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Chapter 31 - To Stand by the Sisterhood

Roland stormed past the guard standing in the hall and took down the flight of stairs making a heavy stomp of each step. "Can you believe the insolence of that man?" he shouted. "How dare he just pat his sleeves and watch from the sidelines; how dare he!"

Art followed after him quietly, listening as Roland muttered out loud, "Calling me an ignoramus. What gall he has. And to think the likes of him would excommunicate me, for not holding true to the spirit of the faith! I almost want to thank them for kicking me out of their church. This way at least, I won't be tainted by association with such a craven excuse of an order. I thought people entrusted to positions of power in the clergy would at least be a bit more honorable than that. The way our invoking the story of the wezeer had no effect on him, you'd think he'd a heart of stone. Well I'll show him! We'll all show him. What are those redskins but a bunch of sorry excuses of a warrior? They'll be sorry they ever set foot in Khanduras when they get a taste of me…"

Did… did Roland just say…? "What you said just now, about fighting by the sisters' side… Did you mean that?"

"I meant every damn last word," Roland said as he whipped his head around to glower at him, as if daring him deny it.

Art could scarcely believe the man's change of heart. "You would take up arms against the redskin threat, knowing full well that you would be risking life and limb in every battle you fought with them?"

"Yes. For this cause, I will risk losing everything. For this, it would be worth it."

"But what about what you said earlier, about not daring to fight the enemy face to face?"

"Then I'll make myself do it anyway. I've had several years of combat training with the templar, and I'll be damned if I squandered that out of cowardice, when the sisters of the Sightless Eye need me the most. If I can't even show up that old badger, then I'll stab my heart and hope to die, as my descry is my witness!"

Art nodded solemnly to him. "Most honorable, Roland! With such conviction, the sisterhood may stand a chance yet, and I'm sure they'll be most appreciative of your assistance… Though I have to say, after my earlier attempts to convince you backfired and almost led to your giving this up for good, I hadn't expected you'd ever swear such an oath. What changed?"

"What that bastard of a bishop said… if he's not going to act, then it's incumbent on us lesser men to do so." Roland glanced at Art curiously. "Weren't you the one who was going on about getting me to help fight the sisterhood? Well, you finally got what you wished for, so I guess you have Erend to thank. Shouldn't you be showing a bit more enthusiasm right about now?"

"Why, I could jump for joy," said Art. "Come, let us bring the news to Jezebel and Natalie, they must be waiting for us, and we at least owe them an accounting." And with that Roland resumed his walk, with Art following closely behind.

He didn't know how to feel about this. He'd wanted Roland's help, what with how his way of channeled vigor had already proven so useful to the sisterhood; and it sure had surprised him that that debate with the bishop had done such a number on Roland, but he would have traded Roland for a couple dozen of the bishop's templar any day without a moment's qualms. So, while he certainly felt thankful for Roland's assistance, their inability to get the aid that Roland had promised Amplisa and then Liene, made that victory feel hollow. Now if only it had worked on the other guy instead, things would look a lot better for the sisters…

While he wanted to enlist Roland's help, he was under no illusions about how much a single person could accomplish in the war, and without any allies or the money to procure additional forces, the sisterhood stood little chance of regaining lost ground. And now, with the bishop having refused his aid, the sisterhood had lost its only hope. And that, after all the planning and effort that they'd put into it all!

Thinking that, Art fell into despair, and tears welled in his cheeks, reminding him of the sorrow and desperation that the sisters must have felt these last few days. There was no way their order could emerge victorious, not any more. And as for Art… Well, it was pointless to stick around any longer. He'd told himself earlier, that if they couldn't convince the bishop to send aid, then he'd not bother sticking around in some ill-fated attempt to protect Thistledown either. He'd leave, Selena or no. Even putting himself at terrible personal risk fighting in the war wouldn't achieve much in the grand scheme of things, he figured.

They arrived by the exit of the cathedral, where they found Jezebel and Natalie sitting in one of the pews, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer. Was it for their success? Art thought. He went up and tapped Natalie on the shoulder. She opened her eyes, and upon seeing Art and Roland, tapped Jezebel in turn. Jezebel asked in an eager whisper, "Did you do it? Did you convince the bishop?" -- Art didn't respond, but gestured in silence for them to follow. Together they got up and followed Roland out of the cathedral and down its steps.

