By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 35 - Lost and Found
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, late afternoon
Having seen Marc and Emlyn returned safely to the Running Stag, Matteo bids them a good night and heads toward the Angruatil estate. The snow is falling steadily now and the wind has picked up considerably. Worried thoughts cross the Sembian’s mind. Portia’s disappearance, Immerine not returned and the whole recent affairs with the undead, let alone the attack at Memblar’s. Pulling up the collar of his jacket against the snow and wind Matteo hurries across town.
A little later Matteo arrives at the estate and enters the comfortable warm interior of the building. Rohr offers to take his jacket while greeting him. “Welcome Saer. Allow me.“ “Thank you Rohr.“ Matteo replies, shrugging out of his jacket. “Are the cloth samples I asked for this morning ready?“
“Yes Saer.“ Rohr replies taking Matteo’s jacket. “A packet has been prepared, the Lady even recommended a few of the samples herself Saer.“ Walking slightly behind Matteo, the pair walks to one of the side rooms of the main hall. “Would you care for something to drink Saer? A cup of hot tea or something stronger perhaps?“ A brief smile crosses Matteo’s face as he replies, “Something warm would be wonderful if it is available.“ Rubbing his arms to generate a little warmth he asks, “Can you have a carriage brought around the back and loaded? I’ll be off to the barracks as soon as possible.“
“Certainly Saer, and I’ll have Jastra bring you a cup of hot tea.“ Rohr replies with a smile of his own. “We were just enjoying a cup ourselves.“ The elderly servant moves of to find Jastra and arrange for a carriage as Matteo enters the room. In front of the table that dominates this well furnished room stand two chests with the requested cloth samples. The hearth burns low at this time, to keep the room a little warm. An ample supply of firewood is neatly stacked in the corner next to the hearth. Within moments Matteo hears a polite cough. “Saer, your tea.“ Jastra stands in the door opening, holding a small tray with a steaming mug of tea. “Thank you, Jastra.“ Matteo replies, rubbing his hands briskly together while turning towards the woman. “You are a wonder.“ Taking the mug he closes his eyes as the heat warms his hands and inhales the fragrance of the tea. “Now you get back to your lovely warm room. If I need anything else I can get it myself.“
Pulling up a chair beside the table, Matteo sets his mug down before crossing the room and passing through to his office. Returning shortly with a small stack of papers and an inkwell, he seats himself at the table and rapidly scans the documents ensuring that everything is in order. Pausing to rub his weary temples he takes a sip of tea, wincing as the hot liquid singes his tongue. Setting aside the first file of documents he takes up the second, running through a quick mental exercise taught to him by his uncle to focus the mind. Lifting the top page, he begins to read while waiting for Rohr to return.
The elderly servant wearing a warm cloak against the cold returns to Matteo. “Saer, your carriage is ready.“ As Rohr enters, the coach driver, who is also wrapped in a thick fur-lined cloak, follows him into the room. “Good evening Saer“ The man greets Matteo, bringing his hand to his cap in a polite salute. “These chests are the luggage you’ll be taking with you?“ He inquires. “Yes.“ Matteo replies, setting down his inkpen and gathering the documents. “Rohr, why don’t you return to Jastra and keep her company. I’ll help load the carriage.“
“Thank you Saer.“ Rohr replies and bows his head before retreating to the kitchen. After helping the coach driver to load the two chests, Matteo retrieves a warm coat and enters the carriage, giving directions to the driver. The coach ride is brief but cold, the rattling of the wheels on the cobblestones somewhat muffled by the snow. As the coach enters through the gate, Matteo sees no unusual activity, though some of the guards’ faces seem to have a sort of bleak look about them.
The coach stops before the steps that lead into Captain Zaina’s quarters; the driver quickly dismounts from his bench and opens the door for Matteo. “Just leave the chests in the carriage for the moment Jethro, we’ll check to see whether the Captain can see us before unloading them.“ Crossing the courtyard at a brisk walk Matteo enters the mess area he visited last night.
Entering the mess, Matteo looks about and sees several guards about. The atmosphere is subdued, and when the men look up to see who is entering Matteo can see gloomy expressions on their faces. Scanning the crowd, he recognizes one of the guards from the previous night. Frowning momentarily at the contrast to the previous night’s atmosphere, Matteo waves a hand towards Myron and crosses the floor towards the seated trooper. “Myron, is the Captain in?“
Myron looks up again at the man entering the mess, and then his eyes flicker momentarily in recognition. “Ehm… yes she is.“ The trooper walks up to Matteo, a look of hope in the man’s eyes as he addresses the Sembian in a hushed voice, “Do you have any news? You were with the Lieutenant weren’t you?“ Myron takes Matteo by the elbow and leads him back outside.
“The lieutenant? Lieutenant Aluar? The last I saw him was earlier this afternoon.“ Matteo accompanies Myron out to wherever the Captain is. The flicker of hope seems to die in the trooper’s eyes at Matteo’s words. “He… he never returned. After the patrol got back, we thought it would not take long before the Lieutenant would show up. He had been riding after the lady that accompanied you yesterday.“ Myron looks sideways at Matteo as they step around the carriage and climb the steps. “The sergeant took out the patrol again to search for them, but have returned empty handed. With the snowstorm building, they couldn’t risk searching any further.“ Opening the door the two men enter, brushing some of the snowflakes of their clothes.
