Choices

Chris Van Deelen

Choices

            It felt like an eternity but in the actual world only about thirty days had passed since Ronnath had set foot upon the ship. He and his two companions, Xavier and Thorn had spent too much time on the island, exploring the ancient ruins and trying to decipher the strange disappearance of the professor and the members of the expedition sent to investigate them.

            The very idea of the passage of time feeling like an eternity caused the tall elf to chuckle darkly. He was young by elven standards barely into his second century of life, but he had outlived his human adoptive parents, as well as his siblings and even some of their own children.

            The curse of his race, and the blessing. Other races were so short-lived, a powerful ember that burned hot and was extinguished too quickly. It was no wonder he had fled and began his life exploring the world.

            One of the sailors, a diminutive human, so short he could have been mistaken for a Halfling, rushed past, his arms laden with rope. “Make way!” The little man shouted and Ronnath had barely enough time to dodge aside or there would have been a good chance he might have ended up in the drink.

            He watched as the small man dropped the bundle of rope on the decking and placed one end in his mouth. Moving with the swiftness and agility of a monkey, the man scaled the foremast and handed off the rope to another sure-footed sailor.

            Ronnath pulled his eyes away from the spectacle. He missed his forests; he missed the scent of the greenery and the cool shade provided by the majestic trees. His skin, where he allowed it to be exposed to the sun, was several shades darker than the rest of his body. Naturally he was dark-skinned compared to many of the other Elves he had met over the years, but now he looked more like the leathery sailors that scrambled about him in a frantic effort as they prepared to dock in Waterdeep.

            A hot meal and a hotter woman waited for him inside the city. He had been cooped up with Xavier and Thorn for too long and dearly missed the company of the fairer sex, although he could remember a time when a few humans had thought he looked rather feminine.

            He taught them the error of their judgement quite effectively.

            A woman though, with his share of the recovered treasure, he could easily spend a few nights with the most costly courtesan the city had to offer, but where would be the fun in that? He’d rather have a common street-walker than some perfumed lady, as such would be far more interested in talk and being wooed, than getting down and dirty.

            That made him wonder – he rarely had a chance to interact with other Elves growing up. Would they stoop so low as to purchasing sex? He was an Elf, and he had centuries of life, barring death by monster or violence, ahead of him. Why rush?

            He blamed it on his human upbringing.

            With a sigh he continued to watch as the docks grew closer and closer with each passing minute. Beneath the decks the crew were getting ready to begin to prepare the cargo for unloading. The holds were filled to capacity, which the captain had brought with them on the long journey, and somewhere beneath his feet his two companions were likewise preparing to leave.

            The heavy chest they had lugged around with them since they had reunited the two brothers. It had been a gift from the long-dead brothers.  One had been a ghost, who seemed solid but yet disconnected from the world. The other some sort of strange undead being Ronnath had never encountered before. It was filled with gold and there was enough treasure to set several large families up for life.

            He had plans for his share, which included purchasing some useful magical items, but the rest? He really did not know what he was going to do. Maybe keep it stored away somewhere for future needs. Ronnath knew he would burn that bridge when he came to it.

            Fortunately for him, he had chosen the best spot to watch the docking procedure. He was not in anyone’s way, and yet he was close enough to the gangplank to be able to step off the ship as soon as they dropped anchor and secured it to the pilings.

            The docks themselves were crowded with people, mainly dockhands hard at work transferring cargo from one ship to another, others running errands and so forth. The throng of life was somewhat disconcerting to him, as he rarely spent time in the cities.

            Forest and smaller communities was his usual haunt, where he felt most comfortable. He felt a jostling at his side and glanced to see Xavier standing there. The elf was not quite as tall as he was, and by far nowhere near as broad in the shoulders. He was fair-skinned and had his light brown hair shorn to the point it was almost stubble. The elf was around his age, but had the visage of a scholar, not a warrior. “Ronnath,” he said without preamble.

            “Xavier,” he replied. “We’ll be on dry land in a few minutes,” he added.

            The other elf nodded. “What are you going to do once we disembark?”

            “Get a nice meal and a nicer woman and some strong drink,” he waved a hand dismissively. “Not in that particular order.”

            The other elf chuckled. “I need head into the noble district.”

            Ronnath raised one eyebrow. “Why?”

            “I finally took the time to read that letter the captain had presented to us,” he said, patting his tunic pocket. “As it turns out the professor owns a mansion there, and has instructed me to speak to his major-domo.”

            “Huh,” was all that Ronnath could think to say. “Any idea as to why?”

            Xavier shook his head. “None, although I dread what it might be.”

            “Again, why?”

            “We never found him, and there is a good chance he could be dead,” Xavier confessed. “He was a good friend to me, and I don’t want to think that he’s gone, but…” he let the words drift off.

            Before either could pick up the thread of the conversation, the ship bumped into the docks and lines were cast as the anchor was dropped. Workers scrambled about like ants in a colony that had just been kicked over, working hard to secure the ship.

