Two Months Later:
It was with a heavy heart that Meliantha left Shadowdale. The people there had been welcoming, for the most part, and even those who had some troubles with her appearance treated her with respect to her face. She'd made friends with many of the people there, spending time both in combat training and the simple arts of farming. She'd built a wall alongside Storm and members of the Knights of Myth Drannor, who treated her as a fellow adventurer, not as some kind of freak.
But the time had come to leave Shadowdale, as Storm had told her.
"I've still much to learn," Meliantha protested, as she weeded a patch of potatoes. "Besides, the potatoes won't weed themselves."
"Perchance," Storm said, weeding the next row over (something that would astonish most who knew of her, that she'd ‘stoop' to doing such manual labor), "But you won't learn them here. You need to go out, see the world. There's much to see out there. Tonight we'll go to the Old Skull for dinner, after you've finished that and washed, and tomorrow morn you'll be on your way. I've already made arrangements for you to go somewhere you're needed."
Meliantha blew some hair out of her eyes, and went back to weeding. "And I expect you've gotten word of a place needs someone, and so that's where I'm going."
"That would be telling," the Bard of Shadowdale said with a laugh.
The Old Skull was full when they arrived, but there was a table set aside for Meliantha by the Knights. Toasts were made, drinks were had, food was eaten, and some gifts were given: traveler's clothing (good solid breeches, a few shirts, a belt, a hood and a good hat), a set of good lock picks (courtesy of the Knights' rogue), a hand-cask of good ale (courtesy of the Knights' priest), and a magical bead that turned into a campfire (courtesy of all the Knights, who knew the value of a campfire). There were hugs, and a few tears, and promises extracted that she return, and promises made she would.
It was that night, after walking back, both of them cheerfully drunk but quite controlled, that Storm gave her gifts. "A few things I've had about that you might appreciate," she said, pulling them from a dusty cabinet. "This is a tent that erects itself and remains warm and hides itself a bit, and this is a bed that collapses down. Tween the two you should be comfortable."
Remembering rainy nights, she accepted them gratefully, placing them into her own travel-bag.
"And this, my lass, is for those nights." She pulled out a thick book. Meliantha blinked, then took it and opened the cover, reading the frontispiece.
"A copy of 'The Red Knight's Order of Battle'!" she breathed. During their training, Storm had noticed her pupil's love of battle strategy. "This must be priceless!"
"Then take care of it," Storm advised. "It's been magically protected, but still it only goes so far." The items were put into the haversack, and then Storm reached into another cubby. "And then one more thing." She presented a pin, of silver, a crescent moon holding a harp between the arms. "Allow me to welcome you, girl, to the Harpers."
"Me? How can I be a Harper? I'm not worthy of that!" At the moment she felt every ache of loneliness, every pang to belong she'd ever had, the way she'd want to walk down the street and not be stared at by half of them, the anguish that Norvin and Felgar had inflicted on her, down into depths of her heart.
"Oh, girl, if you weren't worthy, you'd not been spending all this time here. That's part of it, you know – testing you to see if you were worthy in your heart to be one of us. And you are – you took all that pain they gave you, and I know well how much it was, friends of yours are friends of mine, you see, and you turned it into strength and will and a desire to help. You're worthy of walking with Those Who Harp." Her voice took on a fey tone. "Indeed, you've earned your place, and will keep doing so in the future."
Meliantha frowned slightly. "I'm still not sure," she said, raising a hand to hold back a reply, "but I can always look at it as a goal to feel worthy of it." She reached out and took the pin, then attached it to the inside of the magic cloak she'd taken from one of the bandit crews.
Storm smiled. "Always a good thing to have something to strive for." She reached out and ruffled the demon-blooded woman's hair – a liberty few took – and then they went to sleep. It would be an early morning.
On her way through the town, she stopped at the Old Skull. Pushing open the door, she remembered both arriving here and the farewell the night before. To her surprise, the entire place was cleaned up. Durgo glanced from where he organized plates on the bar. "Aye, the mages spent time here with some magic cleaning up. 'Twas much appreciated. And you'll be wanting your order, then?"
"Indeed." She pulled out her pouch and unslung her haversack as he went in the back. One of the properties she'd learned about it was that food placed in it stayed hot or cold as it had been when it went in, and didn't spoil. So it seemed best to prepare for the road. Durgo came out with a tray of meat-rolls and pastries, which she packed carefully in the haversack. He didn't seem surprised to watch them go in and the bag not seem to get larger at all.
"Come back again, lady," he said, "there'll be a room and some meat-rolls for you." She had no idea what kind of spices they had, but she'd found herself adoring the Old Skull Inn's meat-rolls. She left a few more coins, and then headed out the door and took to the road again.
As she walked westwards, she passed the Spiderhaunt woods as she had on the way to Shadowdale. She waved a little at it, imagining eyes watching her, but no one came to bother her at all. Perhaps they remembered her. Perhaps they just weren't there.
She crossed into the Shadow Gap and then back into Cormyr, and there met with some of the Purple Dragons. This group knew of her, and she travelled with them part of the way back to Tilverton. An attempt was made to recruit her for the Purple Dragons by the garrison at Tilverton, at the recommendation of some of the Dragons she'd travelled with, but she turned it down politely, explaining that she had some things to take care of.
As she walked into Cormyr again, with a pass allowing her to cross the Forest Kingdom, she followed the roads to Arabel, where her mission would begin. As she walked, she thought about what she'd been told about it…
"We think there's a priest of Bane there, trying to corrupt and recruit some of the mercenaries in Arabel," Storm explained over a dawnfry, as Meliantha checked her new maps and packed away her chronicling gear. "We think that he wants to set up a force loyal to the Zhents right in the center of Cormyr, so that if something happens, they can leap to the attack."
"And the city's not thrashing him why?" Meliantha said around a mouth of fried egg and potato.
"He's not doing it openly. His official story is that he's a defrocked priest turned merchant, handling provision sales to them. He says he was thrown out, but doesn't talk about who he follows now. It's quite obvious it's not Waukeen, though."
"No proof. This could get sketchy, but I suppose that's why I'm being sent." She took in another mouthful of the dawnfry and chewed quickly, then swallowed. "I'd best be going – I want to make the Gap by nightfall. These help," she said, tapping one boot against the other, "but still."
They embraced, and Storm kissed her on the forehead. "I've sent word along – they'll make contact and get you more information when you arrive, and have a place for you to stay. Be well, Meliantha."
Meliantha stepped back, and bowed deeply and formally, then said, "Lissenen ar' maska'lalaith tenna' lye omentuva… Hallaer."
Storm laughed, and swatted the other woman on the shoulder as she went through the door.
Soon enough, Meliantha mused, as she lay in the bed, in the tent (which was larger on the inside) and kept warm in the rain with that magical campfire bead, she'd be in Arabel. On a mission for the Harpers. Still surprised each time she saw the pin, she pulled her cloak over herself and drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain on the canvas.