Tutelage

Chris Van Deelen

The air was filled with the scent of fall – moisture mixed with the tangy odor of decaying leaves, as well as the pungent scent of scat left behind by the various animals that dared come within range of the small wooden cabin. Almost overpowering those pleasant scents was that of freshly split wood and the tang of saw-dust mingled with sap.

Ronnath stood, bare-chested and bathed in sweat as he stared into the morning sunlight streaming through the branches and leaves of the majestic trees. A large axe was held lazily in one hand as he turned from the sky to look at the pile of kindling he had created. He had finished his meditations well before dawn and was feeling restless. Over the past couple of hours he had split more than enough wood to keep him and Cheonsa warm and comfortable for several months.

It helped that he was a large and powerfully built Elf, one whose physique put that of even a few Half-Orcs to shame. Reaching up, he wiped away the accumulated sweat from his brow and then ran his hand through his close-cropped brown hair.  A small brook - maybe a few meters wide and half a meter deep burbled and wound its way through the forest only a handful of meters from where he had been chopping wood.

He sighed, feeling content for the first time in a very long time. His muscles were sore from the repetitive motion of chopping the wood, but he felt cleansed. This made it three nights in a row he was able to meditate without seeing the faces of those whose lives he had taken so brutally nearly two seasons before, and his soul felt light and refreshed. It was a good sign. Just then his stomach grumbled and he realized how famished he felt. Time to wake Cheonsa up and find something for both of them to eat.

The soft footfalls coming up behind him alerted him that his little girl was finally awake and he allowed her to approach without letting on he had heard her. She was getting quite good at moving without disturbing the land beneath her tiny feet, and at least he did not have to awaken her. The child certainly could sleep; he mused and smiled as he felt a tiny, soft and warm hand slip into his. “How did you sleep?” He asked.

“Good daddy, really good,” she answered, not bothering to look up at the man who had adopted her. Instead she stared out at the stream a few meters away and squeezed his hand. “Want me to get us some water?”

“Thanks Cheonsa,” he laughed. “I took care of that a couple of hours ago,” he looked down at the girl and was amazed to see how much she had grown in the half-year since he had adopted her and brought her into his life. She was easily half a hand-span taller and her hair had grown longer, reaching to her waist, and the horns that marked her demonic blood likewise had gotten larger and were noticeably curling back.

“I’m hungry,” she said, changing the subject, and looking up at last to meet his gaze. “What is it daddy?”

With speed and grace, he scooped her up in one arm and placed her on his shoulders. She squealed and then laughed, grabbing hold of his pointed ears to ensure she would not slip off. He winced slightly, feeling the strength in her fingers and hoped she would not pull his ears off in a mishap. “You’re growin’ so quick, I be havin’ to buy some more clothes for ya.”

“I guess that’s why I’m hungry,” she laughed. “What’s to eat?”  She sniffed loudly and then snorted. “Daddy – you smell bad.”

“Thanks a lot, sweetling,” he laughed again. “That’s what ya get when ya exercise and cut wood,” he felt his belly rumble again his mind turned to taking care of that ache.

There was the carcass of a deer he had killed still curing out behind the cabin, held high up in a tree to keep away most curious and hungry predators. He could still cut a few choices of flesh from the animal and cook it up for him and his girl, but that would take longer than she was willing to wait. He had the solution. “Dried meat, some apples, a wedge of cheese, and some water.  How does that sound until I can get a proper meal ready?”

“Aww,” she whined, but he could sense that she was not really upset. “I was hoping for some sweetbread and milk!”

Ducking low so he would not accidently hit her head on the door, he re-entered his small cabin. While others might consider it to be rustic and uncivilized, he and Cheonsa loved it. The cabin was fifteen meters to a side, with two exits on either side of the building. The interior was divided into three rooms – a main room which also served as a kitchen, a smaller storage room and finally the bedroom. He and Cheonsa shared the bed room, usually with him sitting up meditating in the comfortable chair while she slept under mounds of furs. The main room and the bedroom both contained a simple fire-place which was more than adequate to keep the cabin warm all through the relatively mild winters that visited this region of the world.

He placed the little Tiefling on the floor and waved at the table, indicating she should sit. “In a sec, daddy,” she dashed over to the bedroom and returned a moment later with two stuffed rag-dolls in her hands. One was a little doll she had with her when he had adopted her. It looked like a human figure with bright red cloth for hair. The doll was named Jackie. The other was made to look like a dragon and she called him Mr. Smoke. Running over to the table, she hopped into the chair she had claimed as her own and placed the rag dolls on either side of her plate.

Grinning as he worked, Ronnath gathered up several chunks of dried meat, a large chunk of cheese as well as a few fresh apples and a big pitcher of water. He placed the apples, meat and cheese on her plate and filled one glass. “Eat up, sweetheart. I’ll start a fire and cook a proper meal for ya in a little bit.”

She made a face and then lifted the stuffed dragon and put his cloth nose to the meal. She turned it so that they were looking at one another and she made its head bob up and down. “Mr. Smoke says it’s okay, but he would like his meat burned.”

Ronnath laughed and sat down in the chair across from her. “And what be sayin’ Jackie?”

“She thinks it is just fine and would much rather have the apples.”

Reaching out, he tousled her hair and then took one of the apples and bit into it. The fruit was juicy and tasted sweet, and it was the perfect time of year for it. He and Cheonsa would enjoy fresh fruit for at least a few more weeks, and then they would have to rely on the preserves and whatever he was able to hunt.

She ate and played with her stuffed toys, pretending that they too were partaking in the repast. After a few minutes, she finished the meat and two apples and pushed the plate aside and announced proudly, “I’m done, so what are we going to do today?”

“We’re heading into the city,” he told her. “I need to find you a good teacher.”

Cheonsa blinked in confusion. “For what, daddy?”

“You need a proper education,” he answered.

“You’re teachin’ me, daddy.”

“Aye but you need to learn more than how to track and shoot a bow and use a staff.”

Her bright red eyes went wide. “You’re going to teach me how to shoot?”

“Aye I plan on it, Cheonsa.”

The little Tiefling beamed and her smile chased the few lingering shadows of doubt and depression he had been feeling. “I love you daddy!” She yelled and launched off the chair and practically bowled him over as she hugged and kissed his smooth cheek.”

He hugged her for a moment and then placed her on the floor of the cabin. “I love you too, sweetheart, but we do need to get you a proper education.”

She shook her head adamantly. “No daddy, I’m going to be a ranger, just like you!”

For just a second Ronnath thought his heart would explode. He never realized how such a simple, innocent statement out of the mouth of a child could affect him so. He cleared his throat, afraid that he might choke up and start sobbing right then and there. Cheonsa eyed him, tilting her head to the side in a curious manner. “Did I say somethin’ bad, daddy?”

“I think it’s great you want to be a ranger just like me,” he started after a second to make sure his voice sounded normal. “The thing is, you’re still growin’,” he stroked the hair between her horns. “And there be a good chance you may be changin’ your mind.”

“No I won’t,” she said with the finality and the determination that only a child of eight years could muster. “I’m gonna grow up and be a great ranger, and I’ll make you proud of me!”

“What do you think it takes to be a ranger?” He asked and leaned up against the table. He grabbed an apple and took a bite of it and then broke off a chunk of the strong cheese and it into his mouth. He savored how the two flavors clashed and yet complemented one another.

“You shoot a bow, an’ you run, an’ you track monsters!” She said with her little chin pointed out towards him.

He stifled a laugh, seeing how serious she was and the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt her feeling. “Aye there is that,” he said and rubbed his chin. “Those are very important but you also need to learn about the plants and animals that live in the lands, and the different types of terrain. There are so many things you need to know, and you need a proper education for that.”

“What’s a terrain?” She asked, her forehead furrowed as she tasted the word.

“See the forest outside?” He asked, waving a hand at the window.

She nodded.

“That’s a specific type of terrain. There are lands filled with nothing but grass, others are covered in hills and mountains, and there are even some that are nothing more than sand and heat.”

She nodded, a flickering of understanding in her eyes. “So to be a great ranger like you, I need to learn about these different places?” She asked, her face scrunching up in her attempt to be serious.

“Aye that is the truth.”

“Okay daddy, then I wanna get a proper education.”

“That’s my angel!”

***

It was almost mid-day by the time they ate and packed up the few things they would need for the journey to Waterdeep. He had his horse saddled and waiting, and made sure that they had spare clothing and food. They would not arrive until nearly sundown, and he already planned on staying at one of the inns near the entrance. He could have gone to stay at Xavier’s estate, but for the time being, he further he was away from his travelling companions, the better. He was still exceedingly sore at Thorn for the callous way the other Elf tried to joke about the lives that Ronnath had taken when possessed by the demon.

He did not want to lose his temper with the man again, especially not in front of Cheonsa.

With the air as cool as it was, making sure that Cheonsa was wrapped up in a hooded travelling cloak would not garner any unwanted attention. He knew most people who saw the girl would see only the child, not the fiend blood that marked her as different. There were those who would not see anything but the blood, and those were the people he had to protect his daughter from. As much as it pained him to force her to wear the hood, it was to protect those who would try and harm her from him.

Not the other way around.

He was just in the process of cinching the saddlebag closed when she came over to him. She had her two travelling companions with her, Mr. Smoke and Jackie, each covered in little cloaks that she herself had made. “We’re ready to go daddy,” she held out her hands for him to pick her up.

“I have one last thing to do,” he told her as he waved her outstretched arms down. “Won’t take but a moment,” he ran his hand across her cheek affectionately and walked over to the side of the cabin. There he had constructed a small table; far more elaborate than most of the furniture inside. It held several candles and a large bowl. The dried remains of blood was still visible inside the bowl and on the wall about a meter up from the table was a silver arrow with green fletching.

