision was spotted with black dots. Wincing, she forced herself to roll over and climb to her hands and knees, ignoring the pain that shot through her side when she moved. A shadow fell over her. She heard someone say something, and then someone was shoving her into the ground. A rough hand gripped the back of her neck and a knee pressed into her back as another hand held down her wrist.
She was so furious, so offended by this violation, that even as she struggled for breath, all her fear transformed into impotent anger. She closed her eyes, gritting her teeth, and chanted soundlessly as she motioned with her single free hand, for whatever good it might do.
“What is--” someone said, alarmed.
She felt the man on top of her shift his weight suddenly, and then something wet hit the back of her neck.
The man rolled off of her and fell to the ground beside her. His neck was sliced open, ear to ear. He might have lost his head entirely if the cut had been any deeper. He was already dead, staring blindly ahead with wide eyes. Ash staggered to her feet, holding her aching side as she caught her breath, and continued chanting.
Drizzt had already moved on to the next man, who was holding a sword in front of him but was rapidly backing away. Drizzt advanced on him, his face a mask of focused anger. He jabbed at the man, his swords darting forward like striking snakes.
The one who’d pushed Ash from the tree had finally jumped down to the ground. He watched Drizzt with a look of great unease, and drew his sword. He paid Ash no mind, and instead cautiously approached Drizzt.
Sensing the inevitability of his defeat, Drizzt’s opponent made a desperate attempt to strike. One of Drizzt’s swords whipped out in response and slashed the man’s wrist. There was a shout, and a spray of blood. The man’s sword dropped from his hand. An expression of terror crossed his face. He held out his hands, as if in surrender. Drizzt stepped forward and, without hesitation, drove both swords through the man’s middle.
Ash sucked in a breath, horrified but unable to look away. The man gave a strangled sound as blood leaked from the wounds and soaked his sides. Drizzt withdrew the swords in a violent flourish. The wounds grew larger, and the man staggered.
There was something almost entrancing about the elegant viciousness of it. There was an awful grin on Drizzt’s face as he did it--an enthused savagery that seemed at odds with the Drizzt she knew. He was enjoying it just slightly too much. She might have been unsettled, had she been less angry. As it was, in her current state of furious indignation, she found it gratifying. Finally he was as angry as she was.
Drizzt turned before the man had even hit the ground, in time to sidestep the last man’s attack.
Ash walked toward them, shaking with anger and nervous energy. As she neared the end of the chant, she felt the power vibrating at her fingertips, ready to be released. Drizzt glanced up at her when he saw her approaching, and held back instead of pushing his attack. The other man, confused, followed his gaze to Ash. He frowned at her, not understanding what she was doing. Ash raised an arm. She shouted with effort as she cranked her arm suddenly sideways, as if she were physically pushing him.
The man’s eyes widened with realization a moment before he flew off his feet. His armor gave a metallic crunch as he crashed into the tree. Ash jerked her arm down, then up again. The man shouted wordlessly as he slammed into the ground, then back into the tree with a sharp crack . Ash waited until his body had gone limp before she let him go. He fell to the ground in a heavy heap, silent and unmoving.
Ash looked down at the still body, breathing hard. Her hands were in fists. Slowly, she released them. Everything went quiet again, except for the blood pounding in her ears.
Drizzt gave his swords a small flick, shaking droplets of blood from the tips. He quickly looked her up and down, as if making sure she was still in one piece.
“Were there any more?” he said.
His eyes swept across the hillside. “Stay here. I will be back,” he said, then disappeared into the trees.
Ash looked around at the other two bodies. The first one’s neck was cut so deeply that his head hung back at an unnatural angle, giving a grotesque view of blood-slicked muscle, bone, and fat. The second one’s insides were spilling out his front.
Drizzt had hardly blinked through all of it. He’d simply moved from one target to the next, methodical and efficient, like it was second nature. Ash wondered how many times he’d done this before.