"By your expressions, doesn't seem to have gone well, I take it?" said Jezebel. -- Art shook his head. -- "What happened?" asked Natalie. -- "Shit's what happened," replied Roland. -- "Language," chided Art. -- "Damn bastard kept quoting scripture." -- Natalie looked to Art. "And… you didn't know how to respond?" -- Art shook his head again. -- "What did he mention?" -- "Something about… Narciss… Narcissist…"

"Narcissa," said Roland. "It was my fault. I should have told you of it before went." -- "It wouldn't have mattered in the end. He threw a few others at me, which I didn't know either." -- "Wasn't the story of Narcissa and the strand from the younger scripture?" asked Jezebel. -- "Indeed," said Natalie. "And it's not like the priests never speak of it, Art; How could you not know?" -- "I… hadn't been attending church regularly." -- Natalie looked away from him and groaned in a way that signaled frustration, dismay, and reproach all at once. "'Hadn't been attending church', he says! Well I ever! Now look what that has earned us! Because of that, you may have doomed the sisterhood!" -- To which Art could only droop his head still further.

"Well?" continued Natalie. "What else did he say?" -- "Oh come on, must we go over it all?" protested Art. "It's all over. It's not like we'll be meeting with him a second time to rehash everything, so what's the point?" -- "What's the point?" Natalie poked him in the forehead with an index finger. "Is that the attitude you had toward church service? You know your failing and still you refuse to correct it? Speak, for I'm losing patience with you."

Art sighed. "There was also something about a someone John the Bitter, whom I'd not heard of. And a few other things besides. Even if I knew one or two of these, I still wouldn't have been able to respond to all of them. The bishop was as astute a man as I'd ever met."

"Of course he was, you knew that going in!" said Natalie. "People who aren't smart don't make bishop. Damn it, Art, sometimes I don't know what to say to you…" -- "Did you at least mention the story of the wezeer's daughter?" -- "Yes--" -- "And when the bishop started making these other allusions, what did you say?" -- "What could I say? I had no idea what he was talking about, how was I supposed to follow up?"

Natalie shouted at him, "Are you stupid? The only way he could move on to these other allusions was by abandoning the ones you'd been discussing. You could have just accused him of trying to do just that, reproach him for attempting it, make him look bad before Roland so that he'd be pressured to defend against your attacks. You could have declared that his attempting to change the topic must mean he's admitting that you were right. And every time he attempted to discuss something you weren't familiar with, you should have refocused back on your arguments, and not spent any time on his, which is what he would obviously want you to do."

"Well I was trying to," Art protested weakly. -- "Well you must not have been doing it right. If you did, then he'd never have a chance to say otherwise!" -- Art thought back to the debate. Natalie was of course right about how the bishop wanted to keep the focus on ground unfamiliar to Art. Art had tried to dodge what the bishop was saying, and shift the topic back, but… he'd spent too much time defending and not enough time attacking. The bishop had maneuvered him into a difficult spot and he hadn't managed to get out.

The thought reminded him of battle… When he'd become surrounded by the midget warriors at the monastery gates, with him having to break out of their encirclements and the adepts attempting their hardest to prevent him from doing so…

He should have seen this earlier, but because he hadn't, he'd lost this war. If only Natalie had been there in the debate with him, she would have caught on, and they wouldn't have lost the debate so handily. That too had been a brilliant play on the bishop's part. He wondered if the bishop knew ahead of time that something like this might be up… how often do bishop-bishop meetings include multiple other people? That alone might have tipped him off.

"You're right," he admitted. -- "Right about what?" said Natalie, twirling her hair about her finger and looking away from Art. -- "I should have been more aggressive in attacking him and not give him an opportunity to change the topic," said Art. -- "Humph."

"So… Is this it, then?" asked Jezebel. "Was there any good that came out of that meeting, or were our prayers completely wasted?"

"Roland's decided to fight alongside the sisters," Art said with a smile, glad to have his opportunity to change the topic. "He's out to prove himself a better templar than those templar who haven't been excommunicated. Isn't that right, Roland? You swore an oath just now, that you'd fight by the sisters' side." -- "What brought about this change?" -- "That damn bishop and his excuses is what happened," spat Roland. -- Natalie and Jezebel looked to each other. "I… see," said Natalie. -- "But what can you hope to accomplish? You are just one man." -- "I will not be alone," replied Roland. "Art will be joining too."