Bowing his head, he closed his eyes and spoke in a hushed voice. “Solonor guide my path and sharpen my senses as we make this journey. Keep those who would desecrate your forest and kill the game for sport fail to cross paths, unless it is your wish that I mete out punishment for their transgressions.”

Done with his homage and prayer, he pulled a single shaft from his quiver, ran the arrowhead across his palm and squeezed several drops of blood into the basin. When he replaced the shaft and opened his hand, there was no sign of injury. His god had heard his prayer and was pleased.

“Daddy are you okay?” Cheonsa said, a slight quaver in her voice. She had been watching and had listened to his communion with the god of the hunt and the forest.”

“Aye, why do ye ask?”

“You cut your hand,” she said, pointing at the hand he had so recently held over the sacrificial bowl. “Why did you do that?”

He beckoned for her to come to him and she came over without hesitation. She was still very young and he knew that he should introduce her to Solonor, but he was afraid she simply would not understand. “Solonor is the god that I worship and pay homage to,” he explained. “I was asking him for a safe journey and to watch over us as we traveled to Waterdeep.”

She tapped her chin with one finger, her young face screwed up in concentration. “So why did you cut your hand?”

“To get the attention of Solonor. He is busy and has many other hunters and rangers to watch over, so he can’t be watchin’ everyone all the time.”

Her eyes went large. “Did it work?”

Ronnath grinned and showed his little girl his wound-free hand. “Aye angel, we have blessing,” he went over to her and scooped her up off the ground, then swung her into the saddle on the back of the horse.

“Daddy?”

He climbed up and settled behind the young Tiefling and took the reins, with a gentle flick, the horse began to trot down the trail, which would take them to the main road and onto the city. “What is it?”

“I know what demons an’ angels are, and I know my real daddy was a bad demon. So why do you call me angel? Aren’t angels ‘posed to be good?”

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head, feeling a lump in his throat. “Aye angels are good. There are all kinds of angels too, and yes demons are supposed to be bad, but you are not, even though your real daddy was one. You have what the gods call free will and it don’t matter what your blood is. You choose to be good or bad.”

“Then I am good?” She asked, turning her head to stare up at him, her red eyes bright and full of wonder.

He wanted to tell her that he would make sure that she was brought up the right way, to know the difference between good and evil, and that he would teach her. There was one problem – he had been possessed by a fiend for a short period of time, and he had done things that he could not forgive or find it in his heart to forgive himself for. Sometimes he felt the presence of the demon, usually when he was angered or frightened, just waiting to reappear and force his hand once again.

Who was he to judge, to say if she was good or evil?

“Of course you are,” he smiled at his girl.

“I’m gonna be just like you, daddy,” she said with the confidence and finality that only a child possesses. “I’m gonna be ranger just like you, and I’ll help those who need it, and to kill bad people and monsters.”

“You’ll be the best at whatever you decide to do, Cheonsa,” he said with full confidence in his tone, knowing deep in his old heart and in his soul that she was going to be the best, no matter what road the gods chose for her.

***

The sun was just setting over the horizon when the great city of Waterdeep came into view. Over the past several hours of travel, the number of people, caravans and other travelers increased until it went from a tiny trickle to a steady stream of life.

They stayed off to the side, away from the vast majority of the others who were for the most part all human. Here and there he made out the occasional Elf, a smattering of Dwarves and an entire family of Gnomes.

The Elves gave him a perfunctory nod as they passed, while the Dwarves studiously ignored them. He was concerned that the Gnomes might prove to be an annoyance when one of them, a Gnomish woman of indeterminate age, came over and started babbling at a kilometer a second, so fast that Ronnath had to hold up a hand and tell her to slow it down. When she did, he realized she was asking if he wanted his fortune read. He politely declined and the little woman disappeared with the rest of her family a few seconds later.

He had fully expected Cheonsa to ask, and then he realized the child was sound asleep, resting comfortably against his chest, soft snores coming from her. It brought a smile to his face as he placed one arm around her to ensure she would not fall off if the horse did something unexpected.

When they finally reached the gates, it was full night. The sky was ablaze with brilliant starlight, and when he looked further to the north, the aurora borealis was in full bloom, cracking energy flying across the heavens in brilliant colors. It was something he never grew tired of watching as he looked on and waited for his turn to enter the city.

Finally just as he was bringing the horse to the nearest group of guards, Cheonsa roused from her slumber. He felt her jerk awake and he stroked the top of her head gently. “At ease, angel, we just got to the city.”

“I’m hungry, daddy.”

“Do you want some field rations or can you wait until we find a place?”

She yawned and stretched, and then rubbed her eyes. “I guess I can wait.”

“That’s my girl.”

“State your business in Waterdeep,” a guard asked a moment later.

“I be here to buy some supplies and to find a tutor for my daughter,” Ronnath said pleasantly.

The guard, a human male in his late thirties, studied them. He was armed with a short-sword and had a crossbow slung over one shoulder. There were several daggers sheathed at his belt, and he was dressed in well-maintained chain. “Your daughter?” He asked, the suspicion in his voice obvious. “Why is she covered up?”

Ronnath sighed. “Sorry Cheonsa,” he said. “You have to show him your head and face.”

Without hesitation, the young Tiefling lifted her hands and pulled the hood back, revealing her cherubic face, the curving horns, and the bright red eyes. She tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

The guard recoiled slightly, but it was enough that Ronnath caught it. He was about to go on the defensive when the guard nodded. “Alright, be on your way, an good luck to ye on findin’ someone willin’ to teach her.”

Ronnath growled in his throat, knowing that the man had just insulted his girl when there came a scream of horror only a few meters off to his left. His head whipped about, half expecting to see some sort of creature having suddenly appeared and about to wreak havoc when he saw a group of commoners. The one who shrieked was a middle-aged woman in a dirty travel-cloak and she was pointing right at Cheonsa.

“Spawn of Cyric!” She screamed.

He did not like this at all, they were garnering far more attention than he would like, and now more people in the small group of travellers were staring and pointing. Even in the poor light, thanks to his natural vision, he could see the looks of comingled fear and hatred. He tightened his grip around Cheonsa’s waist and pulled her closer.

“Demonspawn!” Cried others with the woman. “Cyric lover!”

Ronnath rolled his eyes in disgust. She was indeed the spawn of a demon from the pits, but she was also a little girl, and had not grown into whatever fate would deem her become. If he had his way, she would never have cause to want chaos or evil. “Back away, right now,” he growled loud enough for all those nearby to hear.

“Don’t let him enter,” the woman screamed at the guards. “That creature will bring the wrath of Cyric upon us all!”

The guard looked over and at the others, who were now coming closer, sensing that something bad was about to take place. They had their hands on their weapons but had yet to draw them.

He did not want to wait to see the situation escalate, so Ronnath spurred his mount and it began to trot towards the gates. Several of the men who were with the screaming woman ran and placed themselves between the gates and Ronnath, blocking his passage.

The Elven ranger felt his anger rising to a very dangerous level. “You best be backin’ away right now,” he said in a low growl. Leave me an’ my baby girl be in peace.”

A man in his late forties who was likewise dressed in dirty travelling garments stood before him, a walking stick now grasped in both hands, the dirt-smeared end pointed at Cheonsa. “Turn back, fiend lover,” the man spat.

The guard who had at first granted him access to the city came up and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, while the other was on his sword. “They have free passage into the city, so be on your way and stop disturbin’ the peace or we’ll arrest you and your kin.”

It was at that time that one of the travellers picked up a rock and let it fly. The hurled projectile smashed into Cheonsa’s face, rocking her back into his chest so hard that he let go and she fell from the saddle without a word.

Darkness laced with red-hot rage overcame Ronnath and before the city watch could consider reacting, he unslung his compound bow and fired four arrows in the bredth of a single heartbeat. The first arrow penetrated the rock-thrower’s skull, right between the eyes. The second and third arrows pulped the man’s eyes before continuing through the skull, the fletching stopped by the eye-socket. The fourth and final arrow penetrated the neck, just below the man’s adam’s apple.

The attacker did not even have a chance to scream, his life departed from his body so quickly. All around the city watch and the pedestrians and travellers watched in stunned silence as Ronnath dropped from the saddle, the bow still clutched in one hand as he scooped up his daughter with the other. “Cheonsa!”

Her face was a bloody mess where the rock had hit her. The little girl’s eyes were already bruising, and her nose was clearly pulped and broken. He thanked Solonor that she was unconscious and could not feel the terrible pain she must have been in. Cheonsa’s mouth was open and she was breathing, but each breath blew out bubbles of red. At least two or more of her front teeth had been knocked out.

The city watch was screaming for order and they were pushing back the men who were with the rock-thrower. Ronnath ignored them all as he reached into his tunic and pulled out a vial of bluish-tinted liquid. It was a staple that he and his companions always carried with them, potions and elixirs that could heal the gravest of wounds. When one of the guards ran over to him and demanded that he drop the bow, Ronnath’s glare was so intense and filled with rage that the man took an involuntary step back. The Elf uncapped the vial and poured the liquid into Cheonsa’s mouth and the effects were immediate. The bruises disappeared, the nose realigned itself and the teeth sprouted from the gums as if they had never left.

Only then did he stand. He drew another shaft and notched it, looking at the crowd that was demanding justice for his murder of the rock-thrower. “Next one who comes within two meters of us will die,” he growled loudly enough for everyone to hear.

“You killed him!” The woman who initially started the ruckus accused. “You snuffed out his life!”

“He hurt my girl!” Ronnath shouted back, spittle flying from his lips. “She’s just a baby and you murdering bastards want to kill her! I extracted justice and I’ll do it again if any of you so much as lifts a hand in our direction!”