            Moments later the ramp was lowered and the true chaos began.

            “Hey, hold up you two,” another voice chimed in. Ronnath and Xavier turned to see their other companion, another elf, crossing the deck to meet up with them. “Thinking of taking off with me share of the treasure?” He grumbled, but the words were belied by the twinkle in his eyes.

            “What took ya so long - needed to powder up? I be swearing, you’re worse than a street-walker,” Ronnath teased.

            Thorn flipped his friend a rude gesture. “Getting the last of me things together,” he pointedly looked at the chest. “That all be you carryin’?”

            “Hey if ye want to take it scrawny, be my guest,” Ronnath hefted the rather weighty chest and held it on one shoulder. He could feel the weight and it almost made him stumble, but he flat-out refused to show anything on his face.

            “No, no – by all means, you carry it.”

            They stepped into the line and soon were off the ship. In moments they were on the dock, heading with the flow towards the streets beyond. The chest was heavy, but he had lugged it around for so long he was beginning to get used to carrying it. When they saw a number of horse-drawn carriages, he placed the heavy chest on the ground. “Let’s hire one of those; I don’t feel like carryin’ this thing half-way across Waterdeep.”

            Xavier and Thorn both agreed. Ronnath allowed Xavier to dicker with the driver of the first carriage that became available. Ronnath knew his strength and weaknesses, and he was never very good when it came to negotiating with people over prices, and figured it was best to let one of his two friends deal with that.

            Soon they were seated in the carriage and the driver was maneuvering them through the streets. It was not all that far from the docks to the mansion and they arrived in about half an hour.

            The building was magnificent, if you were the sort that liked such constructions, and Ronnath was not really all that impressed. If it had been a log cabin built in the forest, yeah maybe then, but he was never the type to go for ostentatious displays of wealth.

            Xavier paid the agreed-upon price and then added a little extra for how quickly the driver managed to get them to the manor. Pleased with the gift, the driver tipped his hat and with a crack of the reigns, the carriage was off, the clip-clop of the shod hooves gradually disappearing into the white-noise generated by Waterdeeps inhabitants.

            The three companions stood there for a long moment, just staring at the heavy oaken doors. There were windows to either side, but they were shuttered and after a quick inspection, it turned out that all the windows were likewise shuttered or boarded up.

            Shruggin, Xavier took the steps two at a time and was just about to grab the knocker when the huge door opened smoothly and silently. A human male in his late fifties or early sixties stood there, dressed in common but clean clothing. Upon seeing Xavier, he smiled and pulled the elf into a quick embrace. “Xavier, it’s so good to see you!”

            The elf returned the embrace and then pulled away. “Likewise Reynald, sorry I’ve been away so long.”

            The old man shook his head. “Nonsense. Come in, your companions are welcome as well.”

            Upon entering, Ronnath was surprised at the simple elegance the mansion. He had expected it to be gaudy, but instead the furniture was well crafted and simple. There were only a few paintings on the walls but otherwise the room they were standing in was pretty barren. He could make out several doors as well as a curving staircase that lead to the second floor and a hallway directly opposite from where they stood.

            Reynald led them to the hall and they walked for only a few dozen steps before he opened a door and ushered them inside. It was a sitting room with several chairs arranged around a small table. There were candle sconces hanging from the walls, already lit giving the room a comfortable aura. The old man went over to the window and pulled open the curtains before opening the pane-glass, which gave him access to the shutters. A second later, natural light poured in, chasing away the shadows that were created by the torches. “Have a seat and I’ll bring you something to drink.”

            Ronnath placed the chest on the ground and barely managed to suppress the sigh of relief that threatened to give away how much he actually struggled to carry it. He unslung his bow and placed it on the floor next to the chair he decided to claim as his own and sat with a grunt of satisfaction. “Damn this feels good.”

            The others likewise sat and relaxed, allowing the knowledge that they were finally back in civilization sink in. They had been away from the civilized world for several months, and although Ronnath loved being out in the wilds, his two companions were more suited for life in the occupied cities.

            The major-domo returned only a few minutes later, carrying a tray laden with three crystal goblets and a decanter of a dark-red liquid. He sat the tray on the small table and poured out three glasses, handing one to each of them, starting with Xavier and ending with Ronnath.

            “So there has been no sign of the professor then?” Reynald asked after completing his task.

            Xavier shook his head sadly. “No and we spent several weeks searching the ruins and the island. He disappeared without a trace,” the elf confessed, looking forlorn.

            “He could still show up,” the old human tried to smile and look reassuring, but everyone knew it was nothing more than platitudes. “Still - he knew that this day would come and asked me to give you a letter,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of parchment, which he unfolded and handed to the elf.

            Ronnath stood and placed his half-full wine-glass on the table. “I don’t wish to be involved in any sort of family business here, so I’m going to head into the city.”