She turned away, and was met again with the body of the one she’d killed. His wounds were not so obvious. He almost would have looked as if he might get up and start chasing her again, if he hadn’t been twisted that way. She felt oddly numb, looking at him. She thought of his hands reaching for her, of that careless smile on his face. He reminded her of Rainer. She had the urge to spit on him or kick him, as if death was not punishment enough.
She did not feel nearly as upset by the bodies as she thought she probably should have. She’d killed someone. She’d watched Drizzt kill two others. Not only was she not upset, but it had given her a rush to see it happen.
She felt powerful. It was a good feeling. And feeling good about this made her feel disgusted with herself.
She hauled herself back up into the branches of the tree, eager for something else to do to distract herself from these thoughts.
She looked out toward the road far down the hill, where she had seen figures before. If she looked closely, she could see a large, stationary object on the road. An object that could almost have been a wagon in a caravan.
She looked down. Drizzt stood beneath her. The swords were back in their sheaths and his hands rested easily on their pommels.
“Are you alright?” he asked tentatively. The bloodthirstiness she’d seen on his face earlier was gone. He had the air of one trying not to spook an unpredictable animal, and Ash was not certain whether it was because he thought he might frighten her, or because he was frightened by her .
Did he feel the way she was feeling now? Was that what he felt all the time? This lust for vengeance cloaked in guilt and self-doubt? Was this why he spent so much time asking himself whether what he was doing was right? Because a secret hunger for blood pressed those doubts upon him?
She lowered herself down from the branch and dropped to the ground beside him. “Fine,” she said. “Thank you.”
He gave her an examining look, and Ash almost thought he must have known what she was thinking. “I did not see any others nearby.”
“They said something about a caravan.” She gestured toward the road. “Down there. I think we should go see.”
He followed her gaze down the hill, then looked back at her. “Perhaps you should stay here.”
“No,” Ash said shortly. She started down the hill. “Come on.”
When they were near enough to see the road through the trees, they stopped.
There were three wagons stopped on the road. The one in front was tipped over on its side, its contents spilling out over the dirt. The horses that had been pulling the others were still hitched up and stomping nervously. There was not much movement aside from that, because the people who had been driving the wagons were all either gone or dead on the ground. Even from a distance, Ash could see the bodies strewn around the road, surrounded by streaks and puddles of red--so recent that it had not yet fully soaked into the ground. Some of them were quite a ways away from the rest of the caravan, as if they’d run and been chased down.
Whoever had staged the ambush was nowhere to be seen. Ash and Drizzt stayed still and quiet for a minute to be sure that they were not coming back.
“Should we see if there are any survivors?” Ash said quietly, not excited about the idea of seeing the carnage up close.
Drizzt paused for a long time, staring at the caravan. Ash raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yes,” he agreed eventually.
Ash crept out onto the road, ever wary of archers after their encounters with Erith. Dust swirled under her feet as she walked. Nothing moved except the trees in the breeze. She realized Drizzt was not beside her, and looked over her shoulder to make sure he was still there. He was following a few yards behind her, squinting in the bright afternoon sun. He caught her eye as she looked back, and he gave her a disquieted look.
She went to the tipped-over wagon, which was the only one of them with a cover over the top. She braced herself, and peered inside. There were no sword-wielding bandits waiting to attack her, nor any bodies. The wagon was filled with goods--bolts of fabric, mostly, all jumbled into a pile. The canvas cover was ripped--cut with a blade, it looked like. Someone had already gone through the wagon in search of anything more valuable than raw fabric. The driver of the wagon, an old man, lay dead in his seat. He hadn’t even had time to get up before he’d been cut down.
“Where are Kelle and Erith when you need them?” Ash muttered bitterly. “Wasting their time with us when they could be dealing with whoever did this.” She looked up, and stiffened. Two small bodies lay on the opposite edge of the road. A dead woman lay beside them, still holding one of their hands.
