A Winter Journey
Written for Juletide 2012. This ... ran away with me. A story about Elaith and Danilo was apparently exactly what I'd been aching to write at the time,
even though I didn't realise it until I started writing.
Disclaimer 1: This is fanfic. That means I do not own any of it. I just borrow it to play with for a little while and let people see the pathetic
results if they really want to.
Disclaimer 2: I'm not making any money from it. It's just for fun.
Disclaimer 3: What isn't borrowed is all made up. None of this is real or most likely at all realistic. Please don't trust any of the information in here.
Most likely you know more about whatever I'm writing about than I do.
Disclaimer 4: Attitudes, views and opinions expressed by the characters or in the story are not necessarily those of the author. Even when writing Science
Fiction or Fantasy I do not tend to attempt to create perfect/better worlds in which everybody gets a happy end ... or whatever is best for them. Please
accept that some characters will have a bad ending or be unhappy.
Disclaimer 5: I intend no insult to anyone. If I offend anyone I'm very sorry. Please understand that it was an accident as I tend to be very clumsy in these
Disclaimer 6: If my characters' conversations seem odd or they appear to be talking past each other the latter might occasionally be intentional, but most
likely it is an accident and I'm not aware that they are. It's just my bad communication skills.
A Winter Journey
Elaith surveyed the small group that had gathered to form this year's last caravan to Silverymoon with a quick glance and groaned.
"You again," he complained, though not entirely sure himself how serious he was. While he heartily disliked harpers he did not think he had anything to fear from them on this expedition. His business in Silverymoon for once was almost certainly legal.
"As far as I know, yes," Danilo Thann confirmed happily. "At least I was still myself the last time I looked in a mirror and I expect I would know if I had been replaced by a doppelgaenger. Or ... do you think doppelgaengers actually believe that they are the victims they replace?"
Elaith decided that he had been serious after all. He might not have anything to fear from any other harpers, but this particular one was sure to drive him insane.
"Well," the human continued. "I suppose you wouldn't know unless you were a doppelgaenger yourself and even then only if my theory isn't true. That's quite a conundrum, don't you agree?"
"Perhaps so," Elaith allowed. "But I can assure you that you are certainly not a doppelgaenger. At least I have never met one that was quite this stupid."
"Ah yes, my teachers used to tell me I had it down to a form of art and if my uncle isn't just trying to flatter me I haven't lost the knack. But you know how much one can trust one's relatives. Or do you?"
"Indeed I do not," Elaith seethed and stalked off.
Unfortunately there would be very little chance to avoid Danilo Thann on this trip. It was late in the year, the first heavy snowfall expected any day now, and few merchants or even hardy sellswords were willing to risk being caught in a blizzard on the road, not to mention the ever increasing number of orc attacks.
In fact, only a few days earlier Elaith himself had thought that the Waterdeep nobles were fools to organise another caravan this late in the year, but now that he himself was forced to hasten North despite the season, he was quite thankful for it. He would not have liked to make this trip alone.
That was another thing to think about. The Thann family had no share in this caravan and while Danilo seemed to hardly ever involve himself in the family business, he lived more than well off it. The only reason he had to hire himself out as a sellsword was for his own amusement. Elaith doubted that boredom was a sufficient reason to drive a man out onto the roads at this time of the year.
No, Danilo Thann wasn't here to amuse himself or because he was in urgent need of money and that left only one other option. Khelben Arunsun had sent him on harper business.
Elaith once again reminded himself that there was no reason for the harpers to interfere with his current undertaking, but still Danilo's presence didn't sit
well with him. After all, the harpers shouldn't have had any conceivable reason to interfere with his quest to restore his moonblade's magic either.
Danilo looked after the elf, carefully keeping his face neutral. He certainly hadn't expected to meet Elaith Craulnober on this mission.
Of course he knew that Elaith had an interest in many caravans that left and returned to the city and occasionally accompanied them, but that wasn't a common occurrence. Just like the heads of the noble merchant clans, Elaith could afford to hire others to transport and protect goods for him and did so most of the time. Besides, it would be unwise to send any goods of high value with this particular caravan. The investment would be too risky.
Though, if Elaith was taking such a risk it would explain his personal presence. Yes, Elaith could hire a large group of sellswords, but unless they were attacked by very large numbers, those would be less dangerous in a fight than the elf himself.
None of the other caravan guards seemed to be in Elaith's employ, though. At least none of them approached him for instructions - and neither did any of the drivers.
No, if Elaith had goods on the caravan, he'd be supervising their loading or checking up on them if they were already loaded and he wasn't showing any interest in any particular wagon at all.
That meant Elaith was travelling to Silverymoon and had joined the caravan for reasons of safety or comfort. He wasn't taking any goods to sell, so either he was going there to buy or for some more nefarious reason. He certainly wouldn't travel for pleasure at this time of the year.
Or was he here to watch Danilo himself? Was he ... could he be aware of his mission? And if so, did he have any reason to interfere with it? Elaith usually worked for personal gain and Danilo couldn't see any here, unless somebody else was paying Elaith. He couldn't completely discount that, though he doubted it. Elaith would most likely lose business if his mission failed, so his asking price would be disproportionally high. It wouldn't be hard to find others who'd be willing to try for a lot less, people that Danilo wouldn't recognise at once and be wary of.
But even if his presence had nothing to do with Danilo's mission, it was no guarantee that Elaith wouldn't get in its way somehow. He certainly had in their hunt for the morning-lark harp.
And there always was the danger that Elaith might decide to kill him again, be it for Danilo borrowing his moonblade to slay a monstrous cricket that was about to eat their travelling companions or because he suddenly decided that little Azariah would be safer if one less person knew about her existence after all.
Danilo suppressed a sigh. He'd have to keep an eye on the elf.
The first part of the trip went well enough. Elaith kept mostly to himself while Danilo was the life of the party entertaining everybody with bawdy songs, inane jokes and 'miscast' spells.