"Wait, what?" said Art, throwing his palms out before him. "When did I ever say this?" -- Roland rounded on him. "Wasn't it obvious? What, did you take us for fools?" -- "I… never said I was going," protested Art. -- "Haha, yeah right," said Roland, turning to look down the street toward their inn. "You, backing out, after going through all that effort to convince me to fight? Cut the crap."

"Roland, there was a reason I wanted you to help the sisterhood," Art said, lifting up his maimed right arm. -- Roland turned around, paused, stared at the stump of his arm. "Wait, you're not being serious, are you?" After a moment of not getting a reply from Art, he chuckled in disbelief. "No way. You… you're hanging me out to dry!" -- "How do you expect me to fight like this?" -- Roland made a wry smile and shook his head. "The same way you fought before?" -- "If you hadn't noticed, I lost to Natalie, if it wasn't for some choice words on Jezebel's part I'd be dead now." -- "That reminds me, Art, you still owe me for that." -- Art groaned.

"Art," said Natalie, stepping forward. "Remember the story of the wezeer's daughter and--" -- "Oh, no, not that again," protested Art. "Don't you think I've earned my respite?" he said, raising up his arm again.

"Art, you didn't take the time to dwell on the meaning of the story after we parted ways last night, did you?" Natalie accused. "Remember how the sixth prince accused the saint right back? That part of the story was for you. And the fourth prince, the one who lost all his guards. That wasn't just for Roland. That was for you too."

Art looked away, shaking his head. "And I suppose if I told you that there are people more qualified to fight this war than me, you'd invoke the prince who dumped the responsibility onto the other princes."

"No, Art, I would have just told you that without the support of the count or the bishop, and no funds to hire any mercenaries, the sisterhood has few others whom it can turn to. Do you have it in your heart to abandon them in their time of need?"

Roland added, "Didn't you have someone you cared for, back in Thistledown? What will happen to them if the village becomes overrun, have you thought of that?"

"Of course I care for them! I couldn't bear to part ways with Selena! And if I could, I would have risked hell itself if it meant I could keep her safe. If I had a better, safer place to take her to, I would have. But what can I do?" said Art. "How am I supposed to fight, as I am now? You all have both your arms intact; you don't know what it's like to have to deal with this on a daily basis, regretting every day my actions that led to this outcome. Do you know how hard it is to do things without the use of my main hand? I even have to have help changing clothes. In my latest fights I'd been trounced first by Jezebel and then by Natalie, and I doubt you've had much combat experience. You don't know, because you haven't encountered them, but the enemy has adepts too, skilled in the way of the albatross at the very least. If I run into the likes of them I'm dead. Do you really think I'd stand a chance in battle, as I am now? I'd be throwing my life away, simple as that!"

"That's where you're wrong," said Jezebel. "Don't think that just because I wear a dainty blue robe, that I haven't fought before. I've served with many a mercenary group. You'd be surprised how popular an electroturge is with potential clients."

"And while I may not have many kills under my belt, I've trained for years with Night's Shadow," added Natalie. "Don't sell yourself short. Just from what little sparring we had yesterday, I could tell that you fight with great skill and resourcefulness. Few could pose a challenge to you. You really need to get over the idea that just because you lost to a woman once or twice does not make you pathetic."

"And don't think that you'll be going into the battle alone," said Jezebel. "The Sightless Eye is renowned for their ways of the bow and arrow, and Roland has his templar ways."

"Ask yourself this," said Natalie, "If Selena -- or anyone else -- were to die, and you could have prevented it, could you live with it for the rest of your life? Could you live with walking away from it, with the excuse of the loss of your hand?"

Art closed his eyes. He'd risked life and him to bring her out of the monastery safely. Had he not fought them back in order to improve her chances of survival, he'd not have lost his limb, which made her continued life the sole thing he'd earned for the hand he'd paid so dearly with. By the same token, if she died on him, then his sacrifice would have been in vain, and he could never live that down. And though he'd only known her for a few days, he cared for her almost like a father would for his daughter. The time spent with her had seemed like heaven on earth. How could he possibly be okay with any harm coming to her? And yet… If he left, he was forsaking her to the vicissitudes of fate, and if she died, it would be on his head.

