Shalelu brought the axe down with a thunk, neatly severing another log in half. A few yards away, Jakardros finished tying another bundle of tinder together, adding it to a pile ready to be carried into the fort later.
An almost imperceptible shift in the air alerted Shalelu to the fact that the pair were suddenly no longer alone. Turning, she spotted that a number of individuals had appeared in the fort’s courtyard - the welcome sight of some of her friends: Thia, her bear companion Nyx, and the mage Gwyn. The group were stood about thirty yards away, by the fort’s southern gate, facing away from the woodpile that Shalelu and Jakardros had been working on.
“Our friends have returned,” she stated softly to Jakardros, who abruptly turned in surprise, his human senses having seemingly not picked up any disturbance.
“Thia! Gwenwyn!,” called Shalelu, gaining the pair’s attention. She was met with an answering whoop from Thia, and an awkward wave from the mage.
Shalelu carefully placed her axe against the woodpile, and moved towards the new arrivals, with Jakardros following. Thia and Gwyn dropped their bags to the ground, before also closing the distance between them.
Shalelu and Thia met with a warm embrace, while Jakardros gave a curt nod of greeting towards Gwyn. Nyx rubbed her head against Shalelu’s leg, and rumbled in appreciation when Shalelu responded with a scritch behind the bear’s ear.
“Welcome once more to Fort Rannick,” said Jakardros. “It is pleasing to see you in good health. I trust Ntombi and Rui are also well?”
“They are indeed,” confirmed Gwyn, “and will be joining us here shortly once I return to Magnimar for them. Long-distance teleportation requires great concentration and skill, and while I continue to study its intricacies, I do not yet possess sufficient finesse to feel comfortable teleporting our entire group in a single casting.”
“Well, they will find themselves welcome here too, and always will,” responded Jakardros. “I’m afraid much of the fort is still in a state of disrepair, despite our efforts, although enough rooms have been made habitable to house you all.”
“Thank you, Jak,” said Thia. “Hopefully we can help you straighten up the place a little more before the Magnimarans arrive. Any news of them?”
“Not yet,” replied Jakardros. “They’re likely still two or three days out, I would guess. If they’ve made good progress, I would expect an advance scout to reach the fort in the next day or so. We’re barely ready for them, in truth - they’ll have a lot to pitch in with once they arrive.”
“We’ll do what we can to help too,” offered Thia, “although I’m sad to say we’re likely not staying long. We plan to make for the Storval Stairs as soon as we can, before striking into the Iron Peaks. We’ve had information that the giant tribes have been uniting under the leadership of one known as Mokmurian, and we intend to strike them hard before they’re able to launch fresh assaults.”
Jakardos raised an eyebrow at the boldness of that plan, but then grunted in assent. “I’ll do what I can to assist you with what to expect of the terrain, but that’s likely all the help I can provide. Even with the arrival of the Magnimarans, it will likely be months before Rannick’s strength can be rebuilt, and until that time I cannot leave. My duty is here.”
“We understand, and agree entirely,” said Gwyn. “Fort Rannick is of vital strategic importance, and should not be abandoned.”
“We’ll discuss your plans later, once the others have arrived,” said Jakardros. "In the meantime, we’ll show you to your rooms so that you can stow your gear. We’ll put you up in the guest rooms, for some privacy - the Magnimarans will be taking the barracks once they arrive.”
“Thank you,” nodded Gwyn. “I’ll take a few moments to settle and collect myself, before returning to Sandpoint to fetch Rui and Ntombi. They’ll be wondering where I’ve got to at this rate.”
Jakardros nodded in agreement, and the four made their way into the main keep.
“This room is yours,” indicated Shalelu, pushing open a door to one of the keep’s private guest rooms. “We passed mine two doors back,” she said, briefly gesturing beyond Thia, in the direction the two had come from. “The room between has been made into a makeshift storage area for the time being, housing the supplies we’ve been able to salvage or that have been provided by Turtleback. The town has done what it can for us, but in the wake of the flood they have their own problems to contend with.”
“Thank you, Shal,” said Thia, stepping inside and surveying the room. “This will do fine. You won’t hear any complaints from us about the accommodation - we all know what you’ve been up against to put Rannick right.”
Shalelu nodded. “Hopefully the Magnimarans are ready to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in themselves,” she said. “They’ll need to if they want feeding - stores are low, unless they're particularly fond of pickled herring, and the kitchen is still a mess. The first thing Jakardros intends to do once they arrive is assemble a cleaning crew and a hunting party, otherwise it’s hard rations for all.”