Somehow he still found time to approach the elf every now and then and ask leading questions. Elaith made sure not to reveal anything of the purpose of his trip any more than Danilo did his own. It would probably have been wiser to just tell the annoying harper what he wanted to know. Most likely then he'd go away and leave him alone.
But Elaith was feeling grumpy and spiteful. There'd been some snowfall already and the wind was so bitingly cold he'd been forced to flatten his ears under a fur hat. It was awfully uncomfortable, but if he didn't they went numb from the cold and hurt even worse when he managed to warm them up again when they stopped for the night.
The big heavy humans, most of them of northern stock, definitely had the advantage over him when dealing with these temperatures.
"Say, can you even hear me through that thing?" Ah yes, here was Danilo Thann again.
"Better than I'd like," Elaith snapped.
"Really? Well, I'm glad to hear that," Danilo chatted away happily. "It looks so thick and heavy that I doubt I'd be able to hear anything at all with it jammed over my ears like that. But then of course. you elves do have much sharper ears. I have to admit that I envy you those. The things one might overhear at ... Though right now, I think, I'd prefer elven night-vision," he said abruptly. "Should it be getting dark already?"
With a touch of surprise Elaith realised that his sight had indeed begun to slide into night vision and no, it wasn't that late, yet, despite the season. He looked up to check the sky.
Dark and cloudy - and looking even darker and cloudier up ahead. The wind definitely had picked up as well. How had he missed that?
"Storm," he realised.
"Blizzard," Danilo amended suddenly just as serious. "We have to get under cover and fast."
Which, of course, was impossible with the slow, heavy wagons slugging along on a snow-covered road. They couldn't reach the next village or inn in time, nor would it be wise to veer off the road and take cover between trees. Even if they might manage to get in there right now, the blizzard would leave deep snow drifts in which the wheels were sure to get stuck.
After a few frantic minutes the caravan master realised this, too, and they arranged the wagons in the tightest formation they could manage and sought shelter in or between them while the wind howled over and around them, tearing at the planes and blowing thick walls of snow in every direction.
Danilo pulled a heavy cloak with a fur-lined hood out of his magic bag of holding apparently finally beginning to fear for his short, round human ears as well. Elaith, already wearing all the clothes he had with him, shot him an angry glare and huddled shivering against the nearest wagon.
The human's returned look, however, seemed almost concerned and his hand went back into his bag for something else, but just then the terrified shriek of one of the drivers interrupted the useless attempts to find shelter from the wind and snow.
"Orcs!" the boy shouted. "We're under attack!"
They squeezed through between the wagons in the vague direction of the voice and stumbled out into a wall of whiteness. With the wind blowing icy crystals into his face Elaith had a hard time trying to tell where the falling snow ended and the ground began. As for orcs ...
Well, there wasn't one in arm's reach of him in any case. A dark shadow that appeared to his right after a moment turned out to be Danilo Thann when another gust of wind almost blew Elaith into it.
The heavier humans really had the advantage in this weather, he grudgingly admitted to himself. At least, while he too had to lean into the wind, Danilo was able to walk in a straight line despite it.
The orcs would be even better off.
"See anything?" he asked the human.
"A lot of snow," Danilo returned unperturbed. "Pretty at first, but it is beginning to get a little monotonous by now ..."
"I mean," A gust of wind straight in his face forced him to close his eyes against the snow and stole his breath. He gasped for air, then continued. "Orcs."
"Now, while those certainly would contrast nicely in colour, I don't think they're particularly decorati ..."
A scream of pain cut him off and gave Elaith the directions he'd wanted. After stumbling in that direction for several hard won metres, an orc finally appeared before him and Elaith set to slicing her up with savage joy. Here finally was something he could spend all his anger at both the weather and his travel companions on without any unfortunate consequences.
The orc never stood a chance despite her much better balance in the storm and quite impressive strength. She had some skill with her sword as well, but while the unpredictable interference of the wind prevented Elaith from dodging and parrying as elegantly as usual, it also threw him about so suddenly that the orc couldn't get a hold of him either. A rather clumsy slash across her throat when he happened to be thrown that way ended the fight and her life and Elaith moved on towards a crunching sound that indicated another orc.
This one turned out to be armed only with a spear and not nearly as experienced as the female. Elaith dispatched him quickly and moved on. He thought he was getting the hang of fighting in this weather, and the exercise was warming him up as well.
He was just beginning to enjoy himself when sudden howling and crashing sounds from far behind finally revealed the real attack force of their enemy. This wasn't some small marauding band of hungry orcs making a desperate attack on the caravan for lack of better prey, this was a distraction by a small advance group of an actual army. They'd successfully drawn the defenders away from the wagons that were now free for the rest of the army to plunder.
The wagons and goods were nothing to Elaith, of course, but the thought of having been tricked by mere orcs was unbearable. Without considering the consequences, he turned around and started to half-run half-stumble back towards the wagons. What he meant to do on his own against an apparently well organised army of orcs he wouldn't have known if he'd thought about it, nor would he ever find out.
He didn't get very far before he literally collided with another orc - and this one wasn't acting alone. Just how many there were was impossible to judge through the curtain of whirling snow, but they were enough to completely surround the elf like a living wall.
At first this seemed to be to his advantage as they served as a rather efficient windbreak that allowed him to fully use the fighting skill he'd gained in centuries of practise for the first time in this battle and he managed to wound several of the attackers badly before killing one.
It was then that the advantage of his opponents' wall became apparent. His victim fell creating a sudden hole that allowed the air to rush though. Unprepared and too light to resist the suddenly renewed onslaught of the storm Elaith was thrown against the opposite side of the orc-wall. He felt something pierce his side with a sudden pain, then a slash across his thigh, and went down knowing there was no room left to roll away to and that they'd never give him the chance to get up again.
But then there came a sudden blinding flash of magic, a hissing sound and a little later a pull on his arm.
"Come on," Danilo Thann's voice hissed at him. "We don't have much time. The blinding spell won't last long."