He sighed, despairing. "No, I couldn't live it down," he answered. "Fine. Though it be against my better judgment, I'll stand with the sisters and fight by their side."

"That sounds more like the Art I know," said Roland. "Now come on; the morning's letting late, and we owe the sisters an answer." He led the way, with the rest of the group following, all of them in somber silence. Art wondered: What could they say to them, how could they put it in the least painful terms possible? Could the sisters suffer another demoralizing blow, after all the preceeding ones? That was one meeting he did not look forward to.

When they arrived at the Smug Mug, Liene and Amplisa rushed out into the still mostly empty street to greet them, along with half a dozen other sisters. They wore plain white clothes instead of their gambesons -- Art surmised that was to avoid the kind of unwanted attention that they'd attracted last night. Eyes shining with hope, Amplisa asked, "How goes it? Did you convince the bishop?"

Art hung his head. Natalie looked to Roland, who seemed at a loss for what to say upon encountering the sisters so full of hope. Jezebel burst into a smile. "Bishop Arevain has indeed agreed to help us!" -- What? Thought Art. What was she going on about? -- Roland and Natalie stared at Jezebel in silence. -- Amplisa and Paige looked ecstatic, and several others perked up. "Really? Wonderful! But he… he didn't demand any terms we couldn't agree to, did he?"

"If you mean making more of a show of becoming more devout, he of course did stress that, but said that was something he'd discuss with you further once the war is come to a close. He said, and I quote, 'We will take this as an opportunity to demonstrate the righteousness of the Church of Light, so that by the conclusion of this conflict their rank and file will urge the order's adoption of our faith with great fervor, and their leadership will have no choice but to acquiesce.'"

"Only that, and no terms? Why this is a godsend! How many of his templar is he committing?"

Jezebel put out a hand to hush them. "Oh, he will certainly be dispatching a good number, but there's a catch: It will take him quite some time to pull them together. They're all away on various errands, you see, and it won't be some weeks before enough of them arrive back in Tristram. And he wants to keep his mobilizing the templar a secret from everyone else, for now, so as to fool the redskins into overextending. That's his terms for helping us. Can you do that?"

"Why yes we can, but," said Amplisa, her smile fading a bit, "Is he not going to provide us with any help at all for the moment? Given our situation, I don't know if our frontier garrisons can hold that long."

"As I am a templar also, my lord has charged me to provide any assistance I can to the sisterhood, on behalf of our order," said Roland, now looking proud. "Not only to provide assistance in any way I can provide and to fight by your side, but more importantly, he has charged me with surveying our situation and reporting back to him with any intelligence we may have, so that when the time comes he will know exactly how to deploy to maximum effect," said Roland.

Roland's in it now too? Art wondered, perplexed for a moment. The bishop had already refused them; what was to be gained by such a ruse? But one look at the relieved looks on Blaise, Liene, and Oriana's faces told him what it was all about: A white lie, meant to keep their morale up, so that their order would not disintegrate under the crushing weight of their despair. Jezebel had added the caveat to explain why no help was immediately forthcoming, despite the supposed commitment by the bishop.

"Great! As I've mentioned before, we could definitely use your skills," said Amplisa. "And I'm glad you've agreed to help us after all."

"It is my duty," Roland said. He clasped his hands out before him. "Since my final loyalty lies with Order of the Temple's Light, I can't offer you my fealty, but rest assured: I hereby pledge my services to your cause and I will help you however I can."

Amplisa responded, eyes beaming, a faint smile on her lips. "Thank you, Roland. And we, Amplisa of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye," -- "Liene of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye," -- "On behalf of order-mother Akara and bow-mother Kashya," -- "Hereby thank you for your pledge of assistance."

Paige asked, "What about monetary assistance?" -- To which Roland, Art, Natalie and Jezebel all lowered their eyes. "We were not able to procure any," said Art. "The bishop Arevain has said that the silver in the coffers, being tithed by the believers to the church, is only to be used by agents of the church… which the sisterhood of course is not."

"No silver?" asked Diane. "But how… How are we to pay for our supplies?" -- "Not to mention the mercenaries we've hired?" asked Paige, suddenly distraught. -- Oh that's right, she'd spent all yesterday recruiting, Art recalled. He averted his eyes. "I don't think we can afford them," he responded stoically. "I'm sorry. I know you had put in a great effort in recruiting them but… the sisterhood will have to do without." -- "Even if the bishop couldn't pay from the church treasury, surely there must be something he could provide?" -- Art shook his head.