The blood drains from Matteo’s face and he stumbles at the news. “She is out in this? Still?“ The remaining snow forgotten upon his clothing, Matteo runs a hand through his hair, looking around him. Closing his eyes he raises his face towards the ceiling and whispers under his breath, “Forgive me, Nienna.“ Looking back down at Myron, Matteo’s face is devoid of emotion and his voice flat and hard. “I’ll see what I can do. Where is the Captain?“
“She’s in her office. I’ll take you there.“ Myron replies, and leads Matteo through the corridors to the Captain’s office. After knocking on the door and waiting for the answer, the trooper opens it and lets Matteo enter. The room is comfortably warm with the hearth again blazing. Captain Zaina is throwing some extra fuel on the fire when she turns around. “Ah, well met again Saer Ashgale.“ A tight smile is drawn across her lips as she welcomes Matteo. “Please, have a seat.“
Matteo greets the Captain with a tight nod and takes a seat, laying his satchel down beside him on the floor. Shifting restlessly in the chair, he unbuttons his thick jacket and lays it over the back of the chair. Sitting forward, he watches her closely. “Myron told me that Lieutenant Aluar and the Lady Immerine are missing beyond the city.“
Throwing a log on the fire, Captain Zaina stands up and walks over to her chair. Her behavior is noticeably different from yesterday; a worried look shows on her face. “Yes. What the sergeant reported back to me was that your advisor either lost control over her mount, or simply rode off like a Cyricist Amazon.“ Zaina’s eyes stare into Matteo’s for a moment before she continues. “Lieutenant Aluar rode after her, in an attempt to calm her, or the horse down, yet the lady’s horse proved faster then the lieutenant’s and they rode out of visual range.“
Turning around Zaina walks across the room, hands clasped behind her back. Staring at the liquor cabinet she continues. “After the sergeant and the men returned to Berdusk, they continued on a patrol along the walls, a routine matter. Returning from their patrol they found out that neither the Lieutenant nor your advisor had come back. Taking fresh and swift horses, the sergeant and five men rode out in search of the two. Though they found the initial tracks, they lost them on a piece of hard and rocky ground.“ Walking back through the room, Zaina passes behind Matteo’s chair, briefly resting her hand on his shoulder before she walks on.
“The men rode in circles in an effort to pick up the trail again, but were unsuccessful. They returned to Berdusk not long before you came here. I have already ordered a search mission for tomorrow morning. I hope Auril will keep her blessings brief and short. Any amount of snowfall will only hamper the mission.“
Sighing softly, Matteo closes his eyes. “My own news is no better. Grim has retrieved his bags from the Stag and seems to have left the city. Druth was investigating Lohgran and has not returned. Portia has been abducted by Cyricists; given the threats that have been delivered to me today I would narrow that further to the western Zhentarim out of Darkhold. The Lady Jalarghar was overcome and collapsed. The only good news I have is that we destroyed the troll that captured Telsom.“
Bending his head into his hands Matteo rubs his face in an effort to banish fatigue and exhales slowly. “It has not been a good day all around.“ He is quiet for a moment then adds, “Tell me, did the lieutenant carry a horn on his horse? To warn others that the watch was approaching or to call his own troops back to him should they need to regroup?“
“No, typically the commander’s banner man rides with the horn. I don’t think Aluar has a horn or such with him.“ Zaina turns about facing Matteo again and taking a few paces in Matteo’s direction she sighs deeply. “You bring dark tidings Matteo Ashgale. Dark tidings indeed.“ Zaina shakes her head, “And Lady Jalarghar is back with her family?“
Before Matteo has a chance to answer, Zaina slams her fist on the table. “Those Hell-spawned Zhents. I wish we could root them out of their bloody fortress.“ Anger clearly visible on her face she turns around, “No matter how hard we are able to strike them, they always seem to find the resources and the men to regroup and continue to harass the Vale.“
Zaina continues in a voice that drips with cynicism, “The story at the moment is that our favorite neighborhood villain, Sememmon, is no longer in charge in Darkhold. Rumors on the reincarnation and resurgence of Bane and his followers are so thick that they must be true. That’s bad news for those thrice damned Cyricists up in the Sunset Mountains, but doesn’t seem to hinder them in their efforts to disrupt trade and peace here.“ Zaina sighs deeply again, resting her white knuckles on the table, her long blond hair hanging beside her face, obscuring it from vision.
Matteo’s head snaps up at her words. “Bane is back?“ He asks abruptly. “Well that should make my uncle happy.“ Rising slowly to his feet Matteo steps up behind Zaina and rests a hand on her shoulder. “The Lady Jalarghar is safe and sound, resting at the family manor.“ He says quietly.
