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Autumn Sparring

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The sky was milk-fogged and sharp with ice. Give her clouds above too-easy day.

One, two...pierce!

Isilda's boots near slipped on the damp rough autumn grass, which regrew in stubbled places like a human man's shaven beard. Many a time she'd fought in worse conditions and felt the sting of a staff or training sword brusing her shoulders to make her continue. She'd rather think of it as something that was simply there and beneath her notice; but the person with her tended to think of more.

Her longsword and gladius dagger moved in unison. A strong, brilliant thrust in her right hand, parry to the left—the dagger more than heavy enough to deflect his sword—

Then it wasn't there. She felt the sudden pressure on her elbow pushing her back and smelt him—fresh grass, oiled leather, clean metal and sweat—and then she was out of the way, his sword sweeping at her. Isilda aimed a kick at his calf, hard, and felt it leave a bruise. She'd never let it be easy. He fought her with a one-handed sword, his movements light without his shield. She grit her teeth and kept his pace.

Win! was in her blood, and no doubt she'd killed more than he. Her hands must be quick, her eye quicker still. One-two-three, fort-tierce-down. A good combination. When she won with him, it was because she was strong and never gave up, outwrestling and overpowering him—

But his sword flashed in phrases more quicksilvered than his tongue, one-five-up and shimmering down to her left hand. She dropped the dagger because she had to, and pushed forward in an all-or-nothing attack with her blade. It unbalanced.

Isilda fell to the grass with her ribs an easy target for him, and put her hands around his weakened right calf. He shouted as she brought him down with her, and together they rolled on the ground, muddy and wrapped together.

She let herself fall on top of him, and wiped a lock of pale hair from her face, fingers brushing across the knots on her skin. Another woman would have let it hide her scars, but a fighter needed her vision and he did not see them.

"Call it a draw," she said fiercely, and wished she could lock him in this position. The fiery weakness filled her. Below his helm his face was warm, so warm. Khalid's arms moved under her hands where she gripped him, muscles wiry though trained.

"S-shall we rematch?" he bantered.

Jealous druidic Belgrade-fucking bitch will attack both of us just for seeing us close here— Isilda thought, filled by her anger and deliberately harsh in her mind. She didn't need to lift her love's helm to know the map of his features. Half-elven like her, dark coppery hair that glinted red in the sun, skin the shade of deer's leather, a long dignified nose with curves and planes, and the blind brown eyes he never used to see the woman in front of him. "Yes. I won't back down," she said. And they both loved this sparring, dancing with blade even when they could not dance the other way—

There was no sunset: the sky was too grey as Lathander's favour moved away from the world. Isilda watched the play of subtle shades like a tapestry.

"P-plenty of time to reach the lodge. Would you like to see the apricot path?" Khalid offered her. Only ever as a friend, or even brother—if she had any brothers, Isilda thought with the familiar bitter tang. But she would be with him even if it was only the druid bitch Jaheira's word that made him love mud and rotting leaves so.

Spreading trees with pale buds grew densely with each other along a looping earth trail thick with more vegetation, none of which Isilda could name.

But he wants to spend time with me. He asked me to walk with him so we could spend more time together, sung a voice in her heart like a silver dagger, and she welcomed its cut as keenly as she'd deflect any other blow.

"It's lovely," Isilda said flatly. "The leaves are shaped like crinkly eggs."

That brought a delighted laugh to his mouth. Her love was uncertain about laughter as he was about any other speech, but when he was brought suddenly to it despite himself it was beautiful.

As if the battleaxe hellcat could make him laugh! Isilda thought viciously. Yet she herself was dour and dutiful and with nothing else to her; all but he said so.

"You l-love the forest too," Khalid said. "I never liked cities, though I was born inside one. S-so many people. And so it was like coming home, the first time I was free among the trees. Were you the same?"

So it was clearly not the leash that vicious grimalkin troll wanted to keep him on that gave him this. "Yes."

The light died, but they both had the trace in their sight that let them see further—the glinting of hollows and shapes and distant-moving forest animals that echoed elven farseeing. No human saw the eighth colour on the edge of Isilda's sight, and she was sure Khalid was exactly the same.

"It awakens the spirit. My m-mother always said..." Khalid's voice trailed softly away. "I feel we belong in the forest. I do not have the f-full elven spirit but I am always more at home here than anywhere else."