The hope and relief from earlier had all but evaporated. The younger sisters turned to Liene and Amplisa for some measure of comfort, but they too looked defeated, broken. Art could only imagine what their response would have been had Jezebel not made her fabrication, but doubtless it wouldn't have looked pretty. As it was, that single hope was the only thing keeping the sisterhood going. For that, Art felt he owed Jezebel thanks yet again. He was starting to feel more and more in her debt.

Liene turned to Amplisa and asked, "We can't not have the recruits we gathered yesterday. Reinforcements are one of two major reasons we came here. We can't leave empty handed! Is there anything we can do to persuade them to stay?"

Amplisa thought for a moment, looking somber, then shook her head. "They're mercenaries, through and through. They'll want the silver up front and on a daily basis, which we don't have, not if we want to pay for food to take back, which is our other primary reason for coming here. And if we come up with some excuse -- any excuse -- they would assume that it's because we don't have the money. Probably know it already, after the ill-fated meeting wiith Count Traben."

"Is there anything we can sell?" asked Paige. -- "We're not selling our weapons and armor," replied Liene. "We need that for the war effort." -- "But what about other things?" -- "Like what? We didn't bring much with us." -- "Odds and ends?" asked Diane, barely at a whisper. -- The sisters looked to each other, and looked about themselves and their belongings. Liene unclasped a brooch, and Amplisa took down an ornate hairpin and held it up in her hands. A few others fished odds and ends out of their gambesons, but little that would amount to more than a segmentum or two. They shook their heads at each other, with palpable worry on their faces.

"We'll have to ask the caravaners," said Liene, her disgust clear from her tone. -- After a moment, Amplisa replied, "I don't see any other choice." -- "Do they even have anything of value to give us?" asked Oriana. "They had to abandon their wagons and most of their other goods when they fled with us." -- "But surely they'll have some things left. Their most prized possessions," Roland pointed out. -- "And just what chance do we have of convincing them to hand over the last things they have?" asked Oriana. -- "Pretty good," said Roland. "I'm sure they all hate the redskins for taking all their belongings, killing their friends and loved ones, and forcing them to abort their journey." -- "Just because you're willing to help us fight doesn't mean the others see it that way," retorted Oriana. -- Liene put out a hand. "Guys… I'll go speak to Warriv about it."

"Speak of the devil, perhaps?" asked Warriv, strolling out of the Smug Mug's entrance behind them. "What's wrong?" Art looked passed him to see other caravaners starting to gather within the inn, some finishing their meals and others already fully packed and chatting with each other as they stood in wait. Out along the street, the caravaners who had taken up residence at the other inns had started to aggregate before the inn as well, many of them bearing ruck sacks laden with what he assumed were supplies and other necessities.

Liene went up to Warriv, biting her lower lip, her face flushed. "Warriv… We, the sisterhood, need to ask a huge favor of you." -- "What is it you need?" -- "Ever since we were forced to flee the monastery, we've been somewhat lacking in resources. We don't have the money to pay for food and other supplies to keep our fight going. As it is, we barely have enough to last a few weeks, and--"

"Say no more," said Warriv. "You want me to ask the others if there's any change they can spare for you, right?" -- "Not just coin; anything of value they can part with." -- "Got it." He broke into a smile. "Fear not, good lady. I'll see what we can put together for you. For having saved our lives, it's the least we can do."

Warriv turned about and clapped his hands, loudly, to get the others' attention. Men, women, and children -- those of the group who'd stayed at the Smug Mug -- poured out of the inn to join up with the rest of the caravaners, to stand at attention before him. Art looked about to see who he could find. Taril, for one. But not everyone was there. Gheed for instance was not in the crowd.

After a moment he clapped again, causing them to calm down, and then spoke, loudly and clearly: "Friends and acquantainces on our journey. Thank you for coming and gathering here. I feel right at home with you all, with so many familiar faces! Some of you have known each other for only the last few days. Others have been traveling with me for some time now. In our time together we've lived together, laughed together, dined together, and shared our hardships together, and have to come to trust one another. And some of you will yet be continuing on in your journeys with each other, having made new friends along the way.