“The lack of a horn makes things more difficult, but not impossible. The Lady Immerine is my responsibility, her actions as well as her person. I will see if I can find them.“ Snorting at his own foolishness, he lets his hand slide down her shoulder. “No matter how bad things look, they could always be worse you know.“
At the first touch, Zaina sighs deeply once more and softly shakes her head. When Matteo’s hand slides down her shoulder, she slowly rises, leaning slightly into his touch. Brushing her hair out of her face, Zaina looks over her shoulder into Matteo’s eyes, “That’s what I keep telling my men when they find themselves in dire straits.“ A hint of a smile forms at the corners of her mouth. Some of the smile reaches her blue eyes, and these regain a measure of warmth again. Below the normal hardness she presents to the outside world, Matteo can detect a hint of Zaina’s softer side.
“I won’t ask you to risk your life in finding your advisor, Lady Immerine and the Lieutenant.“ Zaina’s eyes continue to stare into Matteo’s gray eyes as she slowly turns towards him. “That is your decision to make. I like your bravery, even if it borders on stubbornness.“
The corners of Zaina’s mouth curl slightly in a new smile and her hand reaches out to touch his cheek, the warmth of her touch radiating into his skin even before she touches him. “I hope I don’t have to search for you as well on the morrow.“ A little moisture gathers in the corners of Zaina’s eyes as she falls silent, her eyes leaving Matteo’s to stare down toward the ground, her chest heaving with a deep intake of air.
Raising his hand to touch her chin, Matteo murmurs, “I do not know if I can be what you might want me to be, Zaina.“ Quiet for a moment, he adds, “If you knew more about me, you would not even want me in this room.“
Zaina raises her head, focusing her eyes once more on Matteo’s, her smile has attained a hint of sadness, “Oh, I doubt that Matteo. I don’t feel worried about that. You have no malicious intentions and don’t mean harm to the Jewel of the Vale. I would have sensed that.“ Some of the sadness seems to leave her face, and resolution takes over, “I hope you find both of them. Alive.“
Leaning forward, she gives a quick kiss on Matteo’s cheek, “May the Vigilant One watch over you.“ Then she turns and moves away to her chair at the other side of the table.
“Thank you Zaina.“ Matteo replies softly. “I will try to find them. Could you get me a horse… actually, a donkey or mule would be better. Cover it in woolen blankets then cut a hole in a sheet of canvas and drape that over its neck to cover the body. If something could be wrapped around its lower legs that would be good too. And food and a horn?“ Smiling grimly, he adds, “If I could trouble you for some winter clothing that might help as well.“
“We should have one or two mules in the stables.“ Zaina replies, “And those items, I’m sure the Quartermaster can provide those.“ Pulling her hair back into a semblance of normalcy, she calls out loudly. “Guard!“ Within two heartbeats the door opens, and the guard that Matteo had seen standing outside previously steps in and salutes. “Yes Ma’am.“
“Please take Saer Ashgale to the Quartermaster, and see to it that the he helps Saer Ashgale with the equipment asked for.“ The tender side of Zaina seems to have disappeared; she is once more Captain Zaina. “Saer, good luck on your mission.“ Reaching for a stack of papers on the table, she glances at Matteo. For a brief moment Zaina returns in her eyes. Yet in the blink of her eyes it is gone, and she focuses on her paperwork.
Giving a brief bow, Matteo murmurs, “Thank you, my lady“ And he backs out of the room, pulling the door shut after him, standing staring at it for a while. Shaking his head at the direction of his inner thoughts, he composes himself before turning to the guard. When he does his face is all blank impassiveness. No emotion shows in his eyes. “The quartermaster?“
The guard leads Matteo through a maze of hallways deeper into the castle. Torches provide light where no daylight ever penetrates. After a brisk walk, they arrive at the Quartermaster’s office. Matteo makes his wishes known as the little and wiry man, whom Matteo wouldn’t associate with any military organization, writes down the items. Looking up at Matteo over half-moon spectacles, the man asks in high-pitched voice, “That’ll be all Saer?“ A brief nod as an answer, the man, more closely resembling a gnome, gives a small signal to the guard. As the guard leads Matteo back through the maze, the little man walks of in a different direction. “I’ll take you to the stables. Saer.“ The man-at-arms informs Matteo.
Not quite returning the same way, Matteo soon finds himself outside in the courtyard. The wind has picked up, and makes whistling noises across the castle’s extremities in the cold afternoon air. The snorting sound of a horse draws Matteo’s attention, and to his left he sees the carriage he arrived in still standing near the steps at Captain Zaina’s quarters.
“Saer?“ The guard asks, already a few steps towards the stables, which are almost opposite across the courtyard from where they emerged out of the building.
“Just a moment, if you don’t mind.“ Matteo asks the guard, crossing over towards the carriage through the snow and reaching in for his notes and documents. Extracting a couple sheets of fine vellum he quickly pens a couple of brief messages then waves the pages about to dry the ink. Folding it over he looks about for Jethro.