“Drop the bow,” one of the city guards demanded, his short-sword had been drawn and he was standing in a fighter’s stance, ready to attack.

It was only then that Ronnath noticed the rest of the guards had encircled him and Cheonsa, and he was not sure if it was to protect them from the mob, or the mob from him. “Not until ye clear away tha’ rabble,” Ronnath snarled and he looked down at Cheonsa. She was unconscious, but at least she was breathing and the damage inflicted had been healed, although she needed to be cleaned up.

The accuser pushed her way through the throng of bystanders and tried to get at Ronnath, her face an ugly mask of hatred. “Murdering bastard!” She screamed and suddenly there was a dagger in one hand. “I’ll gut you both and sacrifice her soul to Kossuth!

“No you won’t,” one of the guards shouted, grabbing at the hand holding the dagger. For a woman of her age, she was shockingly strong and was about to bring the weapon down upon the guard when Ronnath fired a single shaft. It penetrated the woman’s arm through the wrist and went clean through. The arrow continued to sail until it hit the wall just to the right of the gate, where it shattered in a shower of wood-splinters and stone dust.

She screamed as the dagger was dropped from now-limp and lifeless fingers, her eyes flashing in pain and hatred towards Ronnath. The guards stared at him, unsure what to do, their weapons still drawn and held ready.

Ronnath lowered the bow and looked from the wounded woman to the nearest guard. “She drew on you and was about to attack, I disarmed her,” he stated bluntly and then looked down at the still form of his adoptive daughter. “He seriously injured by girl, and could easily have killed her!”

“Justice!” The rock-thrower’s people demanded. “Blood for blood!”

The head of the city watch held up his hands and waved them at the milling and angry crowd. More than a few were on the sides of the rock-thrower, while although remaining neutral and staid, it was plain that there were those in the crowd that not only agreed with Ronnath’s words, but his actions.

Those who had a spark of decency inside, that is.

“Justice has been served,” the captain of the watch declared and then pointed at the corpse on the street. “He attacked and seriously harmed a child,” putting emphasis on the last word. “If this man had not attacked, at the very least he would be on his way to jail,” he looked at Ronnath and nodded. “He saved me the time.”

There was an uproar, a surge of anger from the rock-throwers people. Too many voices were demanding to be heard at once, and the captain of the guard shook his head. “Sir I’d suggest you take your girl and head deeper into the city. Normally we would not let your killing of the man go unpunished, but you were clearly defending an innocent child, and there were plenty of witnesses.

Ronnath nodded, still seething in rage, feeling the darkness planted by the Shadow demon scratching at the surface of his mind, demanding to be let free. He tramped it down in a show of willpower as he slung his bow and scooped up his daughter. “Thank you,” he told the captain as he slung her up over the horse and the climbed up after her. “I’m sorry,” he said and strangely enough, he meant it.

“Aye and so am I, no one should harm a child,” the captain answered. “We will make sure the rabble does not bother you.”

It took the combined effort of the city watch, but they were able to push the rabble and trouble-makers aside, allowing Ronnath clear passage through the gate into the city.

“This isn’t over,” the wounded woman screamed. “We will find you, Cyric-Spawn, and when we do, we will rid the world of your filth!”

***

Ronnath drove the horse onward through the city. His original intent had been to take a room at one of the inns, just inside the city gates, but after the incident with the mob, he knew the haters would be hunting for him. So as much as he loathed the idea, he travelled to the noble quarters and made his way to Xavier’s mansion.

Even before he dismounted the horse, Reynold, the major-domo of the mansion, was at his side. “Sire – what happened?” He gasped as he looked at Cheonsa’s blood-coated face and tunic. He reached up to take the child but pulled his hands away when Ronnath glared at him.

“A group of fanatics,” Ronnath said tiredly and slid off the horse. He cradled Cheonsa’s little body tightly against his. “They got it through their thick skulls that killin’ a baby was called for.”

Reynald crossed to the door and opened it for Ronnath. “I am so sorry,” he said quietly. “Is she going to be alright?”

“Aye she’s fine, just asleep. I managed to get a potion o’ healin’ into her just after she was hit,” he gave the major-domo a weary nod of thanks as he passed through the threshold into the mansion. “Xavier home?”

“No,” Reynold admitted. “He’s at a meeting with several other nobles at the moment, I don’t expect him to return until the morrow, or possibly the next day. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Take care of me mount,” Ronnath asked. “I need to get me girl cleaned up and into bed. After that, would ya mind fetchin’ some food for us? Please?”

Even though it was the job of the major-domo, Ronnath hated to ask. He was not the kind of person that liked to be waited upon. It rubbed him the wrong way, especially if it was something he could accomplish on his own. Right now, tending to his little girl was his first priority and nothing else mattered.

“Of course, Sire.” The major-domo bowed low. “I would be happy to assist you.”

Ronnath sighed deeply, “my thanks,” he said and meant it. “Please don’t be bowin’ to me, I am no noble and I certainly do not want it or expect it. If anything, I be yer inferior.”

“You have more than earned my respect and admiration, sire,” Reynold said as he stood straight. “You deserve it and you are far from my inferior, and I do so out of respect.”

“Thank you.”

With that, the major-domo left and closed the door behind him. Ronnath knew the mansion quite well from the time he had spent here with Thorne and Xavier and he went straight for the guest room that had been given to him. The passages were still and dark, lit only by the occasional lantern. He opened his ears to listen, but all he could detect were the faint sounds of an ancient mansion settling and creaking with age. He was alone with his daughter and Reynold, and that suited him just fine.

Placing Cheonsa on the bed, Ronnath quickly stowed his weapons and stripped off his travelling cloak. He hung the garments on several pegs on the door and was about to fetch some water and a basin when there was a quiet knocking at the door. “Enter,” he called.

Reynold came into the room, carrying a pair of basins. One was filled with steaming water, one with cool, and he had several towels over his shoulder as well as the saddlebags. Ronnath raised one eyebrow, impressed by the man’s display of agility and balance. The major-domo placed the basins on a table and handed him the towels and saddlebag. “I’ll fetch up your meals in about twenty minutes, and if you need anything else sire, just ask.”

Ronnath shook his head. “Thanks Reynold.”

The man left. Ronnath sighed and looked down at his daughter. Her face was still covered in blood, but the flesh looked smooth and unblemished. She looked so peaceful asleep it nearly broke his heart.

He dipped one of the towels into the warm water, soaking it.  With infinite gentleness, he began to wash the dried blood from Cheonsa’s face. There was plenty stuck in her dark hair, and she would need a proper bath, but until then he needed to get her cleaned. Her eyes fluttered open just as he was cleaning the last bits of blood from her chin and she stared up at him, confusion filling her red eyes. “Daddy, what happened?”

He promised that he would not lie to his girl, no matter what, and he certainly was not going to start now. “Some bad men hurt you, one hit you with a rock.”

Reaching up, she touched her face, feeling the damp skin beneath her fingers. “I don’t feel hurt,” she said and sat up.

He took her arm and helped her so that she was in a more comfortable position. “You were hurt pretty bad,” he confessed and then grabbed a clean towel and dried her face. “I used a magical drink to heal you, so you be as good as new, angel.”

“What did you do to the bad man?” She asked curiously.

Ronnath did not want to see her face as he answered, so he turned to the side and dug into the saddle bag, pulling out some clean clothing for her as well as an unstained cloak and hood. “I killed him.”

The silence seemed to stretch for several long seconds before she spoke. “Why?”

He placed the clothing on the bed beside her and then looked up at the ceiling before he closed his eyes and rubbed them. A second later he sat on the bed next to the girl and placed a arm around her shoulder. “Because he hurt you. I promised that I would always protect you and care for you and I will never break that promise.”

“So you killed him for what he did to me?”

“Aye.”

“Poppa,” she said quietly. “Don’t kill anyone for me, I ain’t worth it.”

He pulled her close to him and leaned in to kiss the top of her head, ignoring the dried blood matting her hair. “You are worth it to me, and no one has the right to hurt you,” he sighed and drank in her scent, memorizing it, burning it into his mind. “They were going to kill you.”

“Because I’m part demon.”

“Aye.”

“It’s okay poppa,” she pulled away so that she could look him in the eyes. “People have always been mean to me or scared of me because I’m part demon. I’m used to it.”

He felt like screaming. That was no way for a child to think or behave. She was a little girl, not a monster. Just because some fiend from one of the lower planes of existence sired her did not mean she was automatically evil. It all came down to the choices she made during her life, and how she is treated and raised. “It’s not right, believe me angel, no one will treat you like that if I have anything to say about it.”

She sighed. “Please poppa, don’t kill anyone else for me.”

“I can’t promise that, angel. I will try not to, but if anyone tries to hurt you…” he let the sentence trail off into nothing.

Cheonsa was about speak when there was the lightest rapping at the door and a moment later Reynold entered, carrying a tray of food. “Eat up and if you want anything else, please let me know,” he said and put the tray on the table next to the two basins of water. Looking down at them, he raised an eyebrow. “Are you finished with these?”

“Almost,” Ronnath nodded. “We just need to get her hair washed.”

“I’ll draw a bath for her.”

The Elf was about to protest when the major-domo held up a hand. “It is not a bother, sire. I would be honored if you would allow me to do so for your little angel.”

He sighed and relented.

***

Hours later, well after midnight, Ronnath paced the small room. He knew he should be sitting and trying to relax, but the day’s events were too fresh in his mind. Occasionally he would pause and look down at Cheonsa, sleeping soundly with Jackie in one arm and Mr. Smoke in the other. He could not fathom how anyone could wish harm upon such a child. She had a very slight smile, and her eyes twitched under the lids, and Ronnath knew his girl was having a pleasant dream, which helped ease some of the tension he was feeling.