"But as they say, all good things come to an end. And with the road east blocked off by your enemies… today, many of us will part ways from each other. Some will, like me, be heading on west to Duncraig. Others, to the north or more likely, to take the Duergar Pass to the south. After this, we may not know when we shall ever meet again. And so before you leave, I would remind you: This is your last chance to meet up with those whom you will be parting ways, and say your farewells. Just try not to bring each other to tears while you're at it.

"There is another matter. While we caravaners will be traveling on our separate journeys, the sisterhood will remain in Thistledown and in the other villages, defending them from the invaders that had attacked us that fateful night, and ultimately to take back the monastery so that the pass may be reopened and we may one day travel east once again.

"I think our experience of that night will forever be etched into our memories. We have all lost much as a result of that event. The luckiest of us escaped having lost only our possessions -- all the wagonloads we had brought intending to sell in the cities of Aranoch. As for the others… Many of us have lost friends and family in the dead of night, and others have suffered grievous wounds. Won't we forever honor their memory?" he shouted. -- "Aye!" -- "Aye, and won't we always remember who it was that inflicted such suffering upon us and our loved ones?" -- "Aye!" The caravaners shouted back, more loudly than before, some thrusting their fists into the air. -- "If they were alive, wouldn't they want us to see this injustice righted?" -- "Aye!" -- "Whether we lost our possessions or the people we cared for, or both, don't we want revenge for what they've done?" -- "Aye!"

"Well, today you shall have your opportunity!" Warriv answered the roused crowd. -- "How?" asked the crowd. -- He gestured to the sisters. "The sisters have been, and will continue, fighting our attackers for us, that we may have our vengeance. Now: We may not have the training to pick up a weapon and join them, but it is not beyond our power to give them whatever assistance they need. And if they're going to grant us vengeance against our enemies, shouldn't we give what we can to help them, so that they can focus on their efforts?" -- "Aye!" -- "I'll be giving the sisters what I can spare," he said, taking out a segmentum and handing it to Liene for all to see. "Who shall join me?"

Art nodded in satisfaction as the caravaners, though seemingly concerned at first, set aside their misgivings and shouted "Aye!" and "I will!" and "Me!". Segueing a reminder of how the redskins had caused them to suffer, drawing upon his audience's grief and outrage, into an appeal to provide the sisterhood with aid… This was what he'd gotten used to seeing of Warriv, how his motivational speechmaking brought swift results, how he easily swayed his fellows to such as he'd set his mind on. This was why he'd become caravan leader.

"That's the spirit! Remember, the sisters have been as hard hit as we have. No amount of help is too small!" prodded Warriv as the first few of a growing trickle of caravaners came up and, with sheepish grins on their faces, presented what they could spare to Warriv and the sisters. Warriv gestured for them to place it upon the ground, and they did so. -- One said as he did so, "Please avenge my dear Delia for me. Promise me!" -- Liene nodded her head. "Promise."

By twos and threes the caravaners came up, some looking eager, others sniffling and doing their best to hide their sorrow, to place upon the ground whatever they were willing to part with. Baubles, trinkets, coins, segmentums and even the occasional singleton found their way into the growing pile. The sisters watched on, some mute with amazement, as tears of thankfulness ran down their cheeks, while others thanked each donor.

And when they'd finished, Amplisa stepped forward to address the crowd, wiping the glistening tears from her eyes. She spoke, her voice catching. "Thank you… thank you so much. I don't know what else to say, except that, rest assured, we will put this to good use. We will fight the redskins to the end, we will make them pay for what they have done. You shall have your revenge. You all, shall have your revenge. And when we have taken the monastery back, you will all be welcome."

After a few more such lines from Amplisa and some more exhortations from the caravaners, Warriv spoke up: "The morning is getting on, and I'm sure many of you are looking to head on out soon so as to make it to the next town over by nightfall. Don't forget to bid each other farewells!" And shortly thereafter, the gathered crowd began to dissipate, seemingly carried away by the growing number of passersby walking through the streets, until only the sisters, Warriv and Taril's group, and a few others remained.