He started to roll over to get his feet under him, but intense pain shot though his side the moment he started to move.
"I can't," he gasped.
"Yes, you can," Danilo insisted. "I'll help you."
And indeed the human kept pulling and pushing until Elaith somehow managed to get into an upright position, though he thought he must be leaning on the human more than actually standing.
Danilo however wasn't content with that feat and started moving away, pulling and dragging him along, he wasn't sure in what direction. He still couldn't see and it had to be obvious even to the fool Danilo pretended to be that Elaith was in no condition to continue to fight. The wagons were lost leaving them with no safe place to retreat to, or collect their wounded. What did the human mean to do with him?
He started to ask, but found that he wasn't able to do much more than gasp through the pain in his side. That was bad. Why was the only pain he could feel coming from that wound when he clearly remembered another in his thigh? Shouldn't that one be hurting a lot more when he was walking?
At least the human not only kept him upright, but also grounded him against the wind. He closed his useless eyes and let himself be led focussing on suppressing the pain as best he could.
At some point they ran into an obstacle that must have been hidden under the snow and fell, but it was somehow less windy here and Danilo pulled Elaith back up once again and made him go on.
A while later the sounds changed and there seemed to be no more snow falling onto them. Elaith opened his eyes and discovered that he could see again. They were in what appeared to be a small cave or maybe a large burrow dug by some very large animal as the walls appeared to be earth, not rock. A young dragon's first home, perhaps? Elaith let go of his human crutch and sank to the ground, hoping the place was abandoned. He certainly didn't feel like he could fight or flee anything at all right now. In fact, he didn't think he could go another step.
Danilo glanced down at him worriedly, then let himself drop as well. He looked almost as exhausted as Elaith felt, though he at least didn't seem to be wounded.
"Rest," Elaith managed to gasp and the human nodded and once again opened his bag of holding.
Elaith ignored it at first and simply closed his eyes, expecting to pass out. He didn't think he could muster even the little amount of concentration required to enter reverie, so sleep it'd have to be. It'd probably amuse the human.
However, Danilo roused him again before he could drift off completely, insisting on having a look at his wound and bundling him up in a fur blanket. Elaith groaned a complaint, but let him have his way. He didn't feel up to a fight and the blanket actually was quite nice to have.
Danilo dug through his bag again, found a vial, uncorked it and held it to Elaith's lips.
"I'm afraid that's the strongest healing potion I have," he explained. "I couldn't carry anything more efficient, because ..." he hesitated. "Well, I've got another item, my uncle insisted that I take to Silverymoon, that unfortunately doesn't react well to other powerful magical items."
The potion did help, though. After drinking it, Elaith decided that he felt up to reverie after all. Maybe even to a little conversation.
"What about your ring of teleportation?" he asked.
Danilo shook his head. "Absolutely no transportation magic at all. That's why I have to carry the damn thing in the first place." He glared at his bag.
"Firewood?" They'd freeze to death if the storm didn't abate while it was still light enough to find something they could burn.
"Oh yes," the human replied and to Elaith's amazement began to pull neatly chopped logs out of his bag and arrange them in front of the elf.
"You carry chopped wood around?"
"There's a lot of room to spare in here, especially without all the spell components I had to leave behind," Danilo explained. "And for some reason Arilyn objects to me filling it all with spare clothes. The woman has no fashion sense, really! Once she even said to store the clothes in the empty space in my head and save the room in my bag for actually useful stuff. So I thought, since my uncle insisted that I should travel in the middle of winter, well, what could be more useful than a portable camp fire?"
He casually lit the fire with a simple spell while he prattled on. Still too week to put up much resistance, Elaith tuned out the nonsense instead and soon
slipped off into reverie.
The storm stopped sometime during the night and no orcs or wild beasts disturbed them, but Danilo was quite worried by their situation nevertheless. Khelben had insisted that it was vital for the safety of the silver marches that Lady Alustriel received the crystal ball before the orc army reached Silverymoon and at least part of the army had caught up with him now.
On his own and with a horse he still might not have a problem to overtake them and reach Silverymoon first. There was even a good chance that he could outpace an army on foot, but he couldn't leave Elaith to fend for himself in the condition he was in, nor would the elf be able to manage a fast pace on his injured leg.
Perhaps there were other survivors of the caravan that he could leave him with, though.
"Stay here," he told Elaith uncharacteristically shortly. "I'll have a look around. There ought to be something I can hunt for breakfast."
The elf looked at him doubtfully, but didn't object. He was probably right. Most of the time when he travelled Danilo left the hunting to Arilyn for good reasons.
The forest outside the cave was cold, silent and peaceful. There was no sign of any living creatures and little damage from the blizzard except an unusual amount of broken twigs and branches on the ground. Danilo eyed those speculatively. It would be wise to gather firewood if they had to camp again in the night, but not to carry it all day and his stash should serve them for as long as they were still likely to remain here.
Elaith could use a crutch, but none of the limbs he saw seemed to be the right length and strength for that purpose.
At the edge of the forest he stopped and peered out into the open cautiously, but there was no sign of life. All trails in the snow had been blown away and snowdrifts had buried most of the bodies he found when he returned to the battleground. Most of them were orcs, only two humans, which gave him hope that at least some of their companions had escaped, but there was no telling how many more bodies were hidden under the snow nor any hint of a trail to show where the survivors had gone.
The wagons had been smashed to pieces, goods either ruined or carried off, but there was no other trace of the orc army left either. Apparently they'd been in a hurry to move on. That didn't bode well for Silverymoon.
A single dead horse was still harnessed to the remains of one of the wagons, but the orcs hadn't even bothered to cut the animal up for meat. Would they have taken the living horses? His own hadn't been tied very securely and was more likely to have torn loose and fled, but if so he'd have headed back towards the last inn where a warm stable, hay and oats promised a lot more comfort than freedom in the midst of a northern winter.