“Jethro, ask a couple of the guards inside to help you unload the chests and have this message delivered to Za… to the Captain. After that you can return to the estate and to your bed, though I’d ask if you could drop this second message off at the Stag to… to Telsom, a paladin of Sune who is staying there. If he is not there give it to Andreus Nikolai Estoba Winterborne the Third, a famous bard guesting there. Got that?“ Giving the man’s shoulder a brief squeeze he smiles briefly, “And thank you, you’ve been a great help this evening.“ and places a Sembian eagle into his hand.
Hitching up his collar, he adds, “Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow.“ and turns back towards the guards’ stables.
Smiling, Jethro takes the message and the coin, “Yes saer. Thank you saer. I will deliver your message at the Stag.“ Bowing his head briefly, Jethro tucks the message and the coin in his coat and turns toward the castle.
Matteo walks up to the guard, who had been waiting patiently, and they set of across the courtyard to the stables. When the doors to the stable open, warm air welcomes the men, together with the pungent smell found in every stable in the world. The guard looks about, but can’t seem to find who he is looking for. “Fenndarr!“ He calls out, and shortly thereafter a head peers around the corner of a box. “Yes?“ The head enquires. “Someone here to see you. From the Captain.“ At those words the head emerges from the box connected to the body of a young lad, who reminds Matteo somewhat of Marc.
Matteo makes his wishes clear, and the lad hurries of to get the two mules and their gear. “The rest of your equipment will be brought here. I’ll head back to my post.“ Giving a quick salute, the guard turns about and heads out into the cold air again. It doesn’t take long before the lad returns with the two mules. Both animals have been equipped with packsaddles. Stroking one of the mules, the lad looks at Matteo again, “Bit late in the day and the season to head out on a trip saer. Not that it’s my business, but you know with the snow and all…“
Matteo nods by way of reply, his face grim as he bends to ensure the protective coverings around the animals’ lower legs are securely fastened, moving his inspection to the woolen blankets and canvas coverings over both animals only when satisfied with their bindings. “You’re right about that, my boy. That’s why donkeys rather than horses, they’re more likely to survive.“
Straightening to retrieve one of the sets of winter clothing from the packsaddles, Matteo winks at the boy. “Its not a pleasure trip, that’s for sure. But lieutenant Aluar and… and someone I… a companion of mine are out in this weather.“
Unbuckling his sword belt Matteo slides his rapier under the saddle strapping, checking to make sure it sits securely. His hand pauses at the red rose sitting safely in his jacket and he sighs softly, raising it to his nose and inhaling gently. “Be safe and well Ditalidas.“ He murmurs under his voice. “I’m sorry I cannot be there for you.“ Glancing towards the youth he measures him for a moment with his eyes, then softly says, “Here. Will you look after this for me? It was given to me by a very special lady. If… if I don’t return see that it is delivered to the Jalargharspires.“
Surprise in his eyes, the lad accepts the rose, looking from the flower to Matteo and back to the flower. “Yes… ehm yes saer… ehm …the Jalargharspires.“ Dodging the attempts of one of the mules to eat the flower, the lad walks over to an upturned wheelbarrow and puts the rose on it before returning to the mules.
Suddenly all business again Matteo dons the winter clothing, raising the fur collar of his overcoat and pulling his hat down over his ears and taking up his gloves. “Can you give me a hand to fasten these bells to the donkey’s harness? And hang one of those lanterns to each?“
“Yes saer.“ And the stable boy helps him attach the bells and the lanterns to the harnesses. When the two of them are finished the rest of the equipment Matteo requested has arrived and with the help of the stable boy it is quickly loaded on the animals. The stable boy helps Matteo walk the two animals into the courtyard. With a hint of admiration in his eyes Fenndarr gives his best imitation of a salute. “May Helm watch over you saer.“
“Thank you.“ Matteo replies somberly then winks at the young boy. “Don’t forget to add one to Lady Luck as well, I think I’ll be needing it.“ Pulling on his thick gloves, he takes the donkeys’ reins and makes his way out of the courtyard and through the near-empty streets of the city, nodding briefly to the occasional person dashing gingerly through the snow as he descends from Castle Hill down towards the Bright Moon and the Wood’s Gate. Pausing just outside the gates, he huddles in by the lee of the walls as he strips his gloves to fumble with his flint and lights the lanterns dangling from the donkeys and feeds them a couple handfuls of grain each.
Pulling his gloves back on, he winces at the pain from his bruised chest. Hunching his shoulders against the wind brings a hiss of indrawn breath and fresh pain. Shaking his head as he wraps his cloak more closely about him, he mutters under his breath, “What are you doing, you fool. If you wanted to die you could just return to Saerloon and let Zilvreen or Naergoth do the job for you. What does she… they mean to you after all? She doesn’t even like you.“ Shaking his head once again, he takes the reins of the donkeys and leads them out into the cold darkness and driving snow.
The ground, though cold has not frozen yet and the snow has turned the road outside the walls into a muddy mess. The surefooted mules have now difficulty in walking through the mud, but Matteo is less surefooted, and only by grabbing hold of the lead mule is he able to prevent falling into the mud as his feet slip out form under him several times. Once he moves off the road, on the less traveled trail that runs alongside the Chionthar, the footing becomes more comfortable for the Sembian.