            Thorn and Xavier looked at him, disapproval in both their eyes. If Ronnath wanted to be completely truthful to himself, he did not care what they thought. He wanted something a hell of a lot stronger to drink, a haunch of venison and a warm, soft woman under him. “I’ll be talkin’ to you in the morrow,” he announced as he got up and headed for the door.

***

            The sun was still high in the sky once he reached the less-reputable section of the Waterdeep. He knew he was where he wanted to be when he passed the first staggering drunk, a human male dressed in the filthy rags of a hard-laborer. The man was smiling and singing in a gruff, off-key tone and had a bottle of the local swill clutched in one hand.

            Ronnath had two things on his mind – to get as plastered as the human he had passed, and to find a woman. He began his search, passing by the various shops along the way. He quickly found the first, a fine establishment called the Drunken Manticore. The sign showed the beast with crossed eyes and bubbles above its head, and a bottle of spirits held between both paws.

            He was just about to enter when a patrol of city watch came into view. Upon seeing him, they held up their hands and motioned for him to stop and wait. Feeling slightly annoyed at the interruption, he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms under his chest, the way he had seen many a human do.

            The leader of the city watch stared at him, having to tilt his neck to look up. He was rather short for a member of the guard, and Ronnath had to keep from laughing. He knew size did not matter when it came to the skill that one possessed in their chosen profession. “What do ye want?” Ronnath asked gruffly, eager to fill his belly with something strong.

            “I would reconsider your choice of establishments,” the guard answered. “The patrons of this particular drinking establishment are not too keen on elves.”

            This piqued his curiosity. “And why’s that?”

            The guard made it obvious he was looking Ronnath up and down. “First you’re an elf. Most of the patrons are half-breeds or ruffians or rogues. The owner is a half-orc with a mean disposition.”

            Ronnath laughed. “You just described every half-orc I have ever encountered.”

            “And you scream ‘rob me’,” the man nodded towards the high quality weapons he carried, particularly the fine compound bow slung over his shoulder. “By rights I should take you to the keep and have you peace-bond those weapons, or allow us to keep them safe, but I’ll let it go this time.”

            “Are you serious?” Ronnath asked, disbelieving what he just heard.

            “Aye, I am,” the guard said. “Trust me outlander, you will be better off heading further up the street. There is an establishment that is going to be far more accommodating to you,” he quickly gave the elf directions.

            “What if I feel like a good fight?” Ronnath asked in all seriousness, eyeing the Drunken Manticore. Just as he spoke, a trio of hard-looking humans dressed in loose tunics and short pants with sandals exited the establishment. All carried either clubs or short-swords with them, and from his month at sea, he knew they had to be part of a sailing crew. They eyed Ronnath and looked as if they were going to approach, when they caught sight of the guard. That caused them to turn and head the opposite direction.

            “See what I mean?” The guard asked smugly.

Ronnath was searching his mind for something sarcastic when a female Half-Orc came out of the building. She was likewise dressed in a loose-fitting tunic, which did not quite seem to be able to keep her ample breasts in check, and pants so short they left very little to the imagination. She was very muscular and her legs were toned. There were a few visible scars on her calves and thighs, but she did nothing to cover them or hide them. For a creature of such unpleasant heritage, she was what could be considered comely – if a few drinks were involved. At the very least she could prove to be fun in the bed-rolls.

The female stopped as soon as she saw him and looked as if she was about to start something when she noticed the city watch standing there. She spat contemptuously on the ground and walked away with her companions, although there was a bit of an odd twinkle in her eyes as she threw him a wink.

            “I do believe she likes you!” One of the city watch cackled. “Bet she would break you in more ways than one,” he continued, much to the delight of his fellows.

            “Not my type,” Ronnath deadpanned. “I’d wear her out in ten minutes.”

            That brought a chorus of oohs from the city guard and after a few seconds he cracked a grin. “Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out.”

            The leader of the guards touched the tip of his hat and nodded. Without a word he and the other city watch left, continuing on their never-ending task of keeping the city safe from hooligans and ruffians.

            Ronnath considered going into the Drunken Manticore just to stir the pot, but he felt a rumbling in his belly and the thirst was growing stronger. A fight could wait, so he began to walk down the street, following the directions the city watch gave him. It was not long before he came to the establishment. All the sign showed was a tankard and a rack of ribs, but even before he approached it, the smell wafting on the air currents was intoxicating.

            There came a low wolf-whistle from across the street, catching his attention. He turned and felt a smile growing on his face. There was a magnificent three-story building with strange architecture, unlike anything he had ever seen before. Then again that was not a surprise; he was far more at home in the wilderness than in the streets. Architecture of any race or nation was simply unknown to him, although he could often recognize Elf and Dwarf structures. The walls were painted in a brilliant white, and it had numerous large open windows.

            What stood around or leaned on the windowsills caught his attention, and his breath. Women, mainly human but there were also a couple of Elves and a few mixed breeds showed off what they had to offer. Not one wore any clothing and he felt his mouth go dry at the sight.