“Sire?”

Ronnath nearly jumped and drew his dagger at the sound of Reynolds voice. He relaxed when he saw the man standing at the entrance to the room. “May we speak?”

“Aye,” he agreed and motioned for the man to enter. “What be on yer mind?”

“Curiosity, sire,” the major-domo admitted. “I am curious why you returned to Waterdeep without any notice. Typically you usually send word before you make the journey.”

It was true. One of the many pieces of magic he and his two companions had accumulated over their months together was a silver figure of a falcon, which he could use to send messages. He typically sent word ahead to let them know when he was coming and if he needed anything. This time he had not.

“I want to find a teacher, a tutor for Cheonsa.”

“You could have easily asked us to do that for you,” Reynald said coolly. “It would have saved you this unfortunate drama.”

“I be the one to pick her tutor,” he said a little more harshly than he intended and immediately held up one hand in placation. “Sorry – I want to meet any possible teachers. After all, he or she will be stayin’ with me at the cabin for at least a full turn of the seasons.”

“Why not just stay here in Waterdeep? The manor has plenty of rooms and Cheonsa could go to one of the private schools here,” Reynold offered sincerely.

“I hate the city,” he stated bluntly, although he was sure that the major-domo already knew that. “I want to be in nature, in the woods.”

“I swear,” Reynold laughed quietly. “That you’re a druid, not a ranger.”

Ronnath joined in the chuckle. “I’m too nice to be a druid,” he sobered quickly. “I know she could get a better education here, but what happened today would happen pretty much every day and I don’t want her to have to deal with that sort of stress and heartache.”

“She’s going to have to get used to it no matter what, people are always going to judge her based on the fact she has demon blood. They’re not going to see past the red skin, the horns or her eyes. They’re going to see an evil creature that wants to steal their souls.”

“Not all,” Ronnath argued.

“Yes pretty much all. You my friend are the exception.”

Ronnath sighed and drywashed his face. He was feeling very tired, and wanted to sit down and meditate. It had been a long day and he was feeling soul-weary from having taken a life. “We be talkin’ about this later, alright?”

The major-domo nodded. “Rest well.”

***

As soon as Cheonsa woke, Ronnath uncrossed his legs and stretched. His mediation had been unpleasant, as the faces of those he had murdered in cold-blood came back to stare at him from the netherworld, their own ghostly visages masks of accusation and hatred. The way he was feeling, he should have just stayed up reading all night – that would have been far more restful.   

“Daddy you look tired,” Cheonsa said as she came over to where he was sitting and kissed him on the cheek.

“I am,” he said. “We’ve got too much to do today, so let’s get ye some food and then we’ll see about findin’ ye a proper teacher.”

When they left their room and went down to the dining hall, there was a meal waiting for them. Reynold was nowhere to be seen, so they seated themselves and dug in. The meal was far more elaborate than he would have prepared – fresh bread, milk, chunks of fruit and some thinly sliced meat that he was sure had to have been venison. A bowl of honey had been provided and he let Cheonsa have it, the sticky liquid far too sweet for his palate.

They were just finishing when Reynald appeared as if by magic. It was more than a little disconcerting to Ronnath that the major-domo always seemed to be there right when he was needed, as if the man had been watching from some hidden alcove. “Do you have a destination in mind?” He asked as he gathered up the dirty plates and stacked them on a trolley.

“I was hopin’ you’d have a suggestion.”

The man continued to work, but from the grin on his face, he had been thinking about it. After he placed the last plate on the trolley, he reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out two pieces of parchment. “The first one is the name of the College and the location in Waterdeep. I can easily provide you a map so you can find your way.”

Ronnath took both, stuffing them into his travelling cloak. “And the second?”

“Give it to the headmaster,” he said cryptically. “That way you will be ensured an audience and you won’t be turned away.”

This took the ranger by surprise. “Why would they turn me away? I have plenty o’ gold and platinum.”

“Aye you do, but they don’t often deal with those who are not part of the nobility. To them, you’re just an upstart commoner.”

The words stung, but he knew that they rang true. “Aye, I understand.”

“Good luck, Ronnath.”

“Thanks.”

***

Cleaned up and in fresh clothing, Cheonsa was her old self. She kept her face and head hidden beneath the travelling cloak, but few people bothered to give the Elf and the little girl a second glance. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, with the sky filled with fat clouds, pregnant with the promise of a cold rain. At least on the coastline it would be rain instead of snow, and that was what it was like all winter long. The air was cool enough to fog their breath as they rode, and it had a moist tang, but it was invigorating. He would have preferred the air at his cabin, bit it was pleasant enough here.

 The horse nickered in annoyance. Unlike his two riders, he was content to stay in the nice, dry stable, happily munching on oats and hay, and out of the weather. The gelding kept turning his head to glance back at the riders, the eyes nearly shouting ‘are we there yet’ time and again. If Ronnath noticed, he did not show it, instead the Elven ranger kept his eyes open for any would-be assailants as they rode through the streets. He knew the man he killed hours before had friends, and more than likely they would be out to extract revenge for his death.

And to harm his little girl.

Pushing the angry thoughts aside, he concentrated on following the map Reynold provided. It was rather confusing, as Waterdeep, the jewel of the north, was a crowded and bustling port-city, and the winding streets could easily confuse one if they did not pay close attention.

How he missed the forest.

About an hour after leaving Xavier’s mansion, they arrived at a large and regal looking building. It was one of the larger structures he had laid eyes upon since entering the city, being nearly an entire block in length, and four stories in height. There were all manner of folk coming and going through a pair of large double doors located at the front. The building looked and felt old, but there was an aura, an air of something grand. He could almost feel the history the building held, and knew that it contained power – not just knowledge, but arcane and divine.

During his near thirteen decades of life, he had encountered such places only a handful of times. On most occasions the sense of power filled him with dread. Then again such places were typically out in the wilds, hidden away from civilized people. Long forgotten and falling into ruin, hiding deep and sinister secrets from all but the most foolhardy.

Calling out to one of the guards at the entrance, Ronnath asked where he could stable the gelding. The guard motioned up the street and yelled that it was just to the left at the end of the college.

Ronnath waved his thanks and spurred the gelding into motion. It whinnied grumpily but complied, suddenly feeling as if shelter and food might be waiting. It showed more exuberance than it had for the past hour and when it caught the scent of other beasts of burden, it whickered happily.

A human man, young and barely a man, took the reins from Ronnath and held the gelding steady as Ronnath dismounted and then lifted Cheonsa from the saddle. He placed her on the ground and then turned to the young man and handed him a silver piece. “This should cover some hay and a grooming while I’m inside.”

The young man snatched the silver and it disappeared into his dusty tunic in a flash. “Aye sire, I will personally attend to it.”

Minutes later he and Cheonsa entered the college. It must have been between classes as the hall was filled with more young men and women than he had seen in a long time. His manner of attire did cause more than a few heads to turn in his direction, but other than curiosity, most were too busy to pay much more than a cursory glance.

He looked around until he spotted someone who appeared as if they worked in the building. As it turned out, it was an Elven woman in a long gray dress. She had her hair done up in a bun, and was carrying a stack of books in one arm. Her hair was a cool brown and her features screamed that she belonged to the Wood Elves. It was as if she could sense his scrutiny, and she paused, slowly turned and faced him. “Aye?”

“I be lookin’ to talk to the headmaster,” he answered. 

She sniffed and raised her head. She actually sniffed disdainfully. “She is extremely busy at the moment and cannot be disturbed.”

He felt his temper rising but managed to stamp it down. “I have a letter here,” he pulled it out of his tunic and slapped it into his palm several times. “She’ll be wantin’ to read this.” A she? He wondered - he assumed the headmaster would be a man.

The Elf came over to him and glanced at Cheonsa. The girl kept her head down and her eyes on the floor, not wanting to cause a commotion. The elf held out her hand and motioned for him to hand it over.

“Who be you to demandin’ the letter?” He said in as neutral a tone as he could muster. Which was not.

As if mocking him, she practically sneered. “Well, I be headmaster Curwellia, and I be wantin’ to see what this is all about!”

Now he was genuinely becoming angered and from the sudden look of consternation mixed with just the tiniest amount of fear, he knew that it was showing on his face. Ronnath forced his face to relax and he gave her a slight smile, but the Elf still took a half-step back. “Sorry headmaster,” he said in as calm a tone as he could. “My name be Ronnath, and I’m here to hire a teacher for me daughter.” He placed his free hand on Cheonsa’s shoulder as he passed the letter to the Elf.

Almost reluctantly, she took the offered letter and broke the wax seal and began to read. After several seconds, her whole manner and demeanor altered and her face softened, showing the beauty that was hidden behind her severe features. “Reynold gives you his recommendation, so the least I can do is hear you out. She looked down at the girl and then knelt before her. “What is your name?” She smiled.

Cheonsa looked to Ronnath before she answered. “Cheonsa.”

The headmaster reached out to brush away Cheonsa’s hood and at the last second Ronnath’s hand flashed out and grabbed her gently but firmly by the wrist. When she glared up at him, about to protest, he shook his head. “Not here,” was all he said and then he released her wrist.

Curwellia stood and continued to glare, and with a visible effort, she forced her face to relax and she nodded curtly. “Follow me.”

A moment later she led them into a small but neatly appointed office. There was a desk and a pair of chairs and she bade them to sit and then she took her place behind the desk and rested her arms on top. The silence in the room stretched for long moments before she decided to speak. When she did, her voice was cold and far from friendly. “You may have Reynolds recommendation, but you certainly have not impressed me in the least.”

“You’re the headmaster of this college, correct?” Ronnath asked out of the blue.

“Aye I made that clear.”