He'd probably be recognised there and most likely sent back to the Thann family if Danilo didn't show up to claim him before the next caravan bound to Waterdeep came through.
"He might show some loyalty and come looking for his master," Danilo murmured to himself, but he knew that a horse wasn't a dog.
Remembering breakfast, he cut some meat off the dead horse, picked up one of the pieces of wagon that looked like it'd be relatively easy to fashion into a crutch and left the rest for the wolves and other scavengers.
He followed his trail in the snow back to the cave, put the meat on spits to roast over the fire and told Elaith what he'd found while he carved away at the piece of wood.
"So you successfully caught a dead horse for breakfast," the elf commented. "Should I congratulate you on your hunting skills?"
"It's food," Danilo pointed out. "And I found you a crutch. I'm afraid you're still not quite equipped to give a ball, both in the food and the dancing department, but then while you do have a bard available," he nodded towards his lute. "I'm not quite sure where we'd find the ladies. Or ballroom for that matter ..."
"I don't," Elaith snapped. "Want to give a ball. But I could certainly use my horse."
"Oh, but just think ..." Danilo started, but on seeing the murderous look in Elaith's amber eyes reigned himself in. "If the orcs didn't catch him, he's probably run back to the last inn we stopped at. Both of our horses are probably munching the innkeeper's best hay in a nice comfortable stable right now and laughing at us stranded out here in the cold."
Elaith looked at the still unfinished crutch doubtfully. "Even with that thing it'll take at least three days to get back there with the shape my leg is in. Are you sure you can't risk even such a short teleportation?"
So Elaith probably had a teleportation spell of his own up his sleeve. It didn't really surprise Danilo.
"No," he replied firmly. "And I can't waste time going back either. I must get to Silverymoon before the orcs lay siege to it and block the way in. Besides,
the next village is closer than the inn. If we start right after breakfast, we might be able to reach it before nightfall. They probably won't have a priest,
but you can hire a pretty maid to nurse you and I can hire or buy a horse to take me and Khelben's stupid artefact to Silverymoon. If you're not satisfied
with your nurse I can even pick you up on the way back to Waterdeep. I could hand you over to Elder Duirsar again, haven't visited him in a while anyway and
Elaith soon found that even with the crutch and Danilo's shoulder to lean on it was almost impossible to make any progress though the deep snowdrifts that the blizzard had left behind. Danilo had been right to insist on the closest destination. He doubted that he would have been able to reach the inn in three days after all.
"It might be easier to walk on the road," the human suggested after several hours of fighting their way through the snow. "There doesn't seem to be a snowdrift separating us from it over there."
Elaith looked at the place Danilo had pointed out, but shook his head. "The orcs will be using the road. They can't march a large army on narrow paths or through the underbrush. Until we're sure their last stragglers have passed us we'd best stay where we can hide quickly."
They'd hear a group of marching orcs coming, of course, but not in time for Elaith to hobble out of the open road and hide and he couldn't stand well enough to defend himself either.
So they stayed off, but close to the road all day; an unnecessary precaution as it turned out. No straggling orcs overtook them, nor did they reach the village or find a comfortable cave for the night. When it grew too dark for Danilo to see and Elaith was too exhausted to go on they fixed one of Danilo's fur blankets to two trees as a windshield, built a fire and huddled together for warmth.
That turned out to have both its good and its bad sides. Elaith certainly was warmer than he had been all day, but discovered that having a sleeping human snuggled up to him and occasionally moving in his sleep tended to disrupt his reverie. He certainly didn't wish to repeat the experience.
"I think we can risk the road today," the human commented the next morning, probably in an attempt to distract Elaith from the fact that breakfast consisted of cheese and travel biscuits from the magical bag of holding, the rabbit that Danilo had intended to supply them with meat for the day having disappeared into a hole thoroughly frightened but no worse for wear. "The orc army must have well and truly overtaken us."
As far as Elaith was concerned that was good news, but the human looked unusually glum and worried when he said it.
Hobbling along on the road turned out to be only slightly easier than making their own path had been. The ground was more even but there were just as many snowdrifts to get stuck in and they were much more exposed to the icy wind.
To make things worse the human chose to entertain himself with more inane chattering interrupted only by the occasional ribald song.
"If you must sing, Lord Thann," Elaith snapped finally. "Do try to make the next song something slow and dignified."
"Ah, I'm afraid I don't actually have that in my repertoire," Danilo apologised promptly. "I admit that it is rather limited, but alas I am a mere amateur ..."
"Spellsinger," Elaith reminded him.
The human stared at him. "What me? Oh no, I ..."
"I was there, remember," Elaith interrupted him before he could fly off into another silly monologue. "I've heard you play proper spellsongs, and traditional ballads too, for that matter. So don't you tell me you don't know any slow songs."
Danilo obligingly started to hum a mourning song.
"Well, that certainly matches the situation," Elaith commented.
The human abruptly stopped singing and stared at Elaith open-mouthed for a moment.
"Well, what do you know," the elf said with an wry smile. "I've actually managed to shut you up."
"That," Danilo finally managed. "Was not a good joke. Besides, we'll be fine. We'll reach the village tonight and have proper beds and everything."
He was right on one account. They did reach the village just before nightfall.
"See," Danilo said proudly when it came into sight. "We're almost there."
Elaith gave him a sidelong look wondering whether he was playing the fool again or his weak human eyes couldn't see the shape the buildings were in from this distance and in the fading light.
"It's been burned," he pointed out not very gently. "Probably by your orcs."
"My orcs?" The human protested. "Mine? I assure you they have nothing to do with me. That is, well, they certainly messed up my plans pretty thoroughly, but I didn't invite them. What would I want with an army of orcs, pray you? Most of them are no more pleasing to the ear than to the eye I've found. No, if I ever need a choir I'll hire mermaids for the job. Though of course then we'd have to perform on shore. At least if I hire a group as large as this orc army. Just imagine the effort required to set up water tanks for that many mermaids. It would take forever and ..."