Setting a brisk pace despite the weather, it still takes Matteo a good while before he arrives at the ridge overlooking the site where the battle with the Troll took place. The pyre has cooled down, but the ashes and blackened Troll bones are still warm enough to melt the snow, creating a black scar in a pristine white field. Hugging a little deeper into his coat, Matteo surveys the scene.
Tearing his gaze from the dark smear that despoils the landscape, Matteo narrows his eyes against the swirling snow and glances back over his shoulder at the twinkling lights of Berdusk, barely visible and flickering in and out of sight. A barely suppressed groan is torn from his lips as the twisting movement aggravates the bruising on his ribs.
About to leading the donkeys down the ridge towards the southern edge of the Reaching Forest Matteo pauses, recalling that Zaina mentioned the guard lost their tracks on rocky ground. Huddling down behind the lead donkey he tugs his gloves off and delves into the nearby packsaddle, retrieving more lantern oil and refilling the hanging lanterns. Crouching down he checks the bindings of the animals’ lower legs and adjusts their fit before feeding both animals another couple handfuls of grain.
Pulling his gloves back on, he rubs down the neck of the closest donkey and murmurs, “Well, how are you holding up? Time to see if we can find the lieutenant and that Cyricist Amazon.“ Chuckling at the mental image conjured by Zaina’s words; Matteo takes the reins of the lead donkey and begins to make his way along the ridge to the northeast.
Following the forest edge in the dying light of the day, and assisted by the light from the lanterns that are gently swinging from the mules’ harnesses, Matteo makes his way through the snow. Drifts of the fluffy white, wet and cold material easily reach knee height at times. Skirting the highest of the drifts, Matteo soon feels the cold penetrating through his pants that are getting soaked.
The Sembian’s mood is not improved as in the darkness he misses a little stream. Stumbling, he catches himself, but lands with one knee and a hand in the cold water. Getting up, wincing at his painful ribs once more, Matteo shakes as much water off as possible and wrings out the wet glove.
Grumbling and in fouler spirits he continues his trek through the white, yet dark wilderness. After a while he stumbles on a stony area. A rocky knoll rises from the ground. The bare rock is slick with molten snow. Only in the crevices and those spots where grass and shrubs have found a foothold, the snow has accumulated. The only thing that improves his mood is that the wind is blowing the sky clear, and Selûne’s light is helping him navigate better through the darkness now, almost eliminating the need for lanterns. Looking up at the symbol that represents the goddess, Matteo can see she is just past her complete phase. Selûne’s tears following in the bright light help bask the landscape in a silvery light.
Looking about under the silvery moonlight, he spies the small copse of trees near the far end of the knoll and leads the donkeys over the slippery rock in that direction. Reaching the trees he ties the two animals to sturdy looking tree limbs and unfastens the saddle bindings.
Lifting the packsaddles off the animals brings a muffled grunt of pain and he nearly drops them to the ground. Bending over to move them against a tree trunk produces no better result and he has to thrust out an arm to brace himself against the tree as nausea and pain assail him, causing a spell of momentary dizziness. Panting, he removes his hat and wipes away the sudden film of sweat that has broken out on his forehead.
With the threat of continued snowfall momentarily abated, he slips out of his outer layer of protective clothing and buckles on his swordbelt. About to grab further articles from the saddlebags he pauses at the squelching coming from his boot. Placing one hand on the side of the donkey to balance himself, he lifts his leg and removes the boot before wringing out his boot-liners. Grimacing as he slides his foot back into the wet, cold boot he retrieves one of the lanterns and the horn. Rising to his feet he stops, checking both lanterns for oil and refilling them as required.
With lantern in one hand and horn in the other, he sets out to explore the small copse of trees. The copse is made up of a mixture of coniferous trees and a few birches, the white trunks of the birches contrasting sharply with their dark companions. Venturing a little deeper in the copse, Matteo can’t find any traces of Immerine or the Lieutenant. Making his way back, he looks at the rocky knoll. From this point, it appears that this side is rather steep, almost vertical at times. Deep cracks run in the side of the rock, remaining hidden in shadow from the light of the lanterns and the moon.
Perched within the copse Matteo raises the horn to his lips and lets forth a loud bellow. As his arm drops back to his side he stands motionless for several moments, straining for even the hint of a replying sound.
As the silence stretches on and on, he shakes his head slightly. “To much to hope for really.“ He mutters under his breath. Stretching his back he looks over the rocky terrain and sighs. “She… they could have fallen down any of these cracks…“
“Nothing for it, I suppose.“ Wiggling his toes to check for loss of feeling he stifles a yawn and then another. Gingerly touching his injured ribs he winces and turns back to the task at hand. Moving out of the copse and onto the rocky terrain he begins to make his way around the knoll, keeping the edge of the rocky hill in sight to his left and pausing to blow the horn at regular intervals.