She looked away, not wanting to too closely see the blood or their still-staring eyes or the way their bodies were twisted in slightly wrong directions, but the image was already burned into her mind. Suddenly not wanting to be alone, she quickly rounded the wagon, meaning to return to Drizzt’s side.
But when she saw him, she stopped. He was standing stock-still in the middle of the road, staring vaguely into the distance. There was something in his expression and in the stiff set of his shoulders that was subtly but decidedly off. She followed his gaze, thinking he had seen someone approaching. She saw nothing. Nothing except dead people.
His eyes flicked over to hers, wide despite the sun. His chest moved visibly with hard breaths. He turned abruptly and walked quickly the other way.
Ash frowned after him. “Drizzt,” she said again, and ran to catch up with him.
At the sound of feet running towards him, he whirled, and suddenly there was a sword brandished at her. She skidded to stop, watching the blade. It shook slightly in his hand. Ash stared at him.
Some part of her had not quite believed his description of the fear, because it had been so difficult to picture. It seemed impossible for the same person who had cut up those men up the hill to now be so affected by the sight of death, to the point of losing himself.
It was hard to tell what he was thinking, or how present in the moment he really was. She didn’t know how to begin to try to calm him.
Before she could think of what to do, he dropped the sword to the grass and turned away again, walking into the trees. He was whispering something in his language. He took shelter in the shadow of a tree, knotting his hands in his hair and breathing too hard.
Ash watched helplessly, afraid that approaching him again would only make it worse.
From the road, there came a soft groan. Ash spun, and spotted a pale hand reaching out from under one of the wagons. The fingers twitched, barely moving. She hesitated, glancing worriedly back at Drizzt, then rushed to the wagon.
The hand had gone limp again by the time she reached it. She bent to look under the wagon. Green eyes looked back at her from the shadows. It was a boy a little younger than she. There was a dark red stain along the bottom of his white shirt. Ash knelt beside the wagon as the boy opened his mouth to speak. Only a soft gasp came out.
“Hold still,” she said. She ignored the apprehensive look he gave her, and held her hands above the wound. She chanted. Every time she cast this spell, it was easier than it had been the previous time. After a minute, she sensed the wound healing over.
When she was sure she’d done enough, she stopped chanting and blinked, dazed. Coming out of the deep concentration that the spell required was like waking up from a dream. The boy looked down at his side, then up at her.
“How do you feel?” Ash said--mostly because she wanted to know that he was alright, but also because hearing the answer stroked her ego and she couldn’t resist asking.
He curiously ran a hand over his side. “Better?” he said, surprised. His voice came out as a dry croak. “Who are you?”
“Ash Blackbough. You?”
“Corin Finley.” He cleared his throat. “And I can say with an unusual amount of honesty that it is an absolute pleasure to meet you.” He looked out at the road. “Did...did anyone else...?”
Ash looked around at the dead that surrounded them. She gave a short, grim shake of her head. Corin swallowed, pale-faced. He carefully turned over and pulled himself out from under the wagon. Then he looked down the road, and his eyes widened. Immediately he scrambled back under the wagon.
“Gods, they’re back,” he moaned.
Ash looked up. Some fifty feet away was a man carrying a bloodied sword, coming directly toward her. She stood to face him, only to hear more footsteps behind her. She turned, and two more swordsmen were blocking her exit from the south. She recognized one of them, and it took her a few moments to realize why. These men were part of the very same group she and Drizzt had seen in the woods several weeks prior--the same group that had been harassing Rachel on the road.
She looked down at Corin, who was peering up at her from under the wagon. “Can you use a sword?”
“Do I look like I can use a sword?” he hissed, drawing back a little further into the shadows. “You’re a wizard. Do something!”
She whirled toward the trees. It took her a moment to locate Drizzt. He was lying on his back in the tall grass, has face covered by his hands.
“Drizzt!” she called. “This would be a good time for you to finish with whatever you’re doing over there.” She was not particularly surprised when he didn’t move or acknowledge her.
She turned to the duo approaching her from behind. Neither of them bothered to say anything--they were only going to kill her anyway, so what was the point?