"Your orcs, that you absolutely had to follow to this village," Elaith said angrily. "Burned the place down and plundered it. There will be no beds here, no nice warm fireplace, no food, no nurse and no horse to borrow."
"They're still not my orcs," Danilo insisted. "And we can probably find a roof over our heads in the ruins and build our own fire. I still have some firewood,
cheese and biscuits left, you know."
After a thorough inspection of the sorry remains of the village Danilo made Elaith a comfortable bed out of fur blankets and spare cloaks in a still covered room of a burned out stone building. The place was mostly bare walls and ashes, lacking even a door, but it was sheltered from the wind nevertheless and would be more comfortable than their last camp had been.
The elf had to be completely exhausted. He ate the cheese and biscuit with only a few muttered disparaging comments and failed to rise to the bait when Danilo proposed to write a ballad about the lovely sights he'd seen in his exploration of the village.
"We'll have to keep going," he said finally. He couldn't leave Elaith behind alone in the condition he was in. As long as he depended on the crutch to walk he could neither hunt nor defend himself in case he was attacked.
"We can't overtake your orcs," Elaith pointed out. "Your mission's failed, no matter what you do. Lets just give up and go home."
"At the rate we've been going it'd be at least five days before we reach the inn again," Danilo pointed out. "While I know of an old ranger's hut that we could reach in one if we keep going this way. And even if we don't overtake them, even a much larger army of orcs would be hard pressed to take and destroy Silverymoon as quickly as they did this village. We'll catch up with them there, conduct our business in the city. Then buy some horses to get us home. Or were you planning on acquiring anything unwieldy?"
Elaith looked at him speculatively for a long time.
Danilo fidgeted. He knew if he was ever to learn what Elaith intended to do in Silverymoon, he had to give him room to speak, but it was hard not to fill the silence with some witticism or a ballad and he did rather enjoy riling Elaith up. Perhaps he had a death wish.
"You're really only going to deliver an artefact?" the elf asked at length.
"Yes," Danilo confirmed. "And I'll be very glad to be rid of it, I can tell you. Trust me, you don't want this one. It's heavy, utterly useless on its own and keeps you from carrying all sorts of actually useful stuff."
Something about this description appeared to please Elaith.
"It isn't of elven origin, is it?" he prodded.
"Not, as far as I know," Danilo replied willingly enough. "I didn't ask uncle Khelben for its family tree, though. Didn't like the thing from the start, so I knew we weren't likely to get married anytime soon. Besides I think Arilyn would object, if I left her for a useless magical artefact ..."
Elaith glared at him.
"Well, you get the idea," he concluded hastily.
"Could I ... see it?" the elf requested.
Danilo hesitated. He didn't like Elaith's interest in the precious artefact he was duty-bound to protect at all, but he was pretty sure that it wasn't elven and judging from his earlier questions Elaith was after something that was. Well, what else was new ...
"If you're in the market for a wife, I can recommend several much more appealing candidates," he offered. "In fact there's this tavern wench in ..."
For the second time that day Elaith had managed to render Danilo speechless with surprise. He was sure the elf had never used his first name before.
"Just let me take one look at the damned thing."
"Oh, very well," Danilo gave in. "But don't touch it. You elves are supposed to be very magical after all. It might ... I don't know, explode or try to eat you for all I know. Or maybe both. Not necessarily in that order, though, I assume ..."
"The artefact?" Elaith prompted interrupting Danilo's monologue about the likelihood of something exploding from magical overload before absorbing the overloading magic.
"Alright, alright, here it is." He pulled out the heavy crystal ball and placed it in his lap where Elaith could see it, but would have to get out of his comfortable fur-bed to touch it. He didn't think the elf would, unless he was really interested. Not only would his injury bother him, but he was also tired and, Danilo had noticed, much preferred to stay warm. He hadn't even made a token remark about any piece of fur or clothing Danilo had lent him once, yet, accepting them all almost eagerly.
Indeed, Elaith didn't move.
"A ball?" he merely said sounding disappointed.
"I told you it wasn't worth seeing," Danilo pointed out. "So are you satisfied?"
Elaith nodded distractedly and Danilo carefully stored the crystal ball away again.
"I've been sent to Silverymoon to inquire after and possibly retrieve a magical bow," the elf admitted.
"A bow?" Danilo repeated. "Sent?" He couldn't think of anyone that could or would just send Elaith anywhere. The elf was too dangerous to threaten or order about, too unpredictable to make a good agent or tool and too rich to be easily bought. Usually he worked for his own interest and at his own expense.
"An elven longbow that according to legend never misses," Elaith explained. "It has been missing for several centuries."
"But didn't you just say that it never misses!" Danilo exclaimed delightedly.
"According to legend, yes," Elaith said. Was there a hint of a twinkle in his beautiful amber eyes? "But never mind what it does or doesn't do, queen Amlaruil merely wants me to follow up some rumour about a magical bow she's heard, discover whether it actually is the elven artefact in question and, if it is, acquire it for her."
"So ..." Danilo asked slowly while still trying to put the pieces together in his mind. "Why you? Why Silverymoon? And why in winter?"
"Because I owe her for taking in Azariah, that's where the rumour originated and ... Well, she's never been here in winter. She's probably never been this cold in her life either. The climate on Evermeet is much more moderate."
Danilo laughed. "And so instead of telling her you went?"
Elaith glared. "She is my queen," he pointed out sternly. "And she has very kindly agreed to raise my only daughter."
"Granted," Danilo allowed. "But you do know that she is close friends with Laeral who just happens to be Lady Alustriel's sister. She'd probably already have her bow, if only she'd thought to ask Laeral instead of you."
"Maybe," Elaith agreed. "If the bow actually is in Silverymoon and doesn't have any adverse reactions to teleportation magic."
"Most artefacts don't," Danilo pointed out a little crossly. "It's just my luck that got us settled with one that does in the middle of winter."