The blowing of the horn seems to have no result in getting a response. Nor do any of the cracks reveal any hint of Immerine’s passage or the Lieutenant’s. Matteo steadies himself by grabbing hold of a small tree that miraculously grows out of a small crack in the rock. Peering down a snow covered slope, Matteo can see the lights of Berdusk in the distance. Turning around he sees a dark shape in the snow that wasn’t there before. With a roar the shape rises in the air, the creature now standing on two legs roars at Matteo again. The light of the lantern reflecting of a muzzle with wicked teeth, the large, dark furry shape advances on Matteo. Involuntary stepping back, Matteo’s foot slips, and in a reflex the Sembian manages to grab hold of the sapling.
The slip might as well have saved his live for the moment, instead of catching the full blow from a claw. Only a fraction of the force hits, and sends Matteo hurtling down the slope. The ugly gashes from the hit across his back send waves of agony through his body, and the fall doesn’t improve the condition of his bruised ribs either. Waves of nausea send Matteo teetering on the edge of consciousness as black spots swim before his eyes…
Lying on his back in the snow Matteo groans in pain and slumps back into the numbing cold, sucking in a shuddering breath that causes pain to flare in his rubs and along his back. Another low groan is torn from deep within his throat and he rolls over, staining the snow red as he coughs up a mouthful of blood.
As he sits up a wave of dizziness threatens to overwhelm him and he sways drunkenly. Looking up the cliff-face, Matteo finds his vision obscured. Tugging off his glove he gently touches his fingertips to his forehead, wincing at the added pain as his fingers come away covered in yet more blood.
Turning about to look where he fell, he hisses as agonizing pain flares up his spine and lances through his back, going pale at the blood spattered in the snow where his back lay moments ago. Gritting his teeth in pain, he shuffles as he tries to get his hand underneath his body and tries to struggle to his feet. Yet when Matteo puts weight on his right leg, pain flashes up from his ankle. Force of will alone prevents Matteo from crying out in pain, only a groan escapes his lips as he grits his teeth.
The new pain makes the black spots swim before his eyes again as he doubles over, momentarily unable to do anything but breathe. After a while, Matteo sits up once more. When his vision has cleared somewhat, Matteo looks around and up the slope once more. The rim clearly visible against the night sky, there is no sign of the bear. Lifting himself on his arms, Matteo shuffles over to a nearby rock, amazed at the fact that he didn’t hit his head against it when he fell down.
Matteo draws his rapier, looking at the thin blade for a moment as he runs it across his gloved hand. Searching for a suitable crack in the rock, Matteo slips the rapier in halfway the length of the blade. Making sure it is wedged tight enough, Matteo takes hold of the hilt and leans against the blade with all the weight and strength he can muster. The first effort yields no success. Matteo only manages to rip open the sleeve of his coat.
The second try is more successful. With a loud snap, the blade snaps in two, the wedged piece slowly sliding out of the crack. Picking up the two halves of the blade, Matteo sits up again, and while holding the pieces in one hand, he shuffles back into more open and lighter space.
Panting from the physical toll such exertion extracts from his battered body, Matteo wipes away the blood that continues to flow down his face with the back of his hand, inadvertently smearing it across his face. Reaching into his jacket sleeve, he pulls forth his hidden dagger from its wrist sheaf, balancing it in the palm of his hand as he gazes down at it. Flipping it over, he slides the point down between boot and leg and makes a small cut. Gritting his teeth as each small movement causes pain to shoot up his leg and flare through his injured back, he slowly cuts his way down the boot to the ankle before pausing, sweat drenching his face and mingling with the blood from his forehead, causing it to flow even more freely.
Holding his breath in trepidation, he places one hand beneath the heel of his boot and the other on the toe then quickly slips the boot from his foot. Agony fires through his ankle and up his leg. Black spots briefly flare in Matteo’s eyes before pain chases consciousness before it and he topples over in the snow.
Through the darkness and the haze of pain comes a feeling of cold and wet. The insistent feeling forces Matteo back into a semblance of consciousness. When he feels he can open his eyes his first reflex is to close them again as a wet substance hits his retina. Blinking a few times, Matteo moves his right hand to shield his eyes before opening them again. Stiffness and cold assault his body as he finally sees what woke him. Snow! The white fluffy and wet substance has already formed a thin layer on his body.
Matteo almost slumps back into the welcoming numbness, visions of his dead wife floating across in front of his eyes. Closing his eyes a ghostly face framed in dark hair and a pair of brilliant blue eyes forms and takes shape and a soft moan rises from his chest.
Rolling over in the snow he hisses at the pain that shoots up his leg from his ankle and memory returns of a shattered blade. Pawing through the snow, he curses as his finger catches the edge of cold metal and more blood stains the snow. Pulling the shards from the snow he re-gathers his dagger and slices strips of cloth from his cloak and ties a makeshift splint around his leg, gritting his teeth against the pain and lassitude that threatens to take him back into soft darkness.
Shivering against the cold that seeps in through his dampened clothing he shudders, wincing at the fresh agony that wracks his upper body. Groaning, he staggers to his hands and knees then hesitantly tries to rise to his feet, keeping weight of his damaged ankle as much as possible. Awkwardly Matteo gets to his feet, the effort draining more strength than he had anticipated. A bit ungainly he balances on one leg, holding only the tip of his right foot to the ground for balance purposes.
