As Valeria awakened, she heard Nova arguing with her father.
"...All I had was a crummy Fire Bolt spell! I almost got killed because you won't teach me any decent spells," Nova was complaining.
"You should not have been in the middle of battle in the first place," admonished Cain. "You, young lady, need to learn to mind your place. And your manners."
"I don't care what you say," fumed Nova. "One day I'm going to be a powerful Sorceress."
Cain sighed wearily. "That's enough for right now. Please try to get some rest."
Valeria opened her eyes in time to see Cain walking away from the cot where Nova lay, his shoulders slumped. He stopped, as if he was going to say something else to his daughter, but the words seemed to fail him. He turned and kept walking.
Valeria herself was lying on one the two-dozen or so cots set up in the town square outside Pepin's house. Pepin, Gillian, Albrecht and a few others were moving from cot to cot aiding and comforting the wounded.
Pepin had healed Valeria's acid burns, but her skin still itched furiously where she'd taken hits. Her head hurt too, and was tender where she'd struck it falling off the chimney.
"Our hero awakens!" said Albrecht brightly, when he noticed Valeria trying to sit up. A soft but sincere applause rippled across the square. Valeria started to look around and then realized Albrecht had been talking about her. Across the square, she saw Captain Lachdanan snap her a crisp salute before turning his attention back to his wounded men. Valeria felt uncharacteristically self-conscious.
"That was a magnificent shot," Albrecht told her as he crouched next to her cot. "We all owe you a great debt."
|"There, there Cecilia," said Gillian. "I'll make you a new friend. Perhaps a nice bear." Then she added, in an aside to Nova, "I can't believe her parents gave her a doll based on those awful Lord Stupidhead stories."|
"I," Valeria hesitated. "Is everyone all right? Nova and Torvan and Toby...?"
"Are all recovering under Pepin's care, as are the other injured," said Albrecht. "There were no casualties, thank Zakarum."
The heart-rending wail of a small girl contradicted him. Gillian sat on a cot on the other side of Nova, comforting the girl Albrecht had rescued. The girl held in her arms the smoking remains of what had been a truly hideous stuffed blue dog. She had dropped it when Albrecht carried her out of the way of the spider's attack.
"I lost Deathspit!" wailed the girl. "I lost my best friend!"
"All right," allowed Albrecht with a slight smile. "One casualty."
"There, there Cecilia," said Gillian. "I'll make you a new friend. Perhaps a nice bear." Then she added, in an aside to Nova, "I can't believe her parents gave her a doll based on those awful Lord Stupidhead stories."
"That's 'Lord Cool & Stupidhead,'" corrected Nova automatically. "Besides, they're just harmless fun."
"Well, I don't think they're appropriate for children," said Gillian. "That Stupidhead always winds up sleeping with a cow..."
The debate over the redeeming social value of 'Lord Cool & Stupidhead' stories had been going on almost as long as the Horadrim-Scribes Guilds wars, and had been almost as fierce.
"I tell you, I'm fine!" Torvan was insisting. He limped over to them, accompanied by his father, his sister and a plump blonde woman who could only have been his mother. Torvan had her eyes and chin. "My Prince," said Torvan, "will you please tell my parents that I'm fit for duty again?"
Albrecht shook his head. "Why don't you take it easy for a little while?"
Torvan looked crestfallen.
"You did an heroic job against nearly impossible odds," continued Albrecht. "You deserve a break." He beckoned Torvan closer and whispered. "Besides, this has been an ordeal for your mother and father too. I think your company would make them feel a lot better."
Hogan, the final member of the Griswold clan, joined them. He was carrying a huge tray of food and drink. "Free hoagies for everyone!" announced Hogan. "But I'm not going to call them 'hoagies' anymore. I'm renaming them in honor of the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us all. I'm calling them 'heroes!'" The townsfolk cheered their approval of both the gesture and the prospect of free food.
Wirt joined Valeria and Albrecht as the Griswolds excused themselves to go help pass out Hogan's 'heroes.' Though still a little gray, his complexion had returned to normal and there seemed to be no trace of the unsettling transformation that Valeria had witnessed earlier. Except for the fact that his clothes were in tatters, the boy looked unscathed.
"I heal fast," shrugged Wirt, in answer to Valeria's questioning look. He was unwilling to look her in the eye though.
|Giselle stared down at Valeria with her ancient eyes, saying nothing. Finally a smile touched her wrinkled mouth. "I see our unpolished Sapphire shining a little brighter. More than she was, but not yet all she can be."|
Before Valeria or Albrecht could respond, they heard Gillian interrupt her conversation with Nova to call out to her grandmother. "Grandmother! You shouldn't be out here!"