Elaith did not point out that it was actually the beginning and not the middle of winter. Danilo himself would have, of course.
And so they struggled on through the cold and snow. The weather got a little warmer again, though Elaith didn't appear to notice that difference and his leg got a little better every day allowing them to travel a little faster, though still far more slowly than Danilo could have managed on horseback.
They were further hampered by the need to hunt as the supplies in Danilo's bag were running low, but one foggy morning as they were breaking down their camp Danilo brightly announced: "Well, we're almost there. We should reach Silverymoon tomorrow."
"We'll run into orcs long before we do," Elaith returned. "They'll be foraging for food within a day's march in every direction of their camp. Their day's march," he added pointedly. "Not our's."
"I was getting bored of the road anyway," Danilo declared brightly. "And we can probably shorten our march by cutting straight through the marches."
"This is troll country," Elaith reminded him wryly. "We shouldn't stray too far into the wilderness."
But they encountered neither trolls nor orcs that day. Only a long howl sometime that afternoon proved that they weren't alone in the world.
"Just a wolf," Danilo said when he noticed Elaith stiffen at the sound.
As if to disprove him, another howl answered the first and then two more.
"A pack of wolves," Elaith corrected. "And they are hungry."
"They're hardly likely to hunt well armed travellers," Danilo pointed out. "There's easier prey."
"They hunt the weak," the elf confirmed. "Such as aged deer, sick rabbits ... or lame elves. Do tell me there's a hut somewhere nearby."
There wasn't and the howls soon drew nearer. Eventually even Danilo had to admit that they were being hunted.
"Lets stop for the night and light a big fire," he suggested. "That will keep the wolves off."
"And draw the orcs, if they see it."
But they would need a fire anyway. It was too cold to sleep outside without one.
So they lit their fire and huddled together again, weapons ready by their sides and taking turns resting and watching. Not that Elaith got a lot of reverie even when it wasn't his turn to watch. At some point the wolves had stopped howling, but now he could actually see them, four-legged shadows moving about at the edge of the light cast by the fire, circling, waiting, trying to work up the nerve to attack, or maybe waiting for the fire to go out.
Occasionally one would dare to move a little closer, showing off his thick grey pelt and the bones clearly visible under it. Large bands of orcs didn't leave much food behind and apparently there hadn't been any battles yet either.
"The people must have retreated straight into the cities to wait out the orcs," Elaith commented as Danilo thrust another burning branch from the fire in the direction of their latest daring intruder.
"Well, it doesn't sound like a bad strategy to me," Danilo returned, his eyes remaining fixed on the wolf that was creping backwards unwillingly to avoid the branch. They were getting more persistent. "Orcs certainly aren't famous for their patience and teamwork. Their army must fall apart soon and I suppose with winter upon them they aren't likely to lose much trade by just waiting until they leave. What makes you assume they did, though?"
"The wolves," Elaith explained. Danilo's visitor had retreated out of reach and was snarling at them rather than slinking away. Either the human would have to get up and take a step away from the fire, or throw the branch at him. With this much snow on the ground it was unlikely that the latter action would cause a fire, but if they started throwing away their firewood, the fire would eventually run out of fuel. "They're starving. If there'd been a battle, they'd have eaten the dead."
"They might have been buried," Danilo pointed out hauling back his arm.
"Don't throw," Elaith told him. "Those of the winning side might have been, but orcs aren't too bothered even about their own dead and how many humans do you know that would give an orc that has attacked them a decent funeral? There should have been enough left for the wolves."
Danilo got up, stepped forward and swung his branch at the wolf. The wolf jumped back, but continued to snarl and then Elaith noticed something moving out of the corner of his eye.
"To your right," he said and turned to pull a brand of his own out of the fire.
Danilo swung his in a wide arc to frighten off their new attacker and the first one darted forward again. The wolves had made up their minds.
Danilo switched the branch to his left hand and drew his sword.
For one heartbeat Elaith hesitated. The fire would scare the wolves, and burn them, but he couldn't kill them with a burning branch and he didn't need the light to see and still couldn't be sure of his balance without the crutch.
He let go of the branch he'd already grasped, heaved himself up and drew his own sword.
This quickly proved to have been the wrong decision. He was forced to fight with his weaker hand and even with the crutch he couldn't move or dodge much, he was limited almost entirely to slashing and hacking with all the force and within the range that arm could achieve and the wolves came at him from three sides. The brand could have held them all back, the sword could only kill one at a time.
He managed to kill two and badly injure another before a fourth slammed into him hard enough to throw him back down. Once again Danilo saved him with a spell, this time a well aimed fireball that impressed the wolves more than the natural fire had.
A few more fireballs sent them racing away.
"Maybe I should have thrown my brand after all," Danilo commented as he helped Elaith back onto his feet. "They don't seem to like flying fire. A pity, I thought it was quite an attractive show."
"I'm sure the orcs will agree with you, even if the wolves didn't," Elaith snarled, angry at his mistake that had led to him needing the human to rescue him again.
"And here I always thought orcs had no taste."
"They don't, but they will hardly have missed the light show and I don't want to be here when they arrive to investigate," Elaith snapped and started to douse the fire hastily.
Danilo continued his lament over lupine tastes in entertainment, but packed up his furs while he talked. Elaith thought he was becoming rather good at tuning him out.
They didn't know how close they actually were to the first outposts of the orcish army and when they could consequently expect the orcs to arrive, so they didn't dare to use a torch. Between Danilo's lack of night vision and Elaith's injuries they didn't exactly make good progress stumbling through the march in the dark. It was almost a miracle that they didn't end up stuck in some swampy hole or falling over the edge of a cliff somewhere, Elaith thought, but somehow they managed to arrive safely on top of a hill many hours later.
It was daylight by then and from where they stood they had an excellent view of Silverymoon and the almost unbelievable number of orcs encamped around it.
One glance was enough to realise the danger they were in if they were spotted and as if by unspoken agreement they let themselves drop to the ground.