            The one who had whistled was a smallish woman with strange, almost Elf-like features. She was easily a foot shorter than he and had the most magnificent emerald green eyes.

            The same color as her hair.

            Her limbs were lithe and long, the fingers delicate and dextrous. She lay on the ledge of one of the second story windows and turned on her side, giving him a view of her small but perfectly formed breasts and the gentle, inviting curves of her body. The way her eyes called to him reminded him of the Dryads that often took unwary men for lovers, deep in the forests he called home. She must have had Dryad blood, of that he was almost positive. With a shake of his head, he broke the silent summons and turned his back on the women, and entered the eatery.

            The establishment was dimly lit and he could see there were plenty of tables but few customers. Considering the time of day, he knew that should not have come as a shock – the evening meal was still many hours away. A bored-looking man at the bar noticed his entrance and called out a greeting. “Here for drink or food?”

            “Both,” Ronnath replied in kind.

            “Then take whatever seat you like, I’ll send over a mug of ale. We have venison stew and fresh vegetables, if you please.”

            Ronnath shook his head. “I want the meat, nice and bloody.”

            “That costs, show me your coin,” the man narrowed his eyes, looking suspicious.

            With practiced ease, Ronnath tossed the man a single platinum coin. “Good enough?”

            “Aye, indeed! Coming right up!”

            Glancing around the room, Ronnath decided on a small, two seat table located near the rear of the establishment, next to a window. The sunlight poured in and seemed to call to him, just as the woman had across the street. Unlike the lady of the night, this calling he decided to heed.

            He was seated for no more than three minutes before the man showed up with a plate filled with sliced fruit and a frothing mug of heady smelling ale. He placed both on the table and waved a hand at the offering. “The haunch will take about thirty minutes, is that alright?”

            “Aye - just keep the ale coming,” Ronnath speared one of the sliced bits of fruit on the tip of his dagger and popped it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, savoring the flavor as he looked out the window. This afforded him a different view and he saw a smaller, shabbier appearing structure across the way. It was surrounded by a yard, which was enclosed by a metal-wrought fence. Inside the yard he saw in excess of twenty children, all ranging in age from a few years old to well into their teens. They were dressed in cast-off clothing, which was otherwise well-kept and clean. The children were almost exclusively human, although he saw three half-orcs that stayed away from the rest, and a single figure sitting in the shadows, watching.

            The lone figure had a long tail and backward-curving horns. Her skin was a dark tan, possibly red, although it was difficult to make out due to the distance and the shadows that seemed to cling to her. As if she could sense someone was looking, she looked up from the ground and their eyes met. She had huge eyes, then again that was pretty much the standard for children, but they glowed a bright ruby red, even in the daylight.

            He felt mesmerized by the gaze, and as quickly as the girl had locked eyes with his, she looked away, back down at something she was holding in her hands. He had excellent vision and when he peered, he discovered she was holding what looked like a ragged doll of some sort.

            Ronnath found it difficult to pull his attention away from the children. He though it was quite odd that there would be a tavern, across from a brothel, next to… what? An orphanage? A school for commoners? He figured it had to be the former, as this section of the city did not seem likely to house a school.

            He drained the first mug in several long pulls, savoring the flavor and how it seemed to hit him like a physical force. It had been far too long since he had enjoyed imbuing spirits, and he was bound to make up for it.

            As he waited, the bartender brought him another mug. Ronnath nodded his head towards the window. “Orphanage?”

            The man looked through the glass and nodded. “Aye.”

            He chuckled. “Seems a bit strange to have an orphanage so close to a brothel.”

            The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “No, it isn’t. Think about it sire – occasionally the ladies will find themselves with an unexpected side-effect of their chosen trade, and instead of keeping them, they will sometimes give them up.”

            Ronnath returned his attention to the children playing. “Are they all bastards from the brothel?” He took a sip of the ale and sighed in contentment. Now most of the children were huddled together in the shade of the building. A matronly woman came out and was carrying a tray filled with wooden mugs and a large pitcher. She placed it on a table and began pouring out mugs for the children. One at a time they came up and took the offered mugs before they returned to their small groups. It was clear that they were talking and enjoying one another’s company.

            Except for the Tiefling child.

            She remained far away from the other children, and had to wait until the last had gotten their mugs. There was one left and the matronly woman looked around, and when she spotted the girl, she brought it over and handed it to her. The woman spoke briefly and then caressed the child’s face, beaming down at her.

            “No sire, some are, but we live in a dangerous world, many were sent here after their parents perished, some were left behind, the usual,” he took the empty mug and looked at the plate. “Would you care for more fruit?”

            Waving a dismissive hand Ronnath shook his head. “No. I don’t want to fill up on it before the meat arrives.”

            “I understand,” the bartender said. “If you need anything, just ask.”

            Ronnath nodded.