The old woman was slowly, but determinedly making her way to the cot where Valeria sat. "You let me be, child," she insisted. "I'm fine, and I want to see our new hero."
Giselle stared down at Valeria with her ancient eyes, saying nothing. Finally a smile touched her wrinkled mouth. "I see our unpolished Sapphire shining a little brighter. More than she was, but not yet all she can be."
Gillian had called Pepin to come help her deal with her stubborn grandmother. "Giselle," said Pepin firmly, "as your Healer, I must insist that you go get some rest. You're still not fully recovered from your spell the other day."
She shot the Healer a look of forced tolerance. "I was just leaving anyway," she said as she allowed Gillian to lead her away. She hesitated for a moment and stared at Wirt.
Giselle just shook her head. "Too many shoes," she said dismissively, and then turned to follow Gillian home. Wirt shuddered.
At that moment, Sir Gorash called to Prince Albrecht from the other side of the square. Albrecht quickly thanked Valeria again, wished her a speedy recovery, and excused himself. Wirt followed.
"Ah," Pepin said, trying to get Valeria's attention once they were more or less alone. "I wanted to thank you and congratulate you on your fine shooting."
"Thanks," said Valeria.
"I..." he hesitated. "I also wanted to apologize."
"About my bow? Don't worry about it. Hildy fixed it better than new," replied Valeria generously.
"No, I meant, about your voice."
"When Sister Sylverwraithe fished you out of the river when you first arrived, she had me give you a dose of powdered cat-got-yer-tongue root," explained Pepin. "She insisted that it was for your own good."
Valeria bit her lip. "And that's why I lost my voice? It wasn't the river water?"
Pepin nodded. "I'm sorry."
"That's all right," said Valeria. "I think Giselle was right. I am a bit more polished than I was when I first arrived, and learning how to be quiet and listen for a change was part of the key. In fact, I'll tell you a secret..." She beckoned him closer so she could whisper in his ear. When Pepin leaned down, Valeria grabbed him between the legs and invoked the cold cantrip that Nova had taught her the night before.
Pepin screamed and ran into his hut to find some warm water. "And I accept your apology!" Valeria called after him.
"I hope you're not planning to try that on me. I'd hate to have to drop you in the river again." Sister Sylverwraithe had returned.
"You," swore Valeria.
"Me," affirmed Sister Sylverwraithe. A few girls, mostly younger than Valeria, accompanied her. "By most accounts, you seem to have acquitted yourself well while I was away. After our first meeting, I admit to finding that surprising."
Valeria stood and faced the Sister. Sylverwraithe was more than a full head taller than she. "Who gave you permission to even care?" breathed Valeria. The tone would have set almost any native Riparian quaking with anxiety.
"Your father," replied Sylverwraithe. "Now then," she continued conversationally, "my current assignment is to escort you and these other young ladies to the Convent and submit your qualifications to train as Sisters of the Sightless Eye. Do you wish to join us?"
"I have a choice?"
"You always have a choice. Personally, it makes little difference to me, but I believe Bard Giselle's assessment was basically correct: You are more than you were, but still not as much as you can be," said Sylverwraithe.
Valeria thought. The days since her arrival in Tristram had been eventful in more ways than just the obvious ones. It was the first time she'd ever been on her own, without the resources of the House of Halla at her beck and call. She had discovered new insights into relating with people, as well as a new self-reliance, but she would need more if she was going to return home and rule Riparia fairly and effectively. And, after all, that was the whole point to this forced journey she'd been sent on, wasn't it? "All right," said Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla. "Count me in."
Two days later, Valeria, Sylverwraithe and her other recruits were ready to leave for the Convent.
Prince Albrecht came to see them off, despite the minor crises that had arisen to occupy his time. No one seemed to be able to find Archbishop Lazarus, and there was some concern over who was going to bless the closing of Caravan if he didn't return. Likewise, Farmer Lester was raising a stink around town demanding to know where Glorianna was. She, Scarlett and Jade had also made themselves scarce.
"Frankly," Albrecht concluded, "Glorianna's probably better off anywhere that puts her out of Lester's reach."
Valeria nodded in agreement.
"Make sure you let us know when you're coming back," Albrecht told her. "I'll hire Hogan to prepare a feast in your honor." He grinned. "That shot was one in a million. Tristram will be talking about it for generations to come."
Albrecht was wrong, of course. There weren't going to be any generations to come in Tristram. Although Valeria would return to Tristram in six month's time, there would be no Hogan Griswold to prepare a feast, nor would there be a Prince Albrecht to preside over it. In fact, by the time Valeria returned to Tristram, most of the people she had met would be dead. Many of the others would be much worse than merely dead.
Deep in the caverns beneath Tristram, an ancient slumbering evil stirred....
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