She didn’t know if she had the energy for more than one spell left in her. And she didn’t know if she could get rid of three people with a single spell. But there was no time to think. She started a chant, and slowly walked toward the two approaching from the south.
Their steps faltered when they saw her coming, waving her hands and chanting strange words. They knew what she was doing. She saw one of them curse, and then they both charged at her, trying to reach her before she could complete the spell. They were too late.
She thrust her arms upward, and both of them shot up into the sky. They cried out in horror as they rose ten, twenty, thirty feet in the air. Ash held them there for a moment, almost rethinking what she was about to do. Then her strength gave out, and she dropped them.
They hit the road so hard they bounced. Both of them writhed in pain. They were alive, though maybe not for long. Ash staggered, drained. Her vision was spotting. She waited, and slowly the spots went away, and she managed not to faint. Footsteps rapidly approached from behind her. She turned, and found the last swordsman nearly upon her.
Drizzt’s discarded sword lay on the ground nearby. She ran to pick it up, then held it unsteadily between herself and the bandit. She had no illusions that she could beat him in a fair fight. She needed one more spell, whether she had the strength left for one or not. She spoke the words, extended a hand, and closed her eyes as the man raised his sword.
Light exploded from her hand. Even through her closed eyelids, the flashing illumination burned her eyes. The man shouted in surprise and annoyance. Ash darted sideways to try to evade his sword, and something bit into her arm. She cried out in shock, and opened her eyes to slits. The man was flinching away from the light, blinded.
She took a breath, lifted the sword with both hands, and chopped it down like an axe. The first blow clanged against metal armor. She swung again, and this time it landed in something disturbingly soft. The man stopped moving.
Ash let the light spell die. Her sword was embedded in the man’s face and neck. She recoiled, letting go of the sword as she backed away. The man fell in a heap on the dirt.
Her arm stung. She looked down, and was alarmed to see blood rapidly soaking into her sleeve. There was a sizeable slice in her upper arm. She clamped a hand over the cut. She couldn’t manage another spell. Already she felt dazed and weak from overexertion.
Corin was standing over the men she’d dropped earlier. They’d stilled, and he was holding a bloody knife in one hand. He looked up at her uncertainly. His expression made her think he was trying not to vomit.
Ash’s bleeding arm was enough to distract herself from all the dead people, and she was almost glad for it. There was no time to dwell on what had just happened. She climbed up to the opening in the tipped over wagon and dug through the fabric until she found a narrow bit of cotton cloth, then quickly wrapped her arm with it.
“The gods must have taken pity on me, bringing you here,” Corin said.
She felt a twinge of pain for him as she looked around at the empty wagons. “Were they your family?” she asked.
He shook his head quickly. “My employers. We were heading to Longsaddle for the market. I can’t believe this happened...” He glanced nervously down the road, as if expecting more bandits to appear.
“Did you see more than six of them?” Ash said, tying off the makeshift bandage over her arm. “I already killed three more up the hill.”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t say. It happened so fast. I was just trying to hide.” He gave her a guilty look. “But, I don’t think the ones who attacked us were alone. I heard them say something about meeting up with others before they went to Marwood.”
She stared at him. “Marwood?”
“You know of it?”
For a moment, she was speechless. She realized her hand was frozen on her bandage, and she dropped it. “Unfortunately, yes. Why would they go there?”
He pursed his lips. “Did you hear what happened to Bridgeford and Acheron?” He saw her blank expression, and went on, his voice low, “They were hit by raiders. Everything that wasn’t looted was destroyed. Everyone was killed. Acheron last winter, and Bridgeford just a few weeks ago.”
“You think it’s these people who did that?” she said in a hushed voice.
“The way they were talking, and what they said about going to Marwood…” He shrugged. “I heard a rumor that it’s a bunch of ex-soldiers from the south. They’re practically a small army, far more than just these six.”
“Someone should warn them,” Ash said. And, she didn’t say, she couldn’t be the one to do it.