"Well, Art, I think it's time we said farewell to the sisters," said Warriv. He pointed to the covered wagon by his side. "I have our supplies loaded and ready to go, and we have a long ways to--"

"Warriv," Art interrupted, "I'll not be going." -- Warriv gaped at him. "You're… You're not coming with us?" -- A nod. "I've decided to fight alongside the sisterhood." -- Taril came up. "You're kidding, right?" -- "Art, have you forgot what happened so quickly? You can't fight like that. The way you are, going into battle? You'll just be throwing your life away." -- "I've made up my mind, and trust me, I've given it much thought," Art said. "The sisters desperately need whatever help they can get, and I can hold my own. I've fought the redskins before; fought them and bested them. I can do so again. I can't just walk away from this. Why, they still need to answer for hacking my hand off." -- "But Art, that's exactly why--"

"I appreciate your concerns, Warriv, Taril, I really do. And I also am not about to forget your offer of letting me continue to stay by you as your caravan guard. But… This is my decision to make. And… I have people I want to protect. I can't do that out west." -- "…Selena?" -- "Yes." -- "She's in the good care of the Bedfords, Art. And if they ever get attacked, the sisterhood will protect them all." -- "But if they can't? If their position gets overrun? You know I'll never be able to live it down." -- "But what can you do in that case? You're just one man!" -- "Yes, but that way if I fail at least I can be at peace with myself for having been there and having tried."

Liene stepped up and glared at Art. "Just what are you up to now? Who says we even want you here?" -- "Liene," Amplisa admonished her as she grasped her by the upper arm. "Remember the situation our sisterhood is in! We need every last ally we can find." -- "Well we don't need him," said Liene as she shook her arm free of Amplisa, though sounding like she'd lost her conviction. -- "Liene!" -- "Did you already forget that we caught him practicing necroturgy? That Kashya had banished him from the village? Are you going to wait till he reanimates our fellow sisters before--" -- "Liene Taylor!" -- Liene fell silent for a moment, flinching as if slapped.

Art wore a smile and replied, "Liene, can we agree to put our past behind us? Amplisa is clearly right in this regard; your sisterhood needs all the help it can get. And who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll save one of your dear sisters' lives. Maybe I'll do it with that necroturgy you seem to despise so much." -- She'd turned herself away from him as he spoke but upon hearing that she whirled around. "You dare!" -- Art grinned. "Maybe it'll be your life I save, who knows?" -- "The chance of that happening is a big goose egg." -- Art shrugged. "Well, if I fail to save you and you die in the fight then I'll have to reanimate you, so it's either that or the other, your pick, and I think we both know which one you'd prefer." -- With a "Humph!", Liene turned and stalked away.

Warriv spoke again, with a raised eyebrow after her retreating form. "You're going to throw in with that lot, Art? Seems a completely misguided effort to me." -- "Just because Liene has an attitude doesn't mean all the sisters run that way." -- "Please accept my apologies on Liene's behalf," said Amplisa with a curtsey to Art. "We'd appreciate your help as much as Roland's." -- Art turned back to Warriv. "See? I'll be fine. Besides," he said with a smirk, "I won't be lacking for company. There's an awful lot of fine ladies, that lot."

Warriv and Taril looked to each other, solemn. Warriv turned back to Art. "I see we're not going to be able to convince you otherwise. In that case… I wish you the best of luck. We may be coming back some months in the future… Maybe, maybe not. Depends on what we end up preoccupied with. If the sisterhood reclaims the gates, then a sooner rather than later. But we'll meet up again some day." -- Taril added, "And when that day comes I'll have you give me a recounting of our adventures, though hopefully they'll be few and boring from here on out." -- Art smiled. "I wouldn't miss that for the world." -- "Good," said Warriv. He laid a sturdy arm on Art's shoulder. "Promise me you'll have to live till then?" -- "Promise, and if I break it I'll stab my heart and hope to die." -- "Tch," said Taril with a grin.

"Well, I'm no good with farewells, even after all this time," said Warriv, scratching the back of his head. "No matter what I say, I don't think I can do you justice." -- "What are you talking about, Warriv? You make it sound like you owe me." -- "Don't I? After you saved us from the said raiders?" -- "Isn't that what we were paid to do? That was me and seven others, Warriv, and not just yours but the whole caravan's. And I doubt any of us would have simply let the sand raiders have it their way. So you don't need to make it sound like you owe me."

"That was just one of many times you've earned your pay," said Warriv. He chuckled. "Seven years, Art. I couldn't count all the places we've been together, you, me and Taril. I don't know whom I'll find to replace you, or even if I ever can. We'll miss you." He and Art embraced, first with Warriv and then with Taril.