"So," said Elaith. "You insist that we need to get in there?"
"Well, you have to admit it looks a lot more appealing in there than out here," Danilo began. "Just think of all the comforts of a proper human city, compared to staying on this hill. I admit it's probably an excellent place for stargazing, but well, it looks like it'll be a cloudy night and I am getting a little cold. Besides I could use a hot bath and a proper meal, not to mention an actual bed to sleep in. I don't think they have all of those in the orcs' camp, do you? And before you start, may I remind you that there is no elven settlement around, so don't you give me any speeches on racial superiority or ..."
As if he hadn't been living in a human city for longer than that fool of a harper had been alive.
"And how do you intend for us to get in?" Elaith asked pointedly. "In case you hadn't noticed, there's a ring of orcs between us and the city, not to mention that all the gates will be closed against the orcs."
"We're not orcs," Danilo pointed out. "Though I suppose that would help with the first problem. You don't think we could convince them that we're orcs and they invited us for tea? Do orcs invite people for tea?"
"No, but feel free to try whenever I'm not around," Elaith hissed. "Seriously now, Lord Thann, how do you intend to get into the city?"
"Why, by the river of course," Danilo explained as if to a very slow child. "It's the only place that isn't walled in."
"The river?" Elaith stared at him incredulously. "Orcs may be slow, but trust me they're not stupid enough to overlook that. They'll have strong posts by the riverside to stop any boats going in or out. And even if they didn't, where do you plan to find a boat?"
"Who said anything about a boat?" Danilo grinned at him.
"You don't seriously mean to swim in these temperatures. The river will probably be partially frozen."
"Exactly," Danilo agreed happily. "It should be frozen at the bank so we'll be able to slip around the walls by walking on the ice. They'll be guarding against the orcs doing that, but we only need to let the guards know that we're not orcs and they'll help us."
"You are probably right about the orcs keeping too good a watch on the river, though," he added after a moment. "And they haven't erected any actual walls so theoretically we could slip through their ring anywhere."
"Right, through a siege. Nothing easier than that."
"They won't really be expecting anyone to try to sneak in," Danilo insisted. "Out maybe, but not in. If they expect anything to come in it's an army or a large load of supplies coming down the road or river. That's where they'll have the strongest and most watchful posts. In between we'll probably find only sleeping soldiers off duty. So we sneak in there, right up to the wall, then down to the river in its shadow, get the attention of the guards and get escorted into the city, maybe even straight to Lady Alustriel."
It sounded feasible, though risky. Perhaps Elaith would have made a similar plan if their roles had been reversed and he'd been the one able to just run for the city if they were spotted by the orcs.
"I don't like it," he informed the human simply.
"Do you have a better idea? We can't stay here for long and we can't go back."
It was all too true. If he'd been healthy, he could have taken on the shape of an orc and passed the human off as a prisoner, though that would have meant risking that he'd be made to hand him over to whoever was in command and showing up as a limping orc - well, he'd be very lucky if they took him to a healer rather than attack and try to claim his prisoner for themselves.
Besides how would he explain taking the prisoner out of camp again and to the city? Not to mention that he'd have to drop his disguise to be let in there.
There was another transformation that could help, though.
"Could you fit my crutch into your bag?" He could probably get healing in the city, but he'd still have to walk to a temple for it.
"Your pelt is too bright," Danilo whispered nervously.
Elaith whined at him, touched his snout to the snow and then to his bright silver fur.
"Oh alright, maybe not against this background," the human allowed. "Do tell me how it feels to have almost been eaten by your own kind, though."
The wolf only growled softly and turned his snout back towards the fires that were all Danilo could see of the orc camp in the dark. He wondered what Elaith could make out with his wolf eyes, though. Less than he did with his elven night vision, he expected, but still a lot more than a human.
Of course a wolf had other senses to make up for it. Elaith's ears were pricked and he kept sniffing the air eagerly. Did he really have enough experience being a wolf that he could make use of his enhanced sense of smell or was it only confusing him with an overwhelming onslaught of impressions that he couldn't decipher?
Before Danilo could make up his mind to ask, Elaith suddenly turned and pushed him gently to the side, then started walking in the direction he'd pushed him in, stopped and looked back at him.
That way? Well, apparently he'd either smelled or heard something after all.
Even though Elaith was mostly walking on only three legs it was soon obvious that it was Danilo himself that was slowing them down now. The wolf was elegant and strong despite his injury. Danilo only hoped that he also had the stamina to last, if they had to run for it.
They didn't go very far before Elaith changed direction towards the city, crouched with his belly low to the snow and crept forwards a few steps before looking back at Danilo expectantly.
"You want me to crawl?" It was unlikely that Elaith would do so himself as he'd had to use all four legs in his demonstration, which, Danilo suspected, was quite painful.
Elaith mimed a snarl but nodded.
Crawl, and silently? Oh well, at least he didn't have to half carry the elf anymore.
He got down on his hands and knees and crawled after the wolf. It was slow going and most of the time he wasn't sure where they were or which direction they were currently moving in, but the changes of direction reassured him that Elaith had to be able to locate the orcs somehow and lead them through their camp.
After what seemed an eternity they finally got so close to the orcs that even Danilo could smell the smoke of their fires. Now Elaith was crouching for real and Danilo, too, tried to flatten himself as close to the ground as he could without falling behind and losing sight of his guide.
He could hear snores and grunts, first in front of them, then during the most terrifying phase of their crawl from every side and finally gradually more and more from behind them, but just as Danilo was beginning to relax, Elaith suddenly let himself drop on his belly and lay still except for a slight trembling of his tailtip.
So Danilo, too, lay motionless in the snow and wondered what they were hiding from until finally he heard heavy footsteps crunching through the snow.
Danilo barely dared to breathe as the orcish sentinel stomped past them apparently too busy being cold and tired to glance left or right, for if he had, Danilo was sure he must have seen him. The snow really was awfully cold, though. Once the sentinel had passed and the sound of his steps started to grow fainter Danilo became aware of the cold seeping through his clothes. He could barely feel his fingers and toes anymore.