Corin looked around at the caravan, frowning, and seemed to consider what he should do next. “I’ll keep going to Longsaddle. I can take one of the horses. I’ll try to get help, and send word to Marwood.” He did not look hopeful about the idea. “I doubt they can be convinced to send their guard patrolling outside of the city, but maybe there’s someone who would be willing to do it on the promise of payment from the village?”
“Do what you have to do,” Ash said.
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
He shrugged. “Are you going to go to Marwood? You could help defend the village if the raiders do come before we can warn them.”
She crossed her arms, which made her cut hurt. She flinched, and uncrossed them. “I can’t defend an entire village from a small army of ex-soldiers. And I do have other things to do. If they’re smart, they’ll evacuate when they’re told to. And if not, I’m sure they can take care of themselves.”
Corin gave her an offended look. “Just going to keep your magic to yourself then?” he said with a little scoff. “Fair enough. I suppose I’d do the same.”
“It’s not your business what I do.”
“Fine, fine,” he said, raising his hands in surrender, but he was looking at her with significantly less respect now. Ash shifted her feet, annoyed. “Nice meeting you, Ash Blackbough,” Corin said, with a hint of sarcasm.
She watched him take one of the horses and ride down the road. She waited a little longer still for good measure before turning to the woods on the side of the road. She could see the toes of Drizzt’s boots sticking up out of the grass. She sighed, and trudged over to him.
Drizzt was lying very still in the grass near the road, with his hands over his face.
“Drizzt?” Ash said quietly. He didn’t move. She knelt down beside him, waited, then cautiously reached out and pulled his hands away from his face. He stared at the sky.
“I am sorry,” he said.
Relieved to hear him speaking again, Ash sat back. “It’s alright,” she said. “Are you...back?”
“I never left.”
“It seemed like you didn’t recognize me, before.”
“I recognized you,” he corrected her quietly.
He remained still for a time, still coming out of whatever altered state of mind he’d been in. Ash waited. She didn’t know enough about whatever was happening to him to feel confident interrupting the process. Perhaps it was just something he would be able to work through on his own, given enough time to recover.
“I did not want you to see me this way,” he said softly, still staring straight up.
“Don’t think about things like that. We’ve seen each other lots of different ways before, and we’re both still here.”
Finally his gaze shifted to her. His eyes were clear again, without fear. Ash smiled, hoping to elicit the same expression from him. His eyes locked on her bandaged arm instead, and worry and anger darkened his features. He sat up and looked out at the road, as if remembering what had just happened.
“They’re gone, Drizzt. It’s over.”
“Are they dead?”
He gave her a surprised look, and she couldn’t tell if he was impressed or disappointed.
“I am sorry,” he said again.
Ash only shrugged. She knew he would not have chosen to be this way, if he had the option. There seemed to be little to be done about it.
“Where is my sword?”
She nodded toward the man she’d chopped with it. “Over there.”
He looked out at the road, hesitant.
“I’ll get it,” Ash said quickly. “Just stay here.”
The sword was still embedded in the man’s head, sticking up in the air like a flag pole. Ash went to him, trying very hard not to look directly at the wound. Better to do it fast, all at once, like pulling a tooth. Steeling herself, she took the handle and pulled hard. There was a grotesque squelching as it came loose. She quickly retreated back to the woods.
She held the sword out to Drizzt, but he didn’t take it.
“I need to leave you,” he said suddenly.
Ash stared at him. It took a moment for the words to sink in. “What?”
He looked up at her, grim but resolute. “I have been thinking about this for some time,” he said slowly, as if reluctant. “I am putting you at risk by remaining by your side in this state. I thought I had gotten better at resisting the fear, but it has gotten worse, instead. I am a liability at best, a danger to everyone around me at worst.” He frowned, pained. “You could have been killed here, because of my failure. I am sorry. I think I should go.”
Ash sighed, rolling her eyes. She’d thought she’d done something wrong again. She was relieved to have her fears averted. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve never been a danger to me. I’m far better off with you than I am alone.”