“That’s probably a good thing - nothing quite like food to motivate people,” said Thia as she placed her bags on the room’s bed. Pulling one open, she took out the wooden chest housing her alchemist’s kit, placing it on the nearby desk and beginning to unload some of its contents. “I figured I’d spend some time brewing up some potions and ointments before we leave again, see if I can help replenish the fort’s medical supplies a little.”
“That would be most appreciated, thank you.”
“Jak’s mood appears to have lightened some,” observed Thia. “He’s almost a completely different person from the man we left behind when we returned to Sandpoint.”
“The weight of guilt has been heavy, both over the fate of Rannick and for our own estrangement, but those weights are beginning to lift slightly from his shoulders,” agreed Shalelu. “He still blames himself for the fate of the Black Arrows, but has found resolve in his desire to restore Fort Rannick and rebuild the Order. He plans to do everything in his power here, then as soon as circumstances allow he intends to travel to Magnimar, to present himself to the Lord-Mayor for judgment. He's insistent on that, claiming far more responsibility for events here than I would consider fair. I hope to join him at that time, fate permitting, to argue in his favor - if Rannick is indeed to be restored, it will require men of experience, and Jakardros is anything but lacking in that.”
Thia nodded in agreement.
“I’ll join you in that,” offered Thia, “if you think it can be of help. I doubt I hold much sway with the Lord-Mayor, despite our recent services to the city, but more voices in support of Jakardros surely cannot hurt.”
“Thank you,” replied Shalelu, nodding in gratitude.
“What of your own relationship?” continued Thia. “Where do the two of you stand?”
Shalelu thought for a moment.
“I always assumed that his abrupt departure after my mother’s death meant he cared nothing for me,” she began, “and far less for my mother than she or I had believed. The more we have spoken, the more I have realised that the truth is quite different - he left out of pain, and has bitterly regretted it ever since.”
“So what happens next?” asked Thia.
“I can’t pretend that I can simply instantly forget the hurt he caused,” continued the elf. “At the same time, it’s clear that he’s also been hurting every day since, with no respite. Maybe we can be of help to each other still, even after all these years.”
She paused for another moment, then carried on. “Right now, he needs the help just as much as I, if not more. I at least have had friends - few of them, perhaps, through choice, but friends all the same. I get the impression that Jakardros has had only colleagues, not friends - and with the fall of Rannick he has lost even those. He needs me, and I have no intention of turning my back on him. Part of me is still angry, still hurt - but I know in my heart that forgiveness is the better route. Reconciliation is a journey like any other, but we have both made the first steps. I pray that Desna will guide us both as we continue on this path.”
Thia reached out and took Shalelu’s hand. “I appreciate how difficult this is, but I think you’re doing the right thing,” she said, smiling and squeezing Shalelu’s hand in support. “If I can help at all, I’m here.”
“Thank you, Thia,” said Shalelu, returning the smile. “Your friendship is cherished.”
“In that spirit, I have a request of you,” continued the elf after a few seconds. “As you may be aware, the winter solstice is just five nights from now - such nights are of significance to Desnans, and both solstices are celebrated with one of our few religious ceremonies: the Ritual of Stardust. There’s a small celebration being held outside Turtleback, and I had been planning on attending. With the fortuitous timing of your arrival, I would very much like you to accompany me, if you are willing.”
“I would love to,” said Thia, grateful for any opportunity to spend time with Shalelu. “You may have to explain things to me though, or nudge me if anything is expected. My knowledge of Desna will be somewhat lacking.”
“It’s far from formal, but I will answer any questions you have,” said Shalelu. “Anyway, I’ll leave you to settle in, and will call on you shortly. I need to go finish chopping the firewood now and get it stored away, lest the weather changes.”
“Of course - I’ll see you soon,” said Thia with a smile.
The celebrations were attended by four or five dozen of the Turtleback townsfolk, as well as Thia and Shalelu. Five small bonfires were already ablaze when they arrived in the clearing a couple of miles outside Turtleback, arranged in what Thia had originally assumed was a circle, but Shalelu had explained that they were in fact intended to represent the points of a star.
Despite the town’s current struggles, no shortage of food had been on offer - roasted meats and vegetables, and sweet buns of braided bread filled with raisins. The raisins, it was explained, once again represented the stars, with the braids representing the journeys - both physical and metaphorical - undertaken by followers of Desna. Drink too, with Shalelu accepting an offered cider whilst Thia opted for a frothy dark ale.
