Fred yawned and stood, poked the fire a couple times before deciding to add another branch, then started a leisurely stroll around the camp. The sound of Ulf's snoring came through the open window above the wagon's bed, giggling came from the tent Lada and Angus were sharing, and the horses whickered sleepily as he passed them. He had completed his circuit, and was just sitting down by the fire again, when one of the traps in the brush behind the main tent exploded like a flash-bang grenade.
"Xsa ol!" a feminine voice cried out from the brush where the trap had detonated. "Flamgra wun l'sssiks!"
"A drow? On the surface?" Fred thought as he picked up Ripper and took aim. "And alone?"
"Doer doeb xuil dosst rahi phor!" Fred called.
Aribeth was already out the door of the main tent, both swords ready, when the drow finally managed to extricate herself from the bushes. She was short, even for a drow, dressed in a purple robe – that had clearly caught on every branch and thorn in the brush – and carrying a scythe. She stumbled into the camp, staggering as if the explosion of the trap had not merely deafened her, but had given her a serious case of vertigo.
Aribeth let out a scream of rage and charged the drow, both swords raised to strike. Just as she was starting what would have been a killing blow, Lada extricated herself from her tent, covered the ground between her and Aribeth in two leaps, and pounced on her, the weight of her lioness form knocking Aribeth to the ground.
"She's not evil!" Lada yowled as she stood on Aribeth, holding her in place with her weight, while Aribeth raged and tried to push her off.
"Bel'la Jergal," the drow breathed as she sank to her knees, leaning on her scythe. "I don't know whose lion that is, but thank you."
"Who are you?" Fred asked. "And why are you thanking Jergal?"
"I'm told that humans have male leaders," the drow said, her voice louder than expected. She looked at Fred as she continued, "Are you the leader of this band of humans?"
"You can't hear a word I'm saying, can you?" Fred mused. He put Ripper down, stepped forward, and reached out to the drow with both hands. She shrank from him, until her eyes fell on his holy symbol. Seeing the emblem of Kelemvor on his armor, she looked up at him with a smile and drew a pendant from under her robes. The combination of scroll, quill, and skull marked her as a follower of Jergal, something Fred had never heard of among the drow. Putting aside his surprise for the moment, Fred nodded to her and laid his hands on her, silently calling on the healing power of his faith to restore her to wholeness.
"Thank you," the drow said. "I never knew how much I relied on my hearing, until all I could hear was that horribly painful ringing noise."
"So you can hear me now, then?" Fred asked as he stepped back.
"Yes," she said. "I can hear you. And I can hear your elven friend. I know the darthiir hate my kind as much as mine hate them, but it sounds as if it goes much deeper in her case."
"How about you don't go there?" Fred suggested. "Lada, can you see if Aribeth has a calm-down button and get her into the big tent while I talk to our guest?"
"A ...calm-down button?" the drow asked, a look of confusion on her face.
"It's a cat thing," Fred said. "Angus, would you help Lada? Please? I don't want any fighting."
"Do drow count as humans for purposes of dietary restrictions?" Ulf rumbled from behind Fred.
"Yes," Fred snorted. "At least, this one does, I think. Besides, even if they didn't, would you want the risk of being poisoned?"
"Good point," Ulf laughed. "So, little drow, who are you, and why are you disrupting our sleep?"
"I hadn't planned to," she said, looking up at Ulf with wide eyes. "If I hadn't stumbled into that trap, I would have passed by your camp entirely."
"Still, you were awfully close to the camp," Fred said. "We put those traps just barely far enough into the brush to allow for necessities."
"I was ... curious," she admitted. "I haven't seen another intelligent being since I dodged a band of goblins a few days ago. And they're not exactly the kind of people you want to risk getting close to."
Angus slunk out of Lada's tent, in puma form, and padded over to Lada and Aribeth. He dodged Aribeth's flailing arms, managed to sit on one, and gently took her wrist in his mouth. Once he had control of one arm, Lada took the other wrist, and the two dragged Aribeth into the main tent, while she continued to scream in rage.
Once Aribeth was in the main tent, Fred turned his full attention on the drow and asked, "So, what is your name, and why are you on the surface? Not that I can't guess, but I'd like to know for sure."
"I am Faern'ya Rastain," the drow said. "And I'm here because the assassins can't get around as easily on the surface as they can below."
"The assassins, eh?" Ulf rumbled.
"Yes," Faern'ya said. "I was the eldest daughter of my family, so when I turned to Jergal, they were ordered by Lolth herself to execute me. I escaped, and now the only way they can restore themselves to Her grace is by hunting me down and making sure I am very, very dead."
"Here's another one for your menagerie, Fred," Ulf laughed. "Or is that, harem? I forget what you humans call it."