He blinked, looking surprised and offended by her refusal to take him seriously. “There is something wrong with me,” he protested. “I have no control over myself when this happens. I do not understand why it keeps happening. I do not know how to stop it, and maybe I never will.”
She glared at him in disbelief, suddenly angry. He was really going to leave her alone again just because of this?
“So? What will going off on your own solve?” she demanded. “You can’t handle having a single failing? You’re so embarrassed about needing help that you’re willing to abandon me in order to spare your ego?”
He seemed utterly caught off-guard by this accusation. Clearly he had expected her to accept his grand, noble declaration of self-sacrifice without so much argument--maybe expected her to be grateful for it, even. Ash watched his face shift from offense to confusion to embarrassment, and back again.
“...no,” he relented finally.
She took his hand, impatiently pressed the hilt of the sword into it, and closed his fingers around it. “Gods, who knew you were so dramatic?” she muttered. “Have you ever considered trying out at the Neverwinter Theater?”
He looked down at the sword, then back up at her. “The what?”
“Nevermind. Come on.” She started back up the hill toward their camp. He caught her arm as she passed him.
“Ash. It is going to keep happening.” There was a deep concern in his pale eyes. He wanted her to tell him how to fix it, even though they both knew there was no easy answer to that. He wanted reassurance.
“I know,” she said. She didn’t know what more he wanted her to say, but he seemed to be waiting for something else. She didn’t have a solution, but she knew that that didn’t change her desire for them to stay together.
He was still holding her arm, as if he didn’t want to let go yet but wasn’t sure if he should pull her closer. Ash thought about wrapping her arms around him, then. It would have felt good. To feel that physical reassurance that she was not alone and that they were both still alright. It had felt good last time, at the lake. Before then, it had been a long time since she’d embraced anyone. She wondered how long it had been for him.
“It does not bother you?” he said skeptically.
She shrugged uncertainly. “You can’t pick and choose the parts of people you want. If this is part of you, then that’s the way it is.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “But didn’t I already tell you that?”
“You did. But I guessed you would feel less charitable about it after you had seen it for yourself.”
It took her a few moments to decipher what he was thinking at that moment and figure out why he was having so much trouble accepting her words as the truth.
“We are not in the Underdark,” she reminded him. “You don’t need to hide weakness here.”
He watched her, his expression the cool almost-frown it always was when he was thinking something over.
“You are used to people abandoning those who aren’t completely self-sufficient,” Ash surmised quietly.
He said nothing. Maybe it had not occurred to him that there was an alternative.
Maybe she had been presumptuous in thinking that they were on the same page regarding their relationship. Drow did not make friends so easily. She crossed her arms. “We are in this together, aren’t we? Because if not, I’ve wasted a lot of my time.”
“Yes,” he said, giving a weak smile, amused by her annoyance. “We are. But what do I have to offer you, if I cannot fight?”
“You offer me a great deal aside from that,” she said. Her family was gone, and she had no other friends. He was the only person she cared about. Friendship was no small thing to offer someone, especially when they had no one else. She didn’t say any of that out loud. Feelings and relationships were not at the top of the list of things she liked to talk about.
“Just promise me you won’t go running off again, after all the effort I went to to rescue you,” she said. “You can’t be expecting me to do that all the time.”
He thought about that for a moment, and then the corner of his mouth quirked up in amusement. “It has not only been you doing things for me. I have rescued you several times as well, if I am not mistaken,” he pointed out.
“Ah! You’re right. Here I was thinking you were just a liability and of no use to me. Forgive me.”
He realized he’d been tricked into backing her point. “Ah…” he said quietly.
“Come on,” Ash said. “I have to find somewhere to wash this blood off of me.”
“Are you sure? It looks good on you.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. He was serious. “Only a drow would say something like that.”
“Well, I am a drow.”
“Not too much of one, I hope.”
“It makes you look like a warrior,” he clarified.