“Then you’re not exactly the smartest Elf I’ve ever known,” Ronnath declared hotly. He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, and the anger clear on his weathered face.

“Excuse me?” She said, her voice rising several octaves at the blatant insult.

“Be thinkin’ about it, Headmistress. Why would I prevent you from removing her hood in the corridor where there were all manner of people to see?” He said, his own voice equally angry, with a heat that hers lacked.

She was about to argue further when the words hit home and she stood and rounded the desk. As she had before, she knelt before the little girl. “Cheonsa, may I please remove your hood?”

Cheonsa looked at Ronnath, who gave her a single nod. “Okay,” she said quietly.

Although Curwellia could see her lower face and nose, she could not make out the rest of the girl’s features. Reaching up with both hands, she grasped the hood and pulled it back to reveal her bright-red eyes and the backward-curving horns. To her credit, Curwellia did not even blink or show any reaction. “My aren’t you the pretty girl,” she said instead and finally smiled. “How old are you, child?”

“Eight winters, I think,” she answered truthfully.

When the headmaster stood, her demeanor changed once again. “Adopted, I assume?”

Ronnath nodded. “I want a teacher for her, I want someone to come live with us for at least a full turn of the seasons.”

Curwellia returned to her seat and sat down. “Private tutors run typically a hundred gold per month, and if they have to live with the student, then that goes up by another fifty, and you are expected to provide a comfortable room and meals.”

“I’ll pay five hundred a month, and I’ll pay up front for a full turn of the seasons. If you have someone who is willing to teach her, I’ll pay for two full seasons if they’re willing to take the job.”

She blinked at the offer. From the look on her face, it was obviously more than she herself made in a single year. “That is very generous,” she said slowly. “Why so much?”

“You see her, she’s a Tiefling. Too many folk are terrified of her, thinkin’ she is a demon and evil,” he went to explain what had happened the previous evening when they arrived in the city. “And I figure that offerin’ that sum will at least buy someone’s discretion and the willingness to look past her blood an’ see the child,” he finished and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“Alright,” Curwellia said after a few minutes of silent deliberation. “It will take a few days but I will find a suitable teacher for you and send him or her to the estate. As I understand it you will be staying there for a few days?”

He almost blurted out how she knew where he was currently residing but managed to keep his mouth closed. “Aye, we will be. How long you think this will take?”

“One day at the earliest, three days the longest. I would expect an answer in forty-eight hours however.”

He nodded and made to stand when she held up a hand. “The color of your coin?”

Feeling slightly putout, he reached into his tunic and withdrew a fairly heavy purse. Opening it, he upended the contents onto her desk. There were gems of various sizes as well as several pounds of platinum coins. “I know the value of the gems vary from city to city, but ‘tis Waterdeep, I be sure you can find a place to get the true value, and then some.”

The headmistress looked at the coins and nodded. She reached out and picked up a particularly large emerald and held it up to the light, clearly inspecting it. The light glittered off the gems facets, showing the inner light and beauty the precious stone held.

“One last thing,” he said.

“Aye?”

“I will be checkin’ to make sure that you give the teacher, whoever he or she is, more than their fair share of that,” he indicated the pile of treasure. “Are we clear?”

“I don’t take kindly to threats, Ronnath.”

“It wasn’t a threat, just a statement.”

***

The weather had improved to the point it was warm enough that neither needed their travelling cloaks, but as usual, Cheonsa wore hers. Every person they passed, Ronnath watched carefully, looking for any indication that they might be potentially hostile towards his girl. He knew he was being paranoid, but it was for her sake.

Along the way, they found a fletcher, so Ronnath decided to stop in and see what the bowyer had for sale. The owner was a grizzled old dwarf, who eyed Ronnath suspiciously as he entered, but soon warmed up to the elf once he noticed the magnificent compound bow he carried. “Be that an Oathbow?” He asked in something akin to awe.

Ronnath was slightly taken aback but quickly recovered. “Aye.”

“Please may I examine it?” The Dwarf was practically bouncing up and down on his short legs.

“Why?”

“I’ve heard of the weapon, and I been readin’ up on it, but I never thought I’d live to see the day when I could touch one.”

Almost reluctantly Ronnath removed the bow from his back and handed it to the dwarf. The short man took it gently in his large and calloused hands and almost cooed in delight, causing Ronnath to smile. Cheonsa looked at her father with curiosity, but she too was charmed by the Dwarf’s reaction.

“Come with me, I have a range set up behind the shop, with yer permission I be wantin’ to fire this beauty.”

He mulled over the Dwarf’s request but finally decided that it could not hurt, so he nodded curtly. “Lead on.”

The Dwarf flipped a sign on the door from open to closed and then locked it before leading Ronnath and Cheonsa to the back. “I’m Dann Deepminer, from clan Deepminer. Who be you?”

“Ronnath, and this is my daughter Cheonsa,” he placed one hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Well met, Ronnath and Cheonsa,” he looked at the girl curiously. “She be a Tiefling!”

Ronnath felt his hackles raise. “And you have a problem with that?”

The Dwarf blinked at the sudden change in attitude and lifted his hands defensively. “I meant no disrespect, who you bed is your business.”

He considered correcting the Dwarf, but when it came right down to it, the actual parentage of the girl meant little to the shop-keeper. As long as the Dwarf treated her with kindness, he would let it slide.

“Is there anything ye be looking for?” The Dwarf asked as they made their way through the shop. There were dozens upon dozens of bows on display – short bows, long bows, exotic weapons, compound bows, and crossbows of all size and make. Barrels were filled to capacity with varying types of arrows and bolts, and there were strings and parts all neatly displayed.

“Ye custom build bows?” Ronnath asked, impressed with the quality of weaponry he was looking at. All bows and crossbows were beautifully crafted and clearly of high quality, unlike some of the weapons he had seen for sale elsewhere.

“Aye,” the Dwarf told him as they went through a door in the back. As it turned out, the building was quite a bit larger than Ronnath originally figured, and the Dwarf continued to lead them through a well-stocked workshop and through yet another door. Now he found himself inside a indoor archery range, with targets set up at different distances, from five meters up to one hundred meters.

They stopped at the furthest target and the Dwarf looked pleadingly at him. He nearly laughed but managed to refrain from doing so. Ronnath waved at the bow. “Feel free,” he offered.

Reaching into a barrel filled with hunting arrows, the Dwarf notched it and then pulled back on the string. He was clearly straining against the pull, taken by complete surprise at the strength required, but managed to let loose. The arrow flew straight and true and hit the bulls-eye on the target. “Ye be a lot stronger than ye look,” grunted the Dwarf.

“I had it modified to suit me,” he said, looking downrange as the shopkeeper notched and then loosed another arrow. This continued for several minutes before he finally handed the weapon back to Ronnath, his face ruddy with the exertion and dripping with sweat.

Stepping past the Dwarf, Ronnath’s hands moved so fast that it was almost a blur as he lifted an arrow, notched it, pulled and fired. The ease with which he used the weapon clearly impressed the Dwarf and when he turned to look at the target, he started laughing.

Ronnath used the arrows to make a smiley face on the target, and he had done so in only a handful of seconds. Cheonsa lifted her small frame up on the table that was set before the target. She saw what her father had done and giggled.

This brought a smile to Dann and he stepped back. “I be thankin’ ye for the chance to use your weapon. Have you ever considered sellin’ it?”

“Not a chance,” Ronnath told him, serious but still friendly. “This weapon has gotten me out of many a bad situation, and even helped me and me companions kill a Magma Dragon.”

“Truth?” The dwarf asked in awe.

“Truth,” Ronnath reached into his tunic and pulled out a thong. There was a single pointed tooth that looked as if it had been made out of Obsidian. “Was a young dragon, but a dragon it was, and they be damned hard to kill.”

“If ye ever change yer mind,” Dann said, looking at the tooth, “let me know. I’d pay a premium for that weapon o’ yers.”

“I won’t be forgettin’,” he promised.

With that, the Dwarf led them back into the store and flipped the sign to open once again. “Now, be there anythin’ I can help ye with?”

“Aye,” Ronnath confirmed. “I’m lookin’ for a bow for my daughter,” he placed his hand on Cheonsa’s shoulder.

The Dwarf beamed and then went over the counter. There he reached beneath and pulled out a box that was slightly larger than a short bow. He placed it on the counter and opened it to reveal a beautifully crafted bow of red-teak nestled in a bed made out of supple leather. The string was not attached, but instead coiled neatly next to the weapon. “This was commissioned by a Halfling about a year ago,” he explained. “Never did return, and I not be willin’ to sit on it for any longer. I be guessing he met an unpleasant end.”

Ronnath raised one eyebrow. “He wasn’t really, really fat, was he?”

This question surprised Dann and he shook his head. “No he was as thin as a child, why do ye ask?”

“Nothin’,” Ronnath waved a dismissive hand. “Thought it might have been someone I had encountered, that’s all,” he picked up the weapon and tested the weight. “Beautiful work, Dann,” he complimented the Dwarf.

“Thank ye. I don’t  make shoddy weapons, my reputation would not stand fer that.”

Ronnath then handed the shaft to Cheonsa who took it, her eyes wide in wonder and delight. “This is for me, daddy?”

“If you like it, sure.”

She tested the weight as she had seen her father do several times in the past. “You gonna show me how to shoot?”

“Aye Cheonsa, of course!”

“How much?” Ronnath asked as he continued to examine the bow.

Dann told him and the Elf ranger did not hesitate. He pulled out another coin-purse from his tunic and counted out the coins, handing them to the Dwarf. “That includes the price of the case?”

“Aye, and I’ll even throw in a quiver and arrows for ye girl.”

The Dwarf was true to his word. “Do ye wish to try it out on the range?” The Dwarf offered.