Slowly looking about, Matteo sees the snow falling down again, blown forth by the wind. Though it snows less then it did earlier in the evening, it is still enough to hamper vision, certainly now that Selûne’s light only intermittently illuminates the landscape. Chilled by the wind and his wet clothes Matteo stumbles in the direction of the copse where he left the mules. Delirious from the pain and the cold, Matteo sees flashes of other vista’s pass before his eyes, flashes of his past.
Hobbling and staggering through the slush and fresh snow that coats the rocks and makes footing treacherous, Matteo slips. Instinctively trying to put his other foot under his body, his ankle bends and though the makeshift splint holds he screams aloud in raw pain as he lurches forward, grasping vainly at a nearby rock formation for support. His hands paw futilely at the slick stone and he falls forward to land heavily on the hard ground, the jarring impact enough to reopen the gash above his eye and hot blood flows freely down his face once again.
Rolling in agony on the ground, gasping for air, he gives in to the ghosts of the past as tears form and mix with blood. “I’m sorry Nienna, I’m so sorry. Please don’t die. Not like this, not here.“ Rising up onto his elbows, the battered Sembian crawls towards the rocks. “I’m coming, my love, I’m coming.“
Collapsing against the cold rocks he flops a tired arm around them and hugs the chilled stone against his chest as his other hand strokes the wet, smooth surface. “I’m here, my love. No, no the wound doesn’t hurt. Sshhh, its alright. Here, let me wipe your mouth. No, the vomit doesn’t matter. Let it all come out, you’ll be better in the morning, I promise. No, no there isn’t any blood in it. Yes, you’re still beautiful to me, so beautiful… You’re cold? You can’t feel your legs? Let me warm you up, my love. No, don’t you leave me Nienna. You can’t die, you can’t. I love you. No, no, no…“ Slumping limping against the stone he screams aloud, “Nienna!“ and begins to cry.
“You bastard!“ He screams at the sky before groaning at the toll such exertion takes on his broken body. “Why did you have to kill her? Why? I loved her! You bastard! Run, uncle. Run. I’m coming to kill you… I’m coming… I’m coming… oh Nienna.“ Groping at the rock formation Matteo claws his way upright, swaying dangerously as his body shudders uncontrollably from the cold. “I’m coming Nienna… I’ll save you.“
Lurching forward, he shuffles forward like a drunkard, his injured foot trailing behind as his vision blurs. “One day, this will all be yours, my boy: The power to shape realms, the power to take what you want, when you want it. It’s the money, my boy. Naergoth and Salvarad, Zilvreen and Zannaster, they might have the power, my boy, but they need your brains and our money. You’ll look good in purple, my boy. It is your destiny.“
“The money, always the money with you uncle. Don’t we have enough? When I do the books I find we make millions every year. Millions! I have lied and cheated for you and our money, uncle. Seduced wives and daughters for you, had people murdered, whole families have been eliminated. There is barely a crime I haven’t committed. Nienna says… Nienna… don’t you hurt her uncle, don’t you lift a finger against her.“
“You need to leave, my love? Leave Saerloon? When will you be… never? You’ll never… I’ll come with you. We can be together. My family? The money? What does it matter? I love you, Nienna. We can get married, settle… yes, my love, married. You’ll marry me? Suzail, we can go to Suzail…“
Stumbling forward blindly Matteo’s toe catches on the lip of a rock and he topples forward, sprawling onto the ground and grunting as his face smacks into the cold, hard stone. A sharp outcrop slashes his cheek open before another splits his lip. Rolling over with a drawn-out groan, he slumps into a sitting position. Blood flows thickly from his nose and mouth, staining the front of his chest. “Tired, so tired…“ Glancing up, he catches sight of the silvery moon briefly as it winks in and out of sight behind thick clouds.
“Shines… shines like… Such beautiful eyes. Green eyes. Reminds me of… of… I miss her so much. I’m coming… coming to save you.“ A hiss of indrawn breath marks Matteo’s attempt to rise, followed by a low moan and a ragged sob as his body protests against continued punishment. “Lost Nienna… not going to lose…“
Driving himself onwards, Matteo staggers wildly, his eyes misted over and vacant. “Nienna never flashed her temper at me when she was angry with herself. When she gave me the rough side of her tongue it was because she… such green eyes, beautiful green eyes. I cannot… it is too soon… but I feel things… and Zaina…“
Looking in the direction of the copse, Matteo strains to see through the spots swimming before his eyes. Blinking a few times to clear his vision he sees the flickering of light. Stumbling in the direction Matteo’s hope rises again. “Light. The mules… Must make it…“ Biting through the pain in his body, Matteo moves towards the light, only to slip painfully on another slick rock. Screaming in pain and frustration Matteo doesn’t bother to get up, instead he drags himself over the ground. Yet the effort of crawling saps more of his strength as also the cold takes its toll. Though his will wants to continue, the body does not respond and resigns in the situation, refusing to move further.
Sagging into the cold, wet ground Matteo claws ineffectually for a grip, anything that would help him reach the looming light in the distance. “I’m coming.“ He moans as he sinks further into delirium, “I’m coming…“
“Must… must reach… save you…“ The numbing chill from the stone seeps into Matteo’s body, bringing with it sweet lassitude and a blessed freedom from pain.