“Come,” said Shalelu, moving towards the nearest fire as the last wisps of flame began to flicker and die. “It’s time”. She drew a small leather pouch from her belt, and loosened the drawstrings. Taking the pouch in her left hand, she poured a small handful of sand into her right, before offering the pouch to Thia.
Thia accepted the pouch, and drew out a similar handful of sand. Raising her palm to examine it, she realised that it wasn’t merely sand - there was something else within it, something that glittered with a delicate pink sheen in the light of the moon and the fires. She looked back to Shalelu, who answered her question before she had even begun to ask it.
“Ground rose-quartz,” explained the elf softly, “to symbolize the night’s stars.” If Thia hadn’t already known that stars were of great significance to Desna and her followers, she certainly would have realised by now.
Stepping forward, Shalelu threw her handful of sand in a high arc over the remains of the bonfire. Most members of the small crowd did the same, and Thia followed suit, watching as the fine dust drifted slowly down towards the glowing embers. The fine quartz-dust caught the light as it descended, glittering and twinkling like distant stars. The effect was beautiful. It was not too unlike one of Gwyn’s favored spells, Thia noted, although she rarely had as much freedom to admire the sight as she did now. Gwyn’s spells usually accompanied combat, which allowed little time for any admiration of their appearance.
As the star-dust settled, Shalelu’s hand found Thia’s. The crowd lifted their eyes towards the night’s sky, and began a quiet chant to the far-away stars. The words were unfamiliar to Thia, so she nestled close to Shalelu and listened intently.
Over the plains, over the hills, through forest and grassy glen.
No matter the time, no matter the trail, remember that you are loved.
I am with you, She is above, until we're together again.
With the embers fading, the end of the verse seemed to mark the end of proceedings, as people began to gather up their belongings and drift slowly in the direction of the town. Soon a line of torches was bobbing away into the night, as more and more of the crowd began to leave.
“We should be making our way, too,” said Shalelu, as she accepted a torch offered to her by one of the townsfolk - a stout human male who had been one of the organisers of the night’s celebrations. Thia accepted a similar offer, holding aloft the torch in one hand, and reaching to grasp Shalelu’s hand in the other. The two began to move away along the path that led towards Rannick. Between the torches and the moonlight, and the enhanced vision offered by their elven heritage, visibility was more than adequate, despite the lateness of the hour on the longest night of the year. Thia was however glad she’d also had the foresight to suggest the two share an alchemical potion before leaving Rannick, which was now helping to stave off the chill of the winter night. Between that and a gentle alcoholic glow, the two were warm, when under normal circumstances they’d likely be shivering by now.
“While the Ritual of Stardust is primarily about offering worship and thanks to Desna,” began Shalelu as they walked, “it is also commonly a time when declarations of friendship are made. Whilst we may have been initially forced together by goblins, and then by the threats of ogres and giants, I would like to make clear that I consider you first and foremost a friend rather than an ally. If and when the threats we currently face are finally defeated, I would very much hope that we can continue our journey together.”
At that, Thia removed her hand from Shalelu’s, moving a half-step closer to instead hook her arm tightly around Shalelu’s. Despite the threats they'd faced, those still to come, and the losses that had been endured along the way, Thia knew that Shalelu's company had made her feel happy and content.
“I feel the same,” she replied with warm sincerity. “I confess that I was wary of you at first - I’ve had such poor relationships with elves in the past, and I saw no reason to believe that you’d be any different. In truth, though, since leaving Roderic’s Cove you’re been the best thing that’s happened to me. You mean the world to me, Shalelu Andosana.”
Smiling and holding each other close, the two continued north towards Fort Rannick.
“Well, here we are,” said Shalelu, as they reached the door of her room. Thia could see the door to her own room up ahead, but realised she was reluctant to let the night end.
Thia unlinked her arm from Shalelu’s, but before the elf could move away Thia moved in front of her and drew her close for a kiss. She could just barely taste the cider lingering on Shalelu’s lips, and this close there was just a hint of smoke clinging to her clothes - the last remnants of the celebrations.
“Thank you for a beautiful night,” murmured Thia, touching her forehead to Shalelu’s and sliding her arms around her back. “I’m just sad it has to end.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t have to,” replied Shalelu softly, breaking away from their embrace. With one hand she reached out to take Thia’s; the other moved behind her, to the small of her back, finding the handle to her room’s door and opening it.
Thia’s eyes widened as she took in Shalelu’s meaning. Shalelu moved back through the open doorway, her eyes asking a silent question.
“Wherever my feet may take me,” whispered Thia, echoing a line from the hymn to Desna heard earlier that night. Shalelu recognised the words and smiled, as the two stepped through into the room, quietly closing the door behind them.