“Please!” Cheonsa said excitedly. Dann chuckled and motioned towards the back of the room. “Be my guest, I have to stay here an’ watch me shop, but enjoy your new weapon.”

Ronnath nodded and followed Cheonsa as she practically ran for the rear of the shop. A moment later they passed through the workshop and then entered the range. Of course she wanted to try her hand at firing at the furthest target, but Ronnath gently guided her to the closest instead.

He showed her how to string the bow and then went over the basics, how to notch the arrow, pull and then release. She fumbled several times, dropping the arrow and once the string slashed down along her arm, causing her to cry out in pain and the bow fell to the ground.

Ronnath did not laugh or chide her in the least. Instead he took her arm and kissed it where the string had rubbed against her sleeve and bade her to try again. This time he stood beside her and readied his own bow. “Do what I do, Cheonsa,” he instructed and she followed.

Forty arrows later, she was using the weapon as if she had been born with it in her hand. Of course she was only hitting the target maybe once out of every five shots, but it would come in time. After all, practice makes perfect.

***

Three days passed in peace and quiet. Reynold spoke at length with Ronnath about his meeting with the headmaster, and the Elf had to admit he had been quite annoyed with the man. He could have warned him that he was seeking out an Elven woman, and that she was not exactly the most pleasant person he had the fortune of encountering.

“Aye she may not be,” Reynold agreed, “but she is an excellent judge of character and she will eventually send you the perfect candidate.”

“You sure?” Ronnath was skeptical, and typically he found people like her too egotistical to care, to make sure that the client got what they needed or wanted.

“Trust me.” Reynold said, and the conversation came to a close.

The rest of the time Ronnath spent his time teaching Cheonsa how to shoot her bow. She would require many more months of training before she would be considered proficient at it, but they both enjoyed the time they spent together. She was filled with questions, especially about the monsters he had encountered and the undead he had sent to their final rest, always wanting as much detail as he could possibly manage as he narrated his tales.

The days were also spent with him exercising and reading, when he was not spending his time with the girl. She tended to eat a lot and whenever she did, she would invariably lay down for a nap.

Ronnath found that he missed her during those periods but always found something to keep his mind occupied. He was sitting in the mansions rear yard, where Reynold had helped the construct a shooting range. The day was chilly and he could swear he could detect the scent of snow in the air. It was not likely to happen, being on the coastline as they were, but looking up into the slate-grey clouds, he knew that within an hour or less there would be rain.

Weather like this, he would prefer to postpone the archery lessons with Cheonsa. He had discovered that she would often stay in the room they shared and draw, using charcoal or the colored chalk. The girl had an innate ability and he had seen art from adults that paled in comparison to what she had been able to produce. He did nothing but encourage her to continue with it.

It was then that he realized with a start that he had now gone six full nights of contemplation without having relived the nightmare of the hours he had been possessed by the demon. The nights of meditation had been on far more pleasant memories, like the death of the Magma dragon, the first time he entered that beautiful and exotic prostitute, near where he adopted Cheonsa.

And of course the first time he had seen the little girl that had become his daughter and the center of his entire existence. He smiled and inhaled deeply, thinking on how she had saved him.

Again.

The first patter of the cold rain arrived an hour later, just as he had predicted and he was about to enter the mansion when he could hear the sounds of horses approaching. He quickly ran across the yard and looked out into the winding street that led up to the mansion, and saw a horse-drawn carriage. The driver was seated, reins in hand, and looking miserable as the weather was beginning to turn for the worse.

The tutor had arrived at last.

Instead of going through the mansion, Ronnath raced along the side of the building and just reached the front entrance when the door opened to reveal Reynold standing there in his best livery. He glanced at Ronnath and nodded. “I was going to call you but I see I would have been wasting my breath.”

Ronnath said nothing. He stood there, his hands at his side as he watched the carriage come to a halt before the steps leading up to the entrance. The driver dropped from the seat and quickly stepped to the side, where he opened the carriage door and waited for the occupant to exit.

The first thing Ronnath saw was a long, lithe leg covered in skin-tight blue fabric. He raised a single eyebrow, curious. When the woman emerged, she stole his breath. She was about twenty centimeters shorter than he, and was slight of build. Her hair was as white as virgin snow. Her eyes were slightly slanted, as is the case with most Elves, and they were such a surreal blue it put the sky to shame. Her ears were small and only slightly pointed, making him wonder if she was a half-Elf and not a pure-blood. Her skin was a light tan, which contrasted beautifully with her hair and eyes.

Ronnath felt his heart skip a beat. 

She looked around and when their eyes met, her face lit up with a bright, open and friendly smile. “Well met,” she called out. “Ronnath I assume?”

“Aye,” he said although his mouth did not want to work properly. “I be Ronnath. You are?”

“Natheria,” she answered, the smile never wavering as she walked up to him and bowed.

“There be no needin’ for that,” he said. “I be no noble, just a commoner.”

“And you’re my employer, so that affords you the respect I intend to show,” then turned her attention to Cheonsa, who had drawn her hood over her head and was standing slightly behind her father. “And you must be Cheonsa.”

The girl clutched at her father’s hand, saying noting.

“Go on, angel, say well met to Natheria,” Ronnath said gently and pulled her hand so that she came out from behind him. Reluctantly, she came around and stood before the pale-skinned Elf woman. “Well met,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.

The new tutor knelt so that they were eye to eye and with one long, delicate finger, she pushed the hood aside and stared at the girl. Instead of revulsion or fear, Natheria ran her fingers over the girl’s face and horns, the smile never wavering. “You are such a pretty young lady!”

This brought a reluctant smile to Cheonsa’s face. Rarely had a stranger ever show such kindness towards her, she really was at a loss of what to say. “I’m your new tutor, and I know we’re going to be good friends.”

“Really?” The child asked, as if she could not quite believe the words.

“Really,” she beamed.

“We be best getttin’ into the mansion,” Ronnath suggested. “Weather has taken a turn and it’s going gonna get worse,” he looked at the horse-drawn carriage. “Angel take her into the mansion and wait, I’ll be fetchin’ her bags.”

Natheria began to protest but he held up a hand. “It’s growin’ colder by the minute, an’ yer not exactly dressed for these conditions. I don’t want ya to be catchin’ a cold.”

She looked him up and down, taking in his physical size and the strength the Elf radiated and she nodded. “Aye, as you wish.”

Reynold held open the door, allowing the woman and the child to enter as Ronnath grabbed her bags from the carriage. He was a little surprised to see how little the woman had brought with her, one sack filled with what was clearly books, and another smaller sack that seemed to weigh very little, and he could tell it held nothing more than clothing.

And it smelled so wonderful, like flowers on a spring afternoon, full in blossom and kissed by the glorious sunlight. It was intoxicating. Pushing aside the thoughts that suddenly popped into his mind, he hefted both bags over his shoulder and quickly entered the building.

Reynold closed the door behind him and together the small group walked through the mansion until they came to the guest rooms. Having been given plenty of advance warning, Reynold had prepared a room for their visitor. The bedding had been changed, the room dusted and the surfaces polished until they gleamed in gloomy light pouring in from the window.

Pausing for a moment, Ronnath made sure the Elf was already inside the room before he entered. “Where do ye want these?” He asked, suddenly feeling self-conscious for the way he spoke.

“On the bed, please?”

He gently placed both bags on the bed and then stood back. “If it be alright with you, we will be leaving first thing in the mornin’.”

“That is perfectly acceptable to me,” she told him, smiling.

Ronnath nodded curtly and turned to exit the room. “If ye need me, I’ll be in the library.” He did not understand why he wanted to get away from her so quickly, although he was pretty sure it had a great deal to do with the thoughts that continuously appeared in his mind, and he knew that she sure would not be impressed by what he was considering.

When Cheonsa made to follow, he stopped and knelt down, facing his little girl. “I be wantin’ ya to stay with her for a few hours,” he instructed gently, reaching out to brush a strand of hair that had fallen between her horns. “If ye need me, ye know where I am.”

“Okay daddy,” she said somewhat reluctantly.

For only a second he considered rejecting what he had told the girl and was about to say he would stay with her when he pushed the thought aside. Ronnath nearly burst out laughing, thinking just how completely she had him wrapped around her little finger but he managed to refrain. “That’s my angel,” he beamed and kissed her on the forehead.

As he was closing the door, he took one last look at his daughter and the new teacher. She was looking at the little girl and there was no trace of disgust or even pity, just mild curiosity. Ronnath had a sudden feeling in his stomach that the head master of the school had chosen well.

***

Hours passed and the weather continued to grow darker and more foreboding. Thunder boomed in the distance and the room was lit by flashes of brilliant blue-white lightning. This caused Ronnath to look up from the book he had been studying for the past few hours, his brow furrowed in consternation. Typically this late into the fall thunder and lightning was nearly all but unheard of, and it caused a sense of deep foreboding to blossom in his chest.

“Ronnath,” the major-domo called from the doorway. “Dinner is served.”

At least food would be a suitable distraction, he thought as he placed the book on the small table next to the chair he had been seated in. His stomach gave a loud rumble as he thought of a repast, especially one prepared by the major-domo. That man certainly knew his way around a kitchen.

He followed the man into the dining room and found that Cheonsa and Natheria were already seated, the food on their plates, waiting to be consumed. He felt a little awkward as he entered and he took the empty seat across from his girl.

The meal was everything he had expected, but what he had not been expecting is how chatty Cheonsa was with the Elf teacher. Throughout the meal they spoke, the Elf asking the girl all manner of questions, and Ronnath realized she was testing the girl, seeing the extent of her education thus far.