"Not with the way my gaydar is pinging," Fred laughed. He smiled, shaking his head, and said to Faern'ya, "Don't mind him. Minotaur humor is notoriously earthy."
"I ...see," Faern'ya said. "Umm ...how is is that you're traveling together? And what is a ...gaydar?"
"That's a long story," Fred said. "Let's just say that Ulf and I are tribemates, as well as brothers in blood. As for gaydar, that's kind of a joke where I come from. The joke is that someone who is inclined toward relationships with his own sex is able to tell when someone else is, too, the same way a bat can tell where other bats are, even in total darkness."
"Umm...," Faern'ya started, looking at Fred with renewed confusion on her face.
"Just think of it as a weird Fred thing, and you'll be fine," Ulf snorted, slapping Fred on the back as he laughed.
"A weird Fred thing?" Faern'ya asked.
"Yeah," Fred said, grinning. "I'm notoriously weird. Anyway, I'm afraid I can't invite you into the big tent. Aribeth would kill you as soon as look at you, and that would be a sad choice. I'm sure we have a spare tent in the wagon, though."
"... Just like that?" Faern'ya asked, staring at Fred.
"Sure. Lada said you're not evil," Fred said. "And you're a follower of Jergal. Other than being a drow, you won't have any problem fitting in with this mob. Well, as long as you don't mind joining us in our crusade to free Neverwinter of the evil that rules it."
"Free ... Neverwinter?" Faern'ya squeaked. "You're that Fred and Aribeth?"
"Guilty as charged," Fred grinned. "Fred MacManus, Champion of Kelemvor, at your service."
"I...," Faern'ya stammered. "Maybe I'll just see if I can find those assassins now. I'm sorry I bothered you. Umm ... how do I get out of here?"
"You could try going that way," Fred said, gesturing toward the trail they'd taken into the clearing. "But the Berdusk militia isn't the friendliest bunch, and they patrol the main road around here."
"Be nice, Fred," Ulf rumbled, and patted a log that was laying near the fire. "Why don't you sit down, little drow, and I'll tell you the story of our motley crew? Then you can decide if you want to run far away from us."
"Umm...," Faern'ya looked up at Ulf uncertainly, clutching her scythe as if for reassurance, then at Fred, and let out a brief whimper as she sat down. "Yes...yes, go ahead and tell me the story."
Ulf sat on a tree stump across the fire from Faern'ya and nodded at Fred, then began speaking. "Our story begins six years ago, when a great plague fell upon the city of Neverwinter...."
Fred slipped away from the fire, into the main tent. Lada and Angus had managed to find every lamp in the tent, so it was bright enough to read even wizard script. Lada was sitting on Aribeth's lap, still in lioness form, and gently batted at her whenever Aribeth stopped petting her.
"Is...is it gone?" Aribeth asked, looking down at Lada as she stroked her.
"Ulf's telling her a story," Fred said. "She's like us. Outcast because she chose good instead of evil."
"She's a drow!" Aribeth cried.
"And Ulf's a minotaur," Fred said, calmly, as he walked across the tent and sat beside Aribeth.
"Fred is with you," Angus said. "And Lada and I can shred any drow we meet. So you don't have to worry about this one."
"And this one was so terrified when she realized who we are, she was willing to face assassins rather than be near us," Fred sighed. "We really must do something about our reputation."
Lada purred loudly as she stretched until she was sprawled across both Aribeth's lap and Fred's. "She has a name. What is it?"
"Hmm? Oh. Her name is Faern'ya Rastain," Fred said, distractedly scratching behind Lada's ears. "She's a follower of Jergal, and she's under an execution order that was given by Lolth herself. Like I said, she's like one of us."
"Faern'ya Rastain," Aribeth mused. "That's...an odd name for a drow woman. Faern'ya is a reference to a god of magic, like Azuth."
"Definitely strange," Fred agreed. "For drow, wouldn't giving her a name like that be seen as almost like a rebellion against Lolth?"
"Yes," Angus said. "I wouldn't be surprised if her family was already on the verge of being exterminated, and her conversion had simply been the last straw."
"And so they wouldn't have anything to lose by spending all their resources hunting her," Fred mused. "Kind of like the way Neverwinter has been sending out bounty hunters after us."
"Worse," Aribeth said. "If they have nothing to lose, they wouldn't hold anything back. They might make bargains that would be beyond even whatever is possessing Nasher."
"So," Fred said, "she's nothing like other drow...well, except maybe the Eilistraeeans."
"True," Aribeth said softly, reaching for Fred with her free hand, and clutching Lada with the hand that had been stroking her. "But...I'm just...not ready."
"No rush," Fred said gently.
"Nobody ever feels ready," Lada purred. "But tonight, you should just go back to bed. Ulf can keep watch, and Fred will be with you."
Angus looked out the door, then turned back and nodded. "Ulf has her mesmerized. He really is a bard."