Nowhere is home for me. I go where I am posted, Isilda would have told anyone else, in keeping with her grave reputation. And as for that elven spirit— "Plenty would say that such as us deserve no home and certainly not the forest," she said.

And Khalid was gentle back to her, melting her like the soft breath of dawn. "I am sorry that you have been told that. Silvanus and Eldath and Mielikki w-welcome all."

"Half-breeds like us belong nowhere. Not even here." Isilda had marched mud-soaked and bleeding through wilderness and followed orders to camouflage in pits, and could scout her way alone with a decent map. That was all. But for a few seconds she could delude herself that she shared his spirit, whatever that was supposed to mean.

"N-no." Khalid's voice was definite, and it conjured her to look at him, high cheekbones set in his face, eyebrows softly pencilled on his forehead. "Being a Harper...there are many like us. M-more than I thought possible," he said. "I came to know Jaheira, and you, and Kerwin, and Fendrelian, and I am very glad for it."

He is glad that he knows me! He said that he is glad to know me! Isilda's cruel heart shouted jubilantly to her, and blood rushed in her ears fit to deafen her. She barely heard his next question.

"You were r-raised by humans, were you not?" Khalid said.

Isilda was Harper bred—all but the bred part. Herzelynde and Leofrick had raised her as a warrior for the Harpers. And anywhere she went she was other. The human cast of her features was a nameless Kara-Turan adventurer dead long ago, most likely Shou, and her elven mother poorly mixed in her ears and moon-white hair. But Khalid was like her, when he too was away from the lands of his forebears: Calishite noble and elf. Merchant noble. He had once mentioned trading in his background and Isilda was proud that she remembered it. He looked like a noble. She was shorter and built with the obvious strength of a commoner: thickly muscled, broad, and with the scarring blatant on the right half of her face that showed her the fighter she was. Though if you wished you could say Belgrade's ugly druidic ex-doxy had the shape of a dairymaid...

"Herzelynde and Leofrick instructed me in a thousand places where I was an outsider."

"No wonder you are s-so gifted with the sword." He smiled warmly at her. Yet he was dazzingly fast and often outpaced her endurance; all she had to offer in turn was brutality. They sparred and both learned from each other, Isilda repeated to herself. "And it is not always like that in the world," he said. "Jaheira was born in Tethyr, in a region where almost all were of mixed blood and even the p-problems there were not caused by anger against halfbreeds. I hope someday the Harpers will send us to such places..."

Do not ruin it with bringing her up, Khalid! She muttered some question about his swordsman's skills.

"Yes, my f-father allowed me to train with the city militia. I saw little of him. He was a merchant and very busy with his business and my human half-brothers," Khalid said. "There came a t-time when it was too late...but that is well in the past."

Yet another thing Khalid and I share, Isilda thought. Human father, elf mother. Not mixed blood of a thousand tangled confused inbred generations, endless fifths and thirds and sevenths, like some druidic Tethyrian ex-aristocrat who oppressed the people.

"I have few memories of my mother...but they are dear to me. I remember her hair like fire; and she was sad, but ever kind to me. Your m-mother was also an elf?" Khalid asked.

Isilda raised her head with a brutal pride. "My mother, I have reason to believe, is considered of high standing among the Eldreth Veluuthra." She spat the words as the obscenity they were. Khalid watched her with care. "I'm her little mistake. Likely she believes now she'd have done better to strangle me at birth. Wherever Herzelynde and Leofrick took me people who looked like either half of me thought it would be better if she had."

Eldreth Veluuthra was for elves who wished all humans and mongrel half-breeds wiped from the face of Toril. Isilda made no mistake about what they were: she'd fought them twice and narrowly escaped with her life.

"No," Khalid said, and suddenly below his diffidence he was sharp as a sword. "You m-mustn't think that. Your mother loved her child so much that s-she gave you to enemies to ensure you lived. My mother," he said, gaining yet more strength, "was no more than a slave to my father and she gave me all I needed. You grew up, and in the Harpers you do much good...a shining light."

Nobody had ever said such a thing to her.

You are the first person to show me simple kindness. She was a grey sword forged to serve a purpose—and he bedecked her with sunlight and silk and flowers from his mouth. He even knew poetry.