Ronnath felt his face flush when he realized this is something he should have done many months before, and he turned away to study the window. It was dark outside but the lights from Waterdeep were clearly visible, but he preferred the absolute blackness of the forest at night. Barley suppressing a sigh, he came to full realization as to the reasons why he had not done this sooner.

The life he brought the little Tiefling girl into was hectic and they seemed to always be on the move. If it was not dealing with a possessed warden to ensure that Xavier took his rightful place, it was thwarting the machinations of creatures from another existence, one where shadow and evil reigned supreme. There had been months of downtime between, but even those had be wrought with peril. A simple trip to Waterdeep landed he, Cheonsa, Xavier and Thorn in the tender mercies of a Red Wizard of Thay, and that had been quite the chore to deal with.

He realized that his little girl had probably seen far more travel and encountered more exotic beings than most of the inhabitants of the great city would ever hope to. And she was barely eight full turns of the seasons. He also realized with a start that Natheria was speaking to him.

“Ronnath, are you alright?”

He turned a deeper shade of crimson and looked down at the plate. The food had barely been touched and he felt his stomach rumbling at the sight and smell of the feast Reynold had prepared. “Aye sorry,”  he blew out his cheeks and saw that Cheonsa was staring at him, curiously “Just been thinkin’ is all.”

Natheria smiled, “I was just wanted to know how far we will be from Waterdeep.”

He felt something flutter in his stomach and it made him both uneasy and angry. “About half a day’s travel,” he told her. “I built a small cabin near a stream, only a few hundred meters from the main trail.”

“Rather isolated, isn’t it?” She took a sip of the excellent wine Reynold had provided for the meal. “And in the wilds, that certainly is not the best place to raise a child, don’t you think?”

He gave her a sharp look and then leaned back in his chair, folding his thickly muscled arms across his chest. “I be thinkin’ it’s the perfect place to raise a Tiefling girl. She be not dealin’ with the names and the hate that are directed towards her, like here.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?” Natheria countered. Whereas he was starting to feel angry and had taken a defensive posture, she was calm and serene.

“I be by far the most dangerous creature in that neck o’ the woods,” he replied, a little more hotly than he had really wanted to. “Besides I also happen to know the land intimately and I know there be no real dangerous beasties anywhere near.”

“That can change in a few hours,” she said and took another sip of the wine.

Finally he lost his cool. “Do ye be wantin’ the job or not?” Ronnath practically bellowed, but managed to keep his voice under control, but barely. “I gave all these details when I made the offer, and ye be gettin’ damned good payment for coming out to teach my angel,” he waved a finger at Cheonsa, who had a forkful of food halfway to her mouth as he spoke. “Ye knew well in advance that ye would be livin’ out in the wilds, and that be the reason I offered so much.”

Her face never changed, and her eyes, if anything, grew warmer. If the Elf was insulted or angered by his outburst, she did not indicate it in any way he could detect. “Aye Ronnath, I do wish to teach this young girl. There is something special about her, and I can see why she means so much to you,” she ran her hand over the back of Cheonsa’s hair and looked him straight in the eyes. “And I can see how much you mean to her.”

Instead of replying, he stuffed a huge portion of the meat into his mouth and chewed. He could almost picture the scene in his mind’s eye – he sitting there, both smitten and feeling angry at the same time, so much so he could almost see the waves of steam rising from his body, looking as if he was about to burst. He swallowed noisily and then chased it with half the cup of wine. “So why the questions then?” He asked, not demanded, as he had been thinking.

“Simply to get a feel of the man I will be living with for at least a full turn of the seasons, possibly two,” she surprised him by answering truthfully. “And from what I can see, you’re clearly a warrior, or a ranger – I would guess the latter due to your choice of weaponry. I can also see you’re a good man, despite your temper. I know that if anything would befall myself or your daughter you’d move the great heavens and the abyss itself to ensure our safety.”

“You see that?” He asked numbly.

“Aye,” Cheonsa piqued, “you see tha’ in my daddy?”

“And more,” she confided. “I can also see that you’re haunted by a horrible tragedy, something that occurred recently and you have yet to be able to come to full terms with it.”

He shot the little girl a glare and then quickly rubbed his face. Even if Cheonsa had said something about him being possessed by a demon, what difference would it make? The woman would find out eventually. “Aye,” he agreed softly.

“There is a lot about you because of these and I know the type of man you are. I want to teach this little angel and maybe help you as well.”

He eyed her. “How so?”

“Well,” she smiled and her eyes twinkled in the light of the candles. “First I can help you with the way you speak, it’s atrocious!”

Cheonsa looked from her father to the woman and parroted the word. “Atrocious!”

He groaned.

***

When morning came, he felt well rested. Another night passed without remembering the events of the possession and he concentrated on memories of his human parents and his siblings. They were all gone, and many of the children his siblings had sired were well into their adulthood and did not even know about him. Well strictly speaking that was not true – they did know about him, but he had never bothered to meet them.

He had begun the preparations for the journey back to his isolated cabin, packing up the few items they had brought with them. He did not touch either of the sacks Natheria had brought, although he would be carrying them for her once they were ready to leave.

As usual, Reynold had breakfast prepared and they sat speaking quietly as they ate. Ronnath wanted to get an early start, but he also wanted his girl to get enough rest. Riding for half a day can be quite tiring, and he knew Cheonsa’s limits, although he had yet to learn how well Natheria could travel.

“Are you sure you won’t change your mind and stay here?” Reynold asked between mouthfuls of bread.

Ronnath nodded. “At least for the time being,” he answered truthfully. “I still need time to heal and more importantly I need to spend more time with Cheonsa.”

Clearly Reynold was not quite ready to let him off that quickly. “You can do both here.”

“Aye I could,” Ronnath agreed. “I be,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “I am far more at home in the forest than here in the city. It’s too noisy and there are too many people.”

The major-domo smiled at Ronnath’s attempt to speak properly. “I understand – I’m just concerned for the girl. After all, you know better than most how dangerous the forest and wilds can be.”

That was something Ronnath could not refute.

About an hour later Natheria and Cheonsa came to the dining hall, dressed and ready to enjoy a good meal before they left the city. As soon as Cheonsa saw Ronnath, she ran over to him and hugged him fiercely, kissing his cheeks. “Good morning, daddy.”

“How did my angel sleep?” He asked and then looked up to see a contented smile playing on Natheria’s full lips. She clearly was pleased at the show of affection between father and daughter.

“I still want more,” Cheonsa told him. “I know we have to go home today, so I can sleep later.”

“And how about Mr. Smoke and Jackie?” He asked, looking at the two raggedy dolls that were never far from her side.

“They are ready too, and Mr. Smoke can’t wait until we’re home so he can hunt mice.”

He laughed and ruffled her hair as he stood up to face the Elf. “And you, Natheria, are you ready as well?”

“Aye,” she said without hesitation. “I am looking forward to seeing your home – I mean our home.”

He felt his face grow hot and he looked away towards the table, where he grabbed a chunk of cheese as an excuse to turn his face from the woman. He was starting to get angry with himself, acting like a youngster around the Elf. “It’s not like we’re betrothed or anythin’” he popped the cheese into his mouth.

“You know what I mean,” she laughed.

It only took a few minutes for them to saddle his trusty horse. The stables at the mansion had several horses and he took another fine gelding, a chestnut-brown riding horse with a calm demeanor and saddled it for Natheria.

After bidding farewell to Reynold, they travelled through the city and soon the gates and walls of Waterdeep were far behind. The day was downright cold, with grey clouds so close to the ground Ronnath was certain if he fired an arrow, it would disappear and never be found. The air felt wet, although the clouds had yet to unleash their burden, and there was a low fog hanging about a half-meter off the ground. If he did not know better, it could be taken as an ominous sign.

He was not the type to fall for superstition.

Ronnath spoke little on the road, allowing Cheonsa and Natheria to do most of the talking. He was content to be alone with his thoughts, but even though he looked relaxed and had a casual air about him, his eyes and senses were always on guard, watching the sides of the roads, inspecting the infrequent travellers they passed, and generally staying on guard.

Something deep inside told him they had not seen the last of the men who had demanded Cheonsa’s death, and if they were going to attack, the way home would be where. Here they did not have to be concerned with the city watch, and if they planned it properly, they would not have to contend with the patrols that frequented the roads around the great city.

When mid-day arrived, Ronnath knew they were less than an hour from his cabin. He nearly allowed his guard to lapse, and then he gave his head a shake. It was well known that the most danger a traveller was in typically occurred only a few kilometers from their home, and he was not willing to test the theory.

“Daddy, we’re nearly home!” Cheonsa cried when they spotted the burnt and gnarled tree-limb that pointed directly at the trail from the opposite side of the road. It marked the area that he had sequestered as his personal territory, but they still had an hour’s travel before they reached the trail that took them to the cabin.

“Aye angel, we not be long now.” He looked around and brought his gelding up short. Something was amiss and he could not quite place his finger on it. Ronnath pulled out a water-skin and drank deeply, masking that he was in fact trying to pinpoint what had disturbed him.

A moment later a dozen men, dressed in black cloaks and hoods came out from the underbrush as if by magic. One second the forest was empty and silent, the next the men were there. Ronnath realized with a start that was what had bothered him. It was too quiet, and somehow he had sensed their presence.

The figures moved silently and all were armed with longswords. The weapons slid from well-oiled sheaths with nary a sound, the blades glinting dully in the little light that managed to penetrate the overhanging branches.

He felt his heart begin to pound in his chest at the sight. He was mounted with Cheonsa sitting in front of him, and Natheria was on her chestnut gelding a little to the left and about two meters behind. Ronnath forced his demeanor to remain calm, despite how he felt. “Well met,” he greeted the group.

“Give us the Cyric spawn and you may live.” One of the black-clad figures said. There was no greeting, no posturing, no other demands. Right to the point.