Through the mist before his eyes a slender figure takes form, materializing out of the drifting wisps and tendrils. Glistening black hair frames smiling face and brilliant green eyes. “Nienna… coming…“ The smile fades to a look of infinite sadness and the figure retreats, dissipating into the mist even as it raises an imploring outstretched hand. Another dark-haired face flows from the swirling mist and snow. Green eyes shine above a gently smiling mouth. “Immerine? I’m coming… never lose…“ Delirious moans break off with a strangled gasp as the naked figure emerges fully from the surrounding fog, only to be joined by another naked figure, this one blond haired. “Zaina? What are…?“
Stretching forward a limp hand in yearning, Matteo reaches for the women before him, his unspoken plea turning into a strangled cry as both figures open their mouths to reveal bared teeth and fangs. His mind recoiling even as he screams hoarsely in denial, Matteo tries feebly to pull himself forward but succeeds only in tearing new gashes in his ragged clothing.
Retreating a little away Zaina growls at Matteo, stepping sideways and in a crouch. On the other side, just barely visible in his peripheral vision, Matteo sees Immerine approach on all fours. Her hips swaying seductively, she reminds Matteo in some remote part of his brain of a canine. Zaina on his left side has dropped on all fours as well, and approaches. Sneering a little she opens her mouth and sticks her tongue out, licking her lips. At the same time, Matteo feels something warm and wet in his right ear.
As her right hand gropes about on his chest, Immerine’s tongue draws slow circles around his ear. When Matteo turns his head to face her, her head retreats, giving a toothy smile. When he tries to reach out with his left arm to touch her, he finds his arm pinned by Zaina. Her face close to his, long blond hair falling across his face, she opens her mouth and her tongue sneaks out, licking his cheek from the corner of his mouth, along his left eye across his forehead. When she pulls away a little, her breast sliding over his chest. Matteo sees blood smeared around her mouth.
Then Immerine pushes her away, crawling over him, swaying her head slowly from left to right as her green eyes stare in to his gray orbs. Slowly she moves her head closer to his, mouth opening. Lower and lower her head moves, closer and closer to Matteo’s face, her mouth opening impossibly wide. Then, in a rapid and fluid movement she sits up, arching her back, her firm breasts taut as she stretches. Throwing her head in her neck, she howls like a lone wolf into the night sky.
With a shake of her head she rolls off Matteo, to get back up on all fours. Circling slowly behind his head, Matteo loses visibility of both women. Trying to turn around, he discovers that he no longer can move his limbs. The signals his brain sends to his limbs are not obeyed by his system. Before the horror of this reaches his brain, he feels teeth sinking softly in both shoulders. Carefully he is lifted from the ground and dragged on through the snow. Trying to speak, only soft near inaudible groans escape his mouth.
Overhead clouds race by as in a fast moving dream. The racing clouds now and again offering glimpses of Selûne and the stars. As Selûne makes follows her arching path in the night sky, Matteo is suddenly surprised that the sensation of the dragging movement has stopped. Immerine’s naked form once more hovers into his vision. Sadness and compassion in her eyes, she reaches forward with her head, softly nudging him.
Getting no reaction, she turns away looking toward something in the distance, cocking her head slightly. Zaina crawls closer to her, leaning comfortably against Immerine. After a brief moment Immerine looks at Zaina and pushes her away, first with her shoulder, and then moving on all fours nudging Zaina with her head. Zaina looks at Immerine in question, and refuses to leave. Apparently this angers Immerine and she bares her teeth at Zaina snarling and driving her backward, away from Matteo. Finally Zaina crawls away, looking back at Immerine with a sad look in her eyes.
Immerine moves back to Matteo and sits next to him on her hands and knees. Though she is naked in this cold weather, Matteo can feel heat radiating from her body, her soft skin not showing a single goose bump. Raising her head to the night sky she howls loudly. The howl sounds like a plea to Matteo’s ears. The only effect the howl seems to have is a flickering light that appears somewhere up high. Upon seeing the light, Immerine howls again, this time her howl is followed by voices yelling in the dark. Seemingly satisfied Immerine lies down, crawling close against Matteo, offering her body heat to the stone cold man.
The voices are too far away for Matteo to hear. Yet Immerine’s howl must have had some effect. All of a sudden the sound of something hissing through the air and thudding in the ground can be heard. Followed by another and yet another. With the last sound, Matteo notices Immerine flinch, but she keeps close hugging him. The warmth of her body is making Matteo drowsy, and he feels his consciousness slipping away.
Vaguely, somewhere in the distance he hears the sound of a gate opening, and angry voices coming from behind that gate. His clouded mind can’t make out what the voices are saying, but there is some wariness in them as they approach. The woman at his side stirs slightly, and he can feel her muscles tense. Further and further his consciousness is slipping. The last thing he hears is a metallic click and something impacting. He feels Immerine move away and cry out in pain and anguish. The sound fades into a whisper before fading out altogether.
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