Jaheira could never deserve him. Jaheira would never deserve him. She only lectured him how clumsy and tongue-tied he was and never how Isilda knew he was, beautiful and gentle and kind and considerate and capable, clever and and quick with a sword and using his head to win a fight by insight and grace.

Isilda could have killed her if she'd the chance. The Harper codes and knowing Khalid would never look at her in the same way again stopped her.

Isilda looked to her right, and Khalid was offering her a bough of fragrant leaves. She touched the green fragments amidst the buds.

"If these dry," he said, "they can be packed among clothing. I love the scent myself. Something to always remind of n-nature."

She took it between her warrior's hands knotted with calluses and old scars, and wondered that he saw it as entirely natural to her. Would that he always thought so. They neared the forest lodge being used for Harper quartering, and now the sky had greyed to a dark midnight blue. And Isilda's enemy had strode out to meet them.

Not a month beforehand and Jaheira was fucking Belgrade then. That druid bitch, Isilda thought once more. Dictatorial, a know-it-all, treating everyone as if they were infants to her wisdom, telling everyone else exactly what they should do without a thought to her own behaviour, vicious, impulsive, tree-shagging— Jaheira dared to walk up to Khalid and place a possessive arm around his shoulders and kiss him on the cheek.

"Yes—a good spar," he answered her words.

"Well met, Isilda," the bitch directed at her, and Isilda stood stock-still like a block of grey metal. "Thank you for training him—you are gifted. I say that the three of us ought to meet more often within this hold; there are not so many like us even amongst our organisation."

And always Isilda was but a sword for the Harpers, and stood there like a grey lump of steel with forgotten, incongrous flowers in her hands. She no longer seemed to have a tongue in her mouth. Khalid spoke something soft and fluid toward Jaheira's ear.

"Khalid, 'twould take a sailor to untie that knot in your tongue..." she denigrated. Isilda turned away and slipped into the grey grimalkin evening, her sword across her back.

And in time Isilda was long separated from him, achieving other Harper missions, with the barest polite word passed from Khalid to her. She kept it close to her heart because all others thought her no more than the sum of her use, and she put her sword and dagger to fight against slavers and Zhents and petty wouldbe tyrants. The years wore more lightly on her than they would a human; once she saw Khalid by his wife's side at a Harper gathering in eastern Aglarond.

Then she was sent word. He was dead in Athkatla. Grave mismanagement and treachery were afoot. As a Harper she must participate in the mission to confront the traitor.

Once more the season was a grey pale-skied autumn, the ground amidst them rough and half-grown with straggling thorns and grass, dark mud below their feet. Faintly there was the scent of some slow-budding forest fruits. Isilda kept her eyes on the group of adventurers before them.

Jaheira was weak. It was Jaheira's turn to stutter. It was Jaheira the bitch who betrayed them all, and Jaheira the bitch who clung by the side of a beardless human boy barely in his twenties. It was clear and obvious where the connection between the two lay: where the Bhaalspawn of Candlekeep walked with a hell-tainted tiefling and a fullblooded elf, a petty human mage and even a male drow. But it was Jaheira who was by his right hand and Jaheira whose fingertips brushed his in intimacy. So soon after Khalid's death. As if she had replaced him. As if she had betrayed him all along. As if she had murdered him.

Isilda waited.

"The creature you are with betrays us all, Jaheira."

"N-no...Dermin. I am still a Harper. I have acted for the greater Balance. Galvarey, not me...Galvarey was the corrupted one."

Then the druid's green eyes met Isilda's darkened face. "Isilda, listen to me for the sake of our friendship! In the old days we knew each other. Surely I have not changed to that extent. It should tear my heart to fight you!"

Not as much, Isilda thought, as it will tear out yours in blood and ribs and veins. But she waited for the order. For she was a Harper tool wholly, and there was none now who cared kindly for her.

"Dermin, you are my friends and comrades! Do not force this from us!" Jaheira cried shrilly out. The Harper leader shook his head.

"Then you leave us no choice," Dermin said. There was an instant's breath of time before his fingers moved into the signal. And smooth in that instant Isilda rushed to slay the betrayer.

Jaheira murdered her love. There could be no mercy.

One, two...pierce!