"We could have told you that," Aribeth snorted, then laughed weakly. "You're all plotting together, aren't you? Well, it's working. I think I'm ready to try sleeping again."
"All right," Angus said. "I'll get your swords for you."
Lada yawned, stretched, and stood, giving Aribeth's cheek a gentle lick before turning to leave. "Do you want Angus and me to stay?"
Aribeth hugged Lada, rubbed her face in her fur, and whispered, "Please?"
Lada nuzzled Aribeth, then curled up on some cushions between the bed and the door. "We'll be right here. I love you."
"So," Ulf said, "here we are, on our way to Neverwinter to rescue it, and all the lands around it, from the evil that has possessed its rulers. And you should probably get in the wagon, unless you like being sun-blind."
"Sun..." Faern'ya started, then jumped and screamed as a cold nose pressed into her hand from behind. As she spun to face the threat, the sun rose above the horizon. She stumbled as the light blinded her, falling backward toward the fire.
"Freki!" Ulf yelled, as he leaped and caught Faern'ya. "She doesn't have any bacon!"
"Bacon?" Faern'ya stammered as Ulf guided her back to the log. The smell of singed hair filled her nose, but she didn't feel any pain, so she whispered, "Do you need healing?"
"For this?" Ulf rumbled. "Hardly worth mentioning."
"But you were hurt while saving me," Faern'ya said. "The least I can do is heal you."
"I wouldn't say no," Ulf said. "And I would say thank you."
Faern'ya reached out blindly toward Ulf's voice. Ulf took her hand and guided it to his chest. Once she was sure of his location, Faern'ya began to pray, calling for healing for Ulf's burns.
"Thank you," Ulf rumbled when she had finished. "Even though it was small, it still feels better for your attention."
"Is everyone all right?" Angus called, from just outside the main tent.
"It's all right," Ulf said. "Freki surprised Faern'ya."
"Bacon?" Freki yipped.
"Not yet, silly wolf," Angus laughed. "We haven't even started cooking yet."
"I take it you have two rangers in your group?" Faern'ya asked.
"And a druid," Ulf rumbled cheerfully. "His sidekick is a badger."
"And a druid...," Faern'ya mused. "So the lion that saved me last night...was a druid?"
"Oh, no," Ulf said. "She's the Claw of Sharess. Red's the druid. Freki is Fred's sidekick. Aribeth...well, her new sidekick is in the big tent, curled up in a maternity bed."
"Her...new...sidekick?" Faern'ya asked softly. "That sounds like something horrible happened."
"It did," Ulf said. "Her old sidekick was a Beast of Bane. It was executed for killing a bunch of grigs."
"Shouldn't it have been killed just for what it was?" Faern'ya asked, confused.
"It would have been, if either of them had realized what it was." Ulf gently patted Freki's back and asked, "So, want to meet the creature that scared the wits out of you?"
"Freki?" Faern'ya asked. "What is Freki?"
"He's Fred's wolf." Ulf gently pushed Freki toward Faern'ya. "Here you go. Freki, meet Faern'ya. Faern'ya, meet Freki. He's an incorrigible mooch. If he even thinks you have food, he'll come begging."
Freki nuzzled Faern'ya's fingers, then slurped her hand, while his tail wagged and he yapped, "Bacon?"
Faern'ya eeped when Freki licked her hand, then giggled and reached out to run her fingers through his fur. "He's so...so...friendly."
"That he is," Ulf rumbled. "Fred says he's like a golden retriever, whatever that is."
Angus walked up to the fire and said, "Lada's curled up in the big tent, with her paws over her ears. Aribeth and Fred are doing their morning prayers, so I'm afraid it's up to me to do morning meal. Do you prefer ham, sausage, or bacon?"
"Umm...," Faern'ya gulped, trying to still the lurch in her stomach at the mention of food. "Yes?"
Lada slunk out of the main tent and vanished into hers, while Angus rummaged around in one of the wagon's storage compartments until he found a string of sausages, then cut off a dozen links. Collecting the sausages, as well as a small bag of potatoes, an onion, and some eggs, he returned to the fire and stirred it up.
"The sausage is safe to eat as is, right?" Ulf asked Angus.
"Yes, as far as I know it is," Angus said. "Why?"
"Because," Ulf said as he snapped a link off the end of the chain and pressed it into Faern'ya's hands, "the littlest priestess looks as if she's about to faint from hunger. When is the last time you ate, Faern'ya?"
"I...three days ago?" Faern'ya admitted. "Or was it four?"
"Why didn't you just conjure up food?" Angus asked, surprised.
"I...," Faern'ya stammered, blinked, then sat down, laughing, on the verge of hysteria.
"Oh ya," Ulf rumbled, barely holding back laughter of his own. "She's one of us, for sure."