            As promised, it was just over thirty minutes later and he felt his mouth fill with saliva at the scent of the charred meat. It was presented to him with vegetables but he ignored the plant matter. He had plenty of that over the past few months. Meat is what he craved and he dug in with gusto.

            By the time he was finished, all the children were leaving the yard and returning to the interior of the run-down building. He looked up just in time to see the Tiefling girl race from her semi-hidden spot to join the back of the line. As she took the steps up to the entrance, she paused and looked back towards him. Her eyes instantly found his and she gave him a half-hearted wave.

            Ronnath found himself waving back.

            He then stood up, drained the last of his drink and went over to the bartender. “Keep the change,” he said indicating the platinum coin that man still had in his possession. For a heartbeat it looked as if the man was going to argue, so Ronnath narrowed his eyes. “I be payin’ you more than enough to feed a dozen people the same meal, don’t be tryin’ to screw with me.”

            The barkeep had the good graces to turn red and he nodded. “I was just going to ask you how the meal was.”

            “Excellent, and no you weren’t,” before the barkeep could protest further, Ronnath walked out of the tavern. He went straight to the brothel across the street and walked up the steps.

            As soon as he opened the door, he was assaulted by the strong smell of exotic perfume and incense. The room was brightly lit, and the furnishings were elegant and from his untrained eyes, appeared to be worth a great deal of gold.

There were guards inside the entrance, large women who were clearly trained in the art of armed and unarmed combat. They eyed him speculatively, taking in the magnificent bow he carried, as well as the daggers strapped to his hip. He was still wearing his travelling clothes, which consisted of a dark cloak, which looked as if it had just come off the merchant’s shelf. A pair of tan pants were tucked into calf-high sturdy boots adorned his feet. He wore a leather tunic, which was opened to reveal a white shirt beneath. It was warm and he was already sweating slightly from the heat.

            “What is your pleasure?” An older and yet still strikingly beautiful human woman asked. Only she and the guards wore any clothing… the rest were as naked as the day they had been born. She wore an elaborate gossamer dress that was just thick enough in all the right places to give her a sense of modesty.

            He instantly knew the girl he wanted. “The green-haired beauty I saw on the second floor.”

            The madam made a tisking noise and shook her head. “I’m afraid she is well out of your price range,” she waved a hand at several human women and a single Elf. The Elven prostitute had pale, alabaster flesh that rarely had been kissed by the sun, slanted blue eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. Her breasts were small but perfectly formed and she gave him a shy-yet-oh-so-inviting smile.

            “I want the green haired-girl,” he insisted and reached into his tunic, where he pulled out a handful of platinum coins. He handed it to the madam, who gracefully accepted the offered coin and bowed her head.

            “Please forgive my rudeness, master. I just assumed from your…”

            “Don’t make assumptions, just take me to her,” Ronnath snapped angrily. He was becoming more and more aroused with each passing moment in the presence of so much beautiful female flesh on display.

            The madam bowed deeply and then led him through the display of womanliness and up the stairs to the second floor. They travelled down a hall festooned with doors on either side. Most of the doors were closed, and he could hear the sound of passionate – and probably fake – cries of ecstasy coming from within. They did not go far, as she stopped at the fourth door on the right. It was open and she stood there, looking elegant and the portrait of aged beauty, she waved a single hand for him to enter.

            As soon as he crossed the threshold, he stopped, his breath catching in his throat. The green-haired, emerald-eyed beauty was standing with her back against the wall, her hands clasped behind her, a beatific smile playing across her delicate features. “I am glad you heeded my call,” she whispered in a husky yet silk-smooth voice, which hinted of honey and sweetness few have ever felt.

            Ronnath did not bother with words; instead he pulled off his tunic and was soon clad only in the brightness her presence generated. He came over to her, took her in his arms and marvelled at the heat her emanating from her soft flesh. She clung to him like a second skin, and he lifted her gently and pushed her against the wall.

            They never even saw her bed.

***

            Months of isolation with two other males was slowly and deliciously spent during the afternoon and straight through the night. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that, like him, she did not sleep. He needed to mediate and stay at rest in order to feel fully recharged, but unlike so many of the other species that called Faerun home, he never learned what the dark embrace of sleep was like.

            She proved to be worth every piece of platinum he had paid for her services, and expert with her hands and mouth, and she brought him to the height of pleasure more times than he could honestly recall.

            Before leaving in the morning, she bathed with him, which brought the inevitable, but he was cleansed both in body and mind, feeling content for the first time in many months. Much to his surprise his clothing had been cleaned and was waiting for him. He grew suspicious but when he saw nothing had been taken, he shrugged. Before leaving, he left a generous tip of platinum, and they parted ways.

            Leaving the brothel, he turned up the street and passed by the ramshackle orphanage. The windows were closed and it was, for the most part, dark, but he could make out lights coming from several of the windows.