Ash didn’t dislike that characterization, she had to admit. “It’s still gross,” she said.
“Yes. There is a creek on the other side of the hill.”
They moved camp to a spot several miles to the west, to avoid encountering more of the bandits. Based on what Corin had said, they were somewhere nearby, and Ash had no interest in meeting any more of them than she had to, even though she was confident that she and Drizzt could overcome any others they met.
It was quiet. They saw no more of the bandits. Ash suspected they wouldn’t attack again too soon. If they only made raids every few weeks or months, then it might have been a few weeks before they moved on to Marwood.
She occupied herself with spellcasting practice, even more than before, because that kept her mind off of Marwood. She didn’t have to think about it when her mind was busy with something else.
Marwood wasn’t her business anymore. They had cast her out. They wouldn’t have wanted her help even if she’d offered it. Perhaps they didn’t even deserve it. And what could she alone do to protect them, anyway?
But then she remembered the looks on those men’s faces when they’d been chasing her out of the tree, and she remembered how terrified she’d been when she’d had to face them down on the road. She imagined what would happen when they got to Marwood, and what they would do to the people there.
And then she thought of the way the villagers had looked at her when Rainer had dragged her out of her house--all gathered around and watching without sympathy. She thought of how they’d treated Drizzt. She thought of how excited they’d been to hurt him.
And then she thought of Kala.
She pulled Kelle’s book closer to her face, trying to lose herself in the words but instead staring at the same page for ages without actually reading it. It was like this, a continuous loop, for several days. In the end, Kala was what always stuck in her mind.
“Something is wrong,” Drizzt said.
It was dark, and they had risked a fire, giving Ash light to read by and warmth to keep the evening comfortable. She had thought that he meant to warn her of something he saw in the dark, but when she looked up, he was looking only at her. She realized it had been more of a question. She had been quieter than usual since the attack the other day. She should have expected he’d take notice.
She closed her book, and was quiet for a moment. She realized then that she had already made up her mind. Since the moment Corin had said the word ‘Marwood’, it had been inevitable, though she hadn’t wanted to admit it.
“I have to go back to Marwood,” she said quietly.
“Go back?” Drizzt echoed, frowning.
“Those bandits we met may go there next,” Ash said dully, not happy about any of this. She had seen enough of Marwood. If she could have, she would have liked to never see it again. She explained the things Corin had told her.
“He said he would send someone to warn them, for whatever that’s worth,” she finished, still halfway trying to convince herself that she didn’t need to go. She folded her arms. “Maybe he’ll find some mercenaries willing to help protect them, but they’ll still be outnumbered, and anyway, the village doesn’t have the money to pay anyone for things like that.”
“This does not bode well for your neighbors,” Drizzt said.
“And...you really want to do something about this? A few weeks ago you wanted to kill them.”
“Not all of them,” she said defensively. She looked away guiltily. She couldn’t help but feel that she was betraying him again. ”I can’t not do something. I won’t be gone long. I’ll come back when I’m sure the village is safe, I promise.” Not that she knew what that meant. How was she going to ensure their safety? Was she really going to try to fight the raiders herself? And ‘fighting’, she knew, was a polite way to say ‘killing’. The idea made her nervous in more ways than one.
“Come back?” he repeated. “You do not want me to come with you?”
“I would not ask you to do that,” she snorted, embarrassed that he would even think she would suggest it.
He watched her, thinking. Then he shook his head. “You do not have to ask.”
She tilted her head at him, skeptical. He was always surprising her. “You want to help the people who captured and planned to kill you?”
“I want to help you .”
Ash leaned back against her tree, considering him. She remembered that Kala had spoken to him back in the village. She wondered if he was thinking of her, too.
He’d hardly even had to think about it. He was a better person than she was. But she’d already known that. “Are you sure?” she said.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Those people...bandits...have done this before. We have seen them attacking people for weeks now. They are no better than those gnolls. We can stop them. So we should.”
“The last time I suggested something similar, you were quite unhappy about it,” Ash noted.