Hoping that he could get up and walk normally again soon he looked over at Elaith. Then he could go faster and the exercise would warm him, not to mention that his hands would be off the icy ground.
The wolf, however, remained perfectly still for a long time and when he finally did get up again it was only to resume the slow, cautious crawl close to the ground. They kept crawling in a straight line now and eventually Elaith relaxed back into his three legged walk, but he pushed Danilo back down when he tried to get up.
The human thought he saw the first hint of the sky lightening on the horizon by the time they finally reached the city walls, but he took a moment to catch his breath, pet the wolf and bury his face in his thick, soft fur anyway.
When he let go, Elaith stood as if frozen, wide amber eyes staring at him in shock and incomprehension.
"You're warm," Danilo gave the first explanation he thought the elf would accept. "I feel like I've lost all my warmth in the snow like a lizard."
Elaith growled and started off again staying so close to the wall that he almost brushed against it. Danilo sighed and stumbled after him on his frozen feet.
It was still a long way from there to the river and by the time they finally slid more than climbed down to the water the sun was indeed rising. Danilo eyed the watchtower with dismay. It actually reached partially into the water leaving very little ice between its wall and the unfrozen middle of the river.
He could see torchlight beckoning welcomingly from the other side, though, its warm light reflected both on the ice and the water.
"Well, we'll just have to hug the wall very closely and it'll probably be alright," he told Elaith. "Just imagine the tower's a pretty she-wolf in heat with dainty grey paws and a sharp toothed smile."
Elaith didn't seem to like the idea at all, though. He started off back in the direction of the orc camp and looked back at Danilo several times.
"But we can't go back," Danilo told him. "It'll be daylight by the time we reach the orc camp. We'll be seen."
But Elaith wouldn't give in. He even grabbed hold of Danilo's cloak and tried to pull him away from the tower.
Danilo was stronger than the wolf, though and when he walked out onto the ice anyway Elaith stopped pulling and followed, whining softly all the way.
"Now really," Danilo chided him. "There's no reason to make such a fuss. We're almost there. Just this one more short uncomfortable bit and then we'll be safe and warm. Just think of all the pretty young women in the city. And the bitches, too. They'll all line up to ..."
He never had to think of what sort of date a wolf could take a dog on, because just then he stepped onto the narrow ledge of ice between the watchtower and the river and it gave way with a loud crack. He only had enough time for a surprised yelp that probably would have been much more fitting coming from Elaith's current form than him, before he went under and icy water surrounded him in every direction.
For one panicked moment he didn't know which way was up, but then he felt a tug on his collar and swam towards it.
He broke the surface coughing and spluttering, grabbed for the closest edge of ice. It broke as well, but the next one held and he could see the wolf pulling himself ashore just a few steps down from him.
He started to do the same when a long, sharp piece of steel suddenly appeared in front of his face.
"Surrender, intruder! You are surrounded."
Danilo blinked up incredulously at the Silverymoon guards.
"But we're harpers!" he protested. "We're here to help!"
"We?" snapped the woman who had her sword at Danilo's throat.
With a sigh the soaking wet and exhausted wolf turned back into a very wet, lame and bedraggled looking elf.
"We?" Elaith croaked as well.
"Well, one harper and one ... associate," Danilo amended. "But we really are here to help. So if you could please help me out of here and take us to Lady Alustriel?"
They did pull him out of the water, though none too gently. Then they confiscated Danilo's bag and all their weapons refusing even to return Elaith's crutch. Instead the youngest guardsman had to assist the elf on the way to the city jail, despite the boy's protests that he'd get wet touching the elf's soaked clothes.
Danilo, who was marched after the pair at swordpoint, soon understood why he had made such a fuss when his own clothes developed a stiff coating of ice that made him feel almost grateful to be thrown into a cell that contained nothing but a bucket and a pile of old, greyish looking straw. At least it was warmer in there and he was out of the wind!
Elaith rejoined him a while later, walking without any hint of a limp again and, the still shivering Danilo noted, with envy, wearing ill-fitting but completely dry and warm clothes. Despite having been granted that luxury, he looked thoroughly dejected however.
Danilo gave up his efforts to work the ice out of his shirt. "What's wrong?"
"I made some inquiries about my mission of their healer," the elf explained.
"Wrong bow," Elaith said with a sigh.
He was not only thawed but almost dry again by the time they and his bag were finally taken to see Lady Alustriel who graciously allowed him to reclaim it and hand her the obnoxious crystal ball that had been the cause of all his misadventures.
The beautiful mage turned the artefact in her hand and regarded it thoughtfully and with an unexpectedly sad expression.
"Well," she said finally with a slightly condescending smile. "I'm sure you did the best you could and I do thank you for trying, but unfortunately it is too late. The orcs are too close for it to have much effect on them now."
Danilo was used to people thinking little of him and usually he didn't care, but to be dismissed so casually after all he'd gone through hurt and he was still feeling much too cold and miserable.
"I'm sorry to hear that, but we will stay and help you defend the city in any case," he promised.
Lady Alustriel's lips twitched, but she managed to sound serious when she thanked him again and sent them on their way.
"I didn't mean that as a joke," Danilo told Elaith when they were back on the street with all their possessions returned and unsure where to go next. "I really do mean to fight for them, but I suppose I shouldn't have promised anything in your name."
The elf snorted. "And what else could either of us do now that we're stuck in a city under siege? If we want to find a caravan back home, we'll have to get rid of the orcs first."
That was when Danilo realised that they were probably stuck with each other on the return journey as well. At least he was determined to join the first caravan that left Silverymoon for Waterdeep that spring and he suspected even his presence wouldn't be enough to deter the elf from doing the same.
"Ah well, I got to pet a beautiful wolf in any case," he decided. "That was certainly worth it, don't you think?"