            As he walked past the structure, he suddenly felt as if he was being watched. He paused slightly, adjusting his tunic and allowed his vision to play over the black-shrouded windows. Sure enough, a pair of bright-red eyes were looking back at him. When the girl discovered she had been detected, the eyes disappeared, the void left filled in by the complete darkness.

***

            Over the next two days Ronnath returned to the tavern and then the brothel at the same time each day. He spent a small fortune on the exotic prostitute, getting his need for carnal escape out of his system. She was just a lady of the night, but she was very enthusiastic. He did not even attempt to fool himself by thinking they had something between them – not a chance. She wanted the generous tip he left for her after each night. Oh what she did to him thought, it would make for wonderfully erotic memories for him to revisit on the long, lonely nights in the future.

            Every day the children were playing out in the yard, and every day he saw the young Tiefling girl hiding from the rest, clutching at her raggedy doll and staying in the shadows. As he left the brothel in the morning, before the light of the day crested the horizon, he saw those same bright-red orbs watching him from the window. He never bothered to look her way, but he could feel her intense gaze, studying him, almost evaluating him.

            Although his two companions asked him to stay at the manor as they went through the deadly dull legal proceedings, he found it was far too complicated for him. As loathe as he was to admit to it, both were far more intelligent than he was. They dabbled in magic and more esoteric practices, where as he was there to kill things.

            And he was pretty good at it, although he was far from a master. It would come, eventually, over the years and decades, but he was still better more than a novice when it came to bowcraft, weapons and even tracking and remaining hidden in the wilds.

            Ronnath did so enjoy fighting the abominations against nature and life – the undead. And they had encountered quite a few, everything from the mundane skeletal remains and walking corpses to shades that stole the strength of their victims with the icy touch of their incorporeal shadow-limbs. 

            While he waited for his daily excursion to feast on both food and female flesh, he spent his time in the mansion. Much to his delight the mansion contained an extensive library and it contained had a book on survival tactics for the wild, and he was looking forward to reading it and learning as much as he could from the ancient text.

            On his third trip to the brothel and the tavern, he had a sudden and unexpected change of heart. Instead of going straight to the tavern for his usual meal, he bypassed it completely and stopped in front of the gates leading to the orphanage yard. All the children, despite their heritage, stopped and stared at the tall, muscular stranger.

            No one spoke, although several of the children had eager, hungry looks about them as they crept closer to him. He stared down at the youngsters, taking in each of their faces, seeing stories hidden behind each set of eyes. He saw longing most of all, the desire for love and acceptance, but he also could detect pain and defiance. Some were here by the fickle hand of fate; some were left behind by parents who had seen them as either unwanted or a burden.

            Despite his willingness to take a life, It broke his heart.

            Many of the eyes were mirrors of his own, although he had pushed aside the memories. He knew his human parents had loved him, and he likewise loved them in return, but they were now gone. Still, it was not like he knew his actual parents, and considering his blood, there was a chance they might still be alive, somewhere.

            “Can I help you, Sire?” A voice broke through his introspection and he blinked, feeling a slight flush to his cheeks. The speaker was the older, matronly woman he had watched over the past few days and she was wearing a guarded, wary expression.

            “Aye, sorry… I take it this is an orphanage?”

            She nodded slowly, her eyes giving away nothing. “Indeed, are you looking to adopt?”

            His answer surprised even him. “Aye.”

            Some of the suspicion and wariness left her face, and she looked years younger. “I am Cenna Longhand,” she bowed slightly from the waist. “Please, won’t you come in?” She walked over to the gate and held it open.

            Ronnath looked at the face of the children suddenly brighten and so many of them looked hopeful. He did his best to ignore them, but let his gaze wander until he spotted the Tiefling girl. She was still sitting in her hidden alcove, clutching the raggedy doll in her small hands, her eyes bright and never wavering. When he passed through the gate, he returned his full attention to the woman. “My name is Ronnath.”

            She beamed, although there was still a trace of wariness to her smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Please, follow me,” She led him through the yard and into the old and dilapidated structure.

            Upon entering he noticed the air was considerably cooler than it had been outside, and the lighting was considerably dimmer, but not in a frightening or sinister way - quite the opposite. Instead it felt homey and welcoming. The air smelled of freshly baked bread and clean wood, and wherever he looked there was not a speck of dust or dirt to be seen. All around there were chairs and comfortable looking seats, several end tables and old but clean rugs covered the wooden floor.

            Cenna lead him through the front entrance to a smaller room just off to the side. She held the door open for him and waited until he entered. She closed it and glanced up at the mantle just above the door and then took her seat behind a small but sturdy desk.

            Curiosity taking hold, he glanced over his shoulder and up at the mantle. There was a symbol – a pair of white hands bound with a red cord. He recognized it as the symbol of Ilmater.  The god’s presence was strong in the orphanage, as the symbol had a slight whitish glow about it. He felt comforted that the woman kept the symbol of the god in her building, knowing in her heart and soul she was a good person. “Have a seat, Ronnath,” she held out a hand, indicating a comfortable chair seated before the desk.