“You mean Rainer?” He squinted at her. “It is not similar. How can you think that it is?”
She shifted her feet uncomfortably. She was not used to solving problems with violence. Now that it was an option, and she had the power to use force to influence the world and people around her, she had the burden of deciding when it was correct to use that power. She was finding it difficult. She remembered the meaty sound of the sword in her hand hitting that man’s face on the road, and she suppressed a shiver.
“How do you know when you should kill someone, and when you shouldn’t?” she said, knowing that it was something he had been doing for some time already.
He smiled ruefully. “I am still trying to find the answer to that question, as well.”
“Then why are we doing any of this? What right do we have to do the things we do to people? Maybe people are right to be afraid of us.”
Drizzt’s expression softened a great deal. He got up and crossed the circle of firelight to sit beside her. After a moment, he draped an arm over her shoulders.
“I spent the first forty years of my life thinking the same as the rest of my kin. I believed other races to be beneath us. I believed we were the lone paragons of righteousness in a world filled with evil.”
Ash raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged.
“It is never easy to tell right from wrong. It took me that many years to begin to see that there was something wrong with the things the matrons and priestesses taught us. It is why I doubt myself so much.”
“So you don’t think there’s an answer?”
He thought. “Perhaps not a simple one. You are right to wish that violence was not a part of the world, but it is. There will always be evil people who will not stop doing the things they do until someone forces them to. And I do not think it is right to stand by and do nothing just because you fear making the wrong judgement.”
She glanced up at him curiously, remembering his comment about how she’d looked covered in blood. “ Do you wish violence was not a part of the world? Or do you relish it?”
She felt him flinch very slightly. He didn’t reply right away. She did not think it was because he was lying to her about how he felt. It was because he felt both of those things at once, despite their conflict.
She’d seen it when he’d fought the giant, and again the other day. He had tried to hide it from her, she guessed. He did not like that humans saw him as a symbol of violence and death, and he did not like proving their fears correct.
“I am not afraid of you,” she reassured him.
He raised a hand to touch her hair, very lightly. “I think there is something broken in me, and it is too late to unbreak it,” he murmured. “Maybe it is the same part of me that falls apart when I think of bad memories too much. Opposite parts of the same sickness.”
Ash leaned her head against his shoulder. “It isn’t just you. There is something in us that instinctively seeks out power.” She gestured to her book. “You’ve seen how it obsesses me. I am afraid of myself, sometimes. The things I did to those men were frightening, whether or not they were right.”
He absently pet a hand over her head, the way she’d seen him do with Guen. Ash closed her eyes.
“You’ll really come with me to Marwood?” she asked.
“I would hardly let you go there alone.”
She was overly aware of the heat of his body against her and of his small breaths on her hair. He smelled faintly like soil, and like something sweet.
The last time she’d sat with a boy like this--because it had been so long ago that it had indeed been a boy and not a man--it had been with Hari Sellig, whose family had long since left the village. Back then, this level of closeness with someone else had been so novel and exciting that it had set her heart racing and made it hard to breathe.
Now, it still left her feeling afraid and vulnerable. Standing too close to someone only made it a shorter reach if they decided to stab you. And, some superstitious part of her was afraid that if she gave in and allowed herself too much happiness, that some unknown force would be waiting to take it away from her.
She thought of him kissing her.
She could kiss him now. She didn’t think he would mind. All she had to do was turn her head.
She took a breath and sat straight, lifting her head from his shoulder. He looked at her, almost expectantly. The fire lit his face and hair in luminescent gold, and he looked almost like a bronze statue. He was certainly beautiful enough to be mistaken for one. She was finding it harder and harder not to think things like that, lately.
She hesitated, then leaned toward him.
A shout cut through the night. It echoed over the hills from somewhere not terribly far off. They both jumped, looking into the darkness where the sound had come from.
“For the gods’ sake, Ash hissed in annoyance, leaning back. “What in the nine hells was that?”