As they did, Art's mind went back to all the things they'd done together. Tricking the Stony Tomb Seven into fighting each other over the caravan's spoils, making each of them think the others had stolen from them, til none of their groups could stand up to him and his guards. Seafood tasting in the great keep of the grand duke of Kingsport. Spiriting a wanderlust-afflicted princess out of her walled town till she ran away from their caravan in turn, giving them nothing in return but a message in an arrow. Through happiness and hardship, they'd kept each other's company and watched each other's backs… When they quiitted their embrace, he could hardly see from the tears brimming in his eyes.

"Normally I'd find some jokes to crack," said Taril, "but I can't think of any quite fitting. So. Just… take care of yourself. Or let others help take care of you. Selena's been pretty eager about it thus far, so don't let the opportunity pass by, when you're back in Thistledown. Don't do anything too dangerous. I know you're trained and all, and you're there primarily to help the sisterhood, but adventuring is for fools. So's heroics. Don't let the tales I've told you mislead you on that point. Most people who die don't have stories written of their deeds, you hear?"

"Damn it mother…"

Taril chuckled. "I wanted to give you this." He held out to Art his flute, the very same which Art had listened to him play on hundreds of occasions all throughout Khanduras, and which always hung by his side. Taril was not Taril without it. Least, he couldn't imagine him otherwise. -- "Taril, are you sure? This is quite the gift you're giving me. How will you earn your keep?" -- "You don't think I can't go and just buy another one, eh? Keep this. I know you'll not have much use for it, seeing as you've never learned it and all, but it's something for you to remember me by." -- Art took it, held it reverentially. "Thanks Taril. I'll treasure it."

"And I have something to give you too," said Warriv. He went into his wagon and retrieved it, and handed it over to Art, who took it in disbelief. A hollow arrow, turned it to the side and saw it still had the little strip of paper in it. At the seeing of it, Art's mind drifted to the memories of that time long ago. The two months they'd spent with the willful Elysia had been some of the most memorable, if not exactly happy, times of his life. And then when it came to an end, she'd not said a word of farewell, but had instead written a poem to that effect on the strip of paper and then taken that arrow and shot it into the side of Warriv's old covered wagon. She wasn't all that good with farewells either, and she'd known it. That Warriv was giving this to him… it was probably the best way for him to convey the same.

Breaking into tears, Art laughed. "This… This was from three years ago, Warriv! I didn't figure you for the sentimental type. You, carrying this around, even after the attack on the monastery? She must have left quite an impact on you. Well… Thank you. Though I don't know how I'll top such a gift. I… don't have much to give at all. I would have given you my sword, but seeing as I've lost even that…"

Warriv took out his money bag and, taking Art's hand in his own, placed it in Art's hand. By its weight Art figured there must have been almost two singletons in it alone -- a good amount of money, and probably all that Warriv had with him at the moment. "Oh no, I can't possibly accept this, not after all you've lost. You need the money to restart your merchant trade."

Warriv waved a hand. "Oh, don't start with me. You'll need every last penny. In fact, my only regret is that I couldn't give you more. If you had told me this yesterday, I'd have--"

"It's more than plenty." Art cut him off with another embrace. "I'll pay you back. I swear it." -- "No, Art, it's for you--" -- "Yes," interrupted Taril. "See to it that you return the money back to Warriv, once this is all over." -- So he couldn't die fighting till then, thought Art. He smiled at Taril; always the thoughtful one. "Very well then. I'll return this to you when the time comes."

They shared a moment in silence. Art, wondering if he'd ever see them again, drank in their faces. "Well, the morning's getting late," said Warriv. "Best to get a move on."

Warriv got on the bench of his wagon and turned to give Art a farewell wave, as did Taril who shared the bench with him. Then he turned and with a lash drove the horses forward. Art waved back. Moments later, Warriv's wagon went out of view as the wagon of someone else in his caravan followed right after, and then another.

For a long time Art watched after them as his long-time friends and their cohort walked further and further down the street and out past the gates. Before long he couldn't make them out past the throngs of people who had started to occupy the street, and when the roads momentarily cleared up, they were gone. Perhaps never to be seen again, thought Art. He strode back toward the Smug Mug. He'd finally thrown in his lot with them, and they had so much to do.

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