            He did as he was bade, removing his bow and leaning it against the chair. As he sat, he felt the seat conform to his body in a pleasant way. He clasped his hands and placed them on his knee as he leaned forward.

            “So why do you want to adopt one of my little ones?” She asked without preamble.

            Why did he want to adopt? He wondered. It had hit him so suddenly and unexpectedly for only a few seconds he could not think of the reason why. Ronnath knew that just blurting out because he felt like it was the right thing to do would probably have Cenna escort him out of the premises. It then came to him and he smiled. “I want to because I know what it’s like growing up without a family.”

            “You are an orphan yourself then?” she asked.

            “Aye. I was raised by humans, and they tried to give me the best that they could, but…” he shrugged and gave her a sad smile. “I be an Elf. They have been gone for fifty odd years now.”

            Her brows furrowed and she looked sad. “Yes, that is a problem… I do not have Elven chidlren up for adoption at this time.”

            Ronnath shook his head. “That’s fine, just because I be one does not mean I be havin’ to adopt one,” he spread his hands. “So how do we go about this?”

            The matronly woman leaned back and clasped her hands in her lap, looking thoughtful. “You have already passed the first requirement,” she said with a slight grin.

            “What is that?” He raised one eyebrow, feeling curious as to what he had done right.

            “I can sense an aura of goodness about you. You do not follow a dark path, although I can see from your dress and the weapons you carry you are not a stranger to violence, correct?”

            He had to laugh. “No – far from it. I travel the lands and I have seen a great deal of violence, and I have killed plenty, but only to those who deserved it. And aye, I do try to follow the path of light, and I be not adverse to kicking the ever-living hell out of monsters, undead and those who are evil in their hearts.”

            “A ranger?” She guessed, taking in his attire and choice of weapons.

            “Aye.”

            “And what are your current goals?”

            “Come again?” He asked, slightly confused.

            “Are you going to stay here, or are you moving on?”

            Ah now he understood. He knew that in a week or so he and his companions would be travelling to the deeper inland, although he was not exactly sure where. Xavier was rather vague and all he knew for sure was that his companion is to take over as the Warden of a small community, according to the wishes of the Professor. “I be travelling north, deeper inland.”

            “And what do you plan on doing when you are there?” She leaned forward, unclasping her hands and placing them on her knees, the look intent in her eyes.

            “Hunt, fish, probably join the city watch, and to be protectin’ the people from undead and other horrors that might happen to come along.”

            “Lofty goals,” she said but her tone was not mocking.

            “It’s what I do.”

            They continued to talk for over two hours. She explained to him what was expected of him and the donation he was expected to make. There would be, of course, paperwork for him to sign, but it was all trivial. When he handed over nearly ten times the amount of gold she requested as a donation, she eyed him and shook her head. “That is far too much, sire, unless you wanted to adopt several at once?” She looked hopeful.

            “No,” he said earnestly. “I would like to, but I think I can only take care of one for the time, maybe in the future, but not right now,” he pushed the bag of platinum and gold closer to her. “Consider the rest as a gift, a way to help be helpin’ improve their lives, maybe do some repairs to this place.”

            She looked as if she was going to cry and then reluctantly scooped up the bag and placed it inside a drawer on her desk. After taking a moment to compose herself, she cleared her throat. “How do you want to go about choosing your new son or daughter?”

            “Let me meet them, I’ll know him or her when I see them.”

            With that, she stood up and went over to the door. “Please wait here, I am going to gather the children for you to meet.”

            Nodding, he settled into the chair and relaxed. Deep inside his soul, he already had made the choice, but he had to be certain it was the right choice.

            About fifteen minutes passed before she returned and beckoned him to come into the main hall. There he saw about thirty children, all standing around, some shuffling nervously, others looking excited.

            He walked among the children, occasionally speaking to one, but for the most part he was silent. Many of the youngsters seemed fearful, and he tried his best to look friendly and inviting. After a few minutes he turned to the matron, his eyebrows furrowed. “One seems to be missing.”

            She looked startled and did a quick head-count. “You’re right, but how did you know?”

            “Call it a hunch,” he said somewhat cryptically.

            She paused and studied him for several seconds before speaking. “You know what the missing one is, don’t you?”

            “What difference does that make?”

            Cenna blew out her cheeks and wrung her hands together. “She is a Tiefling. Most people don’t even give her a second glance.”

            “Why?” He asked, although he knew it was a rhetorical question.

            “Because they are afraid of the demon blood that flows in her.”

            “I want to meet her.”

            That took the matronly woman aback. She stared at him in open surprise. “Are you certain?”

            “Aye.”

            She quickly shooed the other children away, telling them to go and prepare for the evening meal. It was clear that they were all disappointed, and a few were openly crying, knowing that they had not found a new home, but they obeyed her and left. Seeing the look on his face, her demeanor softened. “I know it’s hard, and believe me, I want to see all of them find a good home. Many never do, but I do try to give them as much love and attention as I can.”

            “You’re a good woman then,” he said simply. “It’s the best most of them could hope for.”

            She led him to the second story and down the hallway. There were doors on either side and she came to the last one on the right. She tapped at the door lightly and did not bother waiting for an answer. She led the way and he followed her into the small, brightly lit room.

            Looking around, he saw that there was a single tiny, neatly made bed, a small table with an oil-lamp on it, and a little chest of drawers. There was a pile of paper on the table and several bits of charcoal and some colored piece of chalk. There was a partially completed drawing in charcoal and colored chalk, and without appearing to stare at it, he instantly caught the likeness it held. The girl had been drawing him. He felt a slight lump in his throat.

The Tiefling girl was sitting on the bed, her back against the headboard and her knees were pulled up to her chin. She clutched the same raggedy doll in one fist and her spiked tail was wrapped protectively across her shins. She stared up at Cenna and Ronnath, her eyes wide but unreadable.

            “Cheonsa, this is Ronnath,” Cenna said as she sat on the bed and reached out to stroke the girl’s arm. “He wanted to meet you.”

            The Tiefling girl turned her ruby-red eyes up and looked at Ronnath. “Hello,” she said in a small voice.

            “Hello Cheonsa,” he knelt down before the girl so they could see eye to eye. “How would you like to leave this place?”

            She stared at Cenna, who smiled encouragingly at her, and nodded towards Ronnath. “Go ahead sweetheart,” she stroked the girl’s arm. “He is a good man and is willing to give you a home.”

            “I’m home here,” she pouted.

            “Yes you are,” Cenna continued to stroke her hand. “I know you don’t really understand, but if you go with him, the other children won’t pick on you any more, or be afraid of you.”

            “Don’t care, I wanna stay here.”

            Instead of speaking, Ronnath held her gaze. They stared for several minutes, without speaking a word, and yet volumes passed between the Elf and the Tiefling. Cenna was beginning to get worried when Cheonsa straightened her legs and pushed herself off the bed. She still clutched the rag doll in her hand as she stood before Ronnath, her eyes huge and her heart pounding in her tiny chest. Without warning, she threw her arms around the elf and clung to him as if her life depended on it.

            Cenna looked astonished and stared at the two of them, her mouth agape. Ronnath gently enfolded the child in his arms, and she was so small compared to him she almost disappeared into his embrace. He looked at the matronly woman. “She be the one alright,” he half whispered.

            The little girl continued to cling to him and she stared shyly at Cenna. At last she spoke. “I saw him a few days ago, and knew he was a nice man.”

            “I can see that,” Cenna beamed. She continued to watch as Ronnath stood, still holding the young girl in his arm. “If you want to wait downstairs, I’ll pack her things for you.”

            Ronnath nodded and then left the room. He made his way through the hall, seeing the occasional eye peeking through a crack in a slightly open door as he passed. Descending the rickety stairs, he took a seat on one of the chairs and placed the young girl on his knee. They continued to stare at one another until she finally broke the silence. “Are you gonna be my new daddy?”

            “Aye Cheonsa, that is why I be here.”

            “You gonna take care of me, and give me food and milk an’ a comfy place to sleep?” She was becoming a little more animated now, although there was no denying the connection they both had felt, from the moment they had locked eyes upon one another.

            “Yes and more. As long as I am around, no one will hurt you. No one will tease you or call you bad names, and you will never go hungry or have to be afraid,” he promised, finding the words flow as if from their own volition.

            Cheonsa beamed, and it made her look positively radiant, and as it turned out, her smile was contagious. “Can Jackie come too?” She held up her ragged doll for him to see.

            He nodded and ran a hand over her cheek, feeling how soft and warm her flesh was. He figured it had to have something to do with her infernal heritage, but he was not about to let that stop him from giving her a home, and a life knowing she would be loved and cared for. “Of course.”

            That moment, Cenna came down the stairs. She was holding a small sack that seemed to be empty. “Here are her spare clothes and a few personal items she has managed to acquire.”

            He took the sack and placed the girl on the floor. Standing, he held out his empty hand to her and she took it, her tiny fingers all but lost in his large fist. “When I settle down, I might return. There are more kids here that need a good home.”

            Cenna bowed deeply. “You are welcome to come back anytime.”

            With all the paperwork complete and the gold and platinum having changed hands, he walked out into the street, the Tiefling girl beside him. As he turned north towards where Xavier and Thorn were staying, idly wondered how they were going to react when the saw her?

            He then realized that he did not give a damn what they thought. There had been a hollow spout in his soul, a dull ache, and now it was gone. He looked at the little girl who clung to his hand, beaming up at him and he knew right then and there that he would never leave her, that he would always protect and love her.

            And from the look on her little face, she knew it too.

End