Ronnath felt Cheonsa stiffen in the saddle in front of him and he could almost taste her terror. Of course there was no way he was about to allow the men to take her, and the only way they would is if he was dead. He knew instantly that he had but one choice – to start the fight and to kill them as quickly as possible, and to allow non the luxury of escape. “I don’t think so,” he said casually as his body tensed for action.

The group began to close in upon him and Cheonsa. Three broke off from the main body and converged on the Elf Natheria, their weapons were likewise drawn and ready to strike.

In one swift motion, Ronnath leapt from the saddle, drawing his bow as he reached the ground. Two arrows were loosed, both finding their marks in the hidden faces of the attackers. Two would-be assassins dropped, one crying out in pain as the arrow penetrated his face, but not delivering a killing blow.

Unlike his companion.

Ronnath whipped about and slapped the flank of the gelding, causing it to whinny in pain and it took off running, nearly bowling down another pair of attackers as they closed in on him. Unlike the rabble he had dealt with in the past, this group had at least some coherence, and they clearly had worked together in the past. Four men encircled him, their weapons held out before them in a two-handed grip. A fifth had a dagger in one hand, the sword in the other. He did not try any fancy moves; he just pushed past his companions.

All at once the group rushed him, slashing and striking from every direction at once. Ronnath barely had time to notch and loose two more arrows before the first blows penetrated his defense and ripped at the cloak and tunic he wore. The steel of their swords scraped upon the chain of his undershirt, nearly knocking the wind from him and leaving painful welts, but otherwise his flesh remained unbroken. 

Throughout his long years of training with the bow, he had become an excellent shot, some would say that he was an expert, but he had seen experts in action and he knew his skill was a far cry from that. Yet he had also been trained to use his weapon in a melee situation, if he happened to have the misfortune of running out of arrows, or could not draw any. Considering the bow he used was magical in nature, that gave him a step up already when it came to his opponents, but he was still outnumbered by a factor of ten-to-one!

The black-clad man with the longsword and dagger closed in, crouching slightly and keeping both weapons held at the ready. He had his arms close in, with the elbows slightly to the sides, making it difficult for an unarmed strike to reach his vulnerable stomach. The other four attackers continued to harass him, slipping in and occasionally landing a strike that Ronnath could not counter with his bow.

Feeling frustration mounting, Ronnath dropped his bow to the ground and back, smashing the edge of the weapon into the shin of the left-rear attacker. He felt a satisfying smack as the weapon hit home and the man grunted in pain, hobbling back and favoring his leg.

The dagger and sword wielding attacker took the offered opportunity and closed in, slashing with the longsword, while punching out with the dagger. The double attack was more of a feint than anything and Ronnath nearly fell for it, arching his back so that the sword passed only a scant few centimeters over his head as the dagger plunged for his stomach. The ranger realized his mistake and he felt the dagger slip across the chain he wore under his rapidly disintegrating tunic. Fortunately it failed to penetrate, but it nearly knocked the wind out of him.

As the attacker backed away, another man on Ronnath’s right slashed low and managed to catch him across the thigh, opening a long and deep gash along Ronnath’s leg. The Elf howled in pain and retaliated, smashing the bow into the attacker’s face when he proved to be too slow to dodge, but it cost him dearly.

Through the din of the battle, he could hear Cheonsa screaming and crying and the shouts of anger and outrage from Natheria. He so dearly wanted to check in on both but he had to deal with his own situation, which was becoming worse by the second. After smashing the one attacker in the face with the bow, the other two came in low as well. One slashed Ronnath across the back of the knee, severing the tendons and nearly the entire leg in one swift motion. The second ripped his sword up and across Ronnath’s thigh, the one that had already been wounded and he collapsed to the ground, dropping the bow and barely stifling the screams that threatened to erupt from the pain.

The attackers backed away, seeing him flat on his stomach and seemingly out for the count. They laughed at their wounded comrades, teasing them and insulting their lack of combative skill.

“Bring the Cyric Spawn over here,” the man armed with the sword and dagger demanded.

Ronnath knew the wounds were bad, but he also knew that if he could somehow buy the time and prevent the men from harming Cheonsa and Natheria, he would heal and surprise them all. It was clear as he lay on the ground, grinding his teeth against the pain that the men were cowards. They had the numbers and they had the advantage of surprise, but he knew if he could take out the leader, the rest would be easily dealt with.

Make it slow, spill their intestines, drink their blood, eat their hearts, a dark voice whispered in his mind. He grimaced and pushed himself up so that he could see the men. To her credit, Cheonsa was screaming and kicking, making it exceedingly difficult for the men to keep their hands on her. She even managed to smash her head back and nearly impaled the eye of the man foolish enough to hold her with one of her horns. This caused the others to roar with laughter, and it bought the ranger a few more seconds.

“Hey,” he snarled at the leader. “She be a babe, be leavin’ her alone!”

When the leader of the group stormed over to the girl and backhanded her, Ronnath nearly lost it. That was twice in less than a week someone had dared hurt his girl, and he did not know where he found the willpower not to strike at that instant. The darkness inside his soul cackled gleefully at the prospect of violence the ranger would soon unleash.

Cheonsa’s head snapped back and she cried out in pain. Blood began to run down her cheek from there the gauntlet had split the skin and she was openly crying, calling for Ronnath screaming daddy over and over.

“Ye can strike a babe but ye can’ face a real man, ye thrice cursed coward!” Ronnath snarled, he looked at the figure who had just struck the girl as the man turned and regarded him coldly. “Get over here ye coward, and finish me!”

The figure in black laughed. “You will be finished soon enough, Elf.”

Ronnath could feel the worst of the wounds on his leg had sealed and already the strength had returned. He knew that it would be easy to push him off the ground and attack, but he had to keep the attackers complacent, to ensure their guard was down. He was still greatly outnumbered and he had to inflict as much damage in as short a period of time as possible. Growling, he pushed off the ground even further, and then allowed his arms to slip, slamming his torso back into the ground. It was all for show, but he had to make it look good.

“Your a stubborn bastard, aren’t you?” The man who struck Cheonsa laughed. He turned his back on the girl and sauntered over to where Ronnath lay, struggling to get to his feet.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Ronnath gritted through his blood-stained teeth. He huffed and gasped, pretending to be in great pain when really it was the incessant itching that was getting on his nerves. “Who be you and why do you wan’ to kill a baby girl anyhow?”

“The abomination isn’t a girl,” the man spat. “She has the blood of a demon in her, and that makes her evil incarnate!”

“The only evil I be seenin’ here is a cowardly bastard who needs a dozen men to attack a little girl who hasn’t even seen ten turns o’ the season.”

This angered the man and he crouched, the dagger appearing in his hand as if summoned. He reached out and grabbed Ronnath by the hair and pulled him up. “I will kill the demon-spawn before I kill you, and rest assured, it will not go quickly for her,” he promised and then looked over at Natheria. “And then I think my friends and I will enjoy your lady for a few hours, allowing you to watch, before we kill her as well.”

“I don’t think so,” Ronnath said in a voice that carried neither the anger or the hatred he felt for the man who promised not only murder but rape. He suddenly pushed up to his knees, taking the man by total surprise. As his right hand left the ground, it revealed a single arrow in his grip. He drove the arrow straight up and through the attacker’s chin, pushing the shaft until the arrow became lodged in the attacker’s skull. The strike happened so fast that the attacker did not even have time to register the pain before he was dead.

Ronnath pushed the corpse away as he stood to his full height; the compound bow clutched in his left hand even as he reached to the quiver and pulled another pair of arrows. Only now were the remaining nine attackers beginning to overcome the shock of the death of their leader and beginning to react.

The man whom Cheonsa had wounded was reaching for a dagger on his hip and the other men with him rushed at Ronnath, determined to take him down once and for all. The ranger notched both arrows at once and let them fly. Both shafts drilled the nearest of the two men through the throat and mouth, killing him instantly.

Seeing the death of his companion, and the attackers suddenly reduced by a full quarter of their original strength and size, the man roared in rage. It was clear the man was a skilled warrior, evident by the way he held his weapon. Equally clear though was the fact he had thrown out all of his skill and training when the rage overtook him – something that Ronnath was determined not to allow to happen to him.

The ranger’s hand was a blur of motion as he drew and fired. This time the shaft went straight past the charging warrior, missing his ear by scant centimeters. The warrior thought himself lucky that the weapon had missed at such close quarters.

As it turned out, the charging warrior was not Ronnath’s target, but the man holding his daughter. The arrow hit its mark, destroying the man’s right eye and killing him instantly. He dropped to the ground, his grip relaxing and allowing the little Tiefling girl to escape.

The attackers were now down to seven.

All around him, Ronnath could hear the outraged curses and cries coming from the survivors as they closed in on him. The shock of seeing the ranger back on his feet was still something they were trying to process, although at least a few realized it had to have been magic that healed his wounds. He did not have the time to draw another arrow, as the charging warrior was far too close. Instead of firing, Ronnath pushed forward, his compound bow held in both hands like a staff. As the warrior brought his sword down, Ronnath thrust the bow up and to the side.

A normal bow would have been destroyed by the impact, and even Ronnath grunted as he felt the transfer of force from the sword-strike to the bow and up into his arms. It did not matter, as the bow remained intact. With both weapons locked, Ronnath kicked out with a side kick, catching the warrior in the groin. The man gasped and vomited a second later, his last meal spewing from the mask he wore. He went down, clutching his crushed scrotum.

There was a sharp pain as one of the other attackers managed to get within striking distance. Having seen Ronnath’s weakness, the man went for the leg, and a new wound opened on the left side from the top of Ronnath’s hip to his knee. It hurt something fierce, but it was not as deep or debilitating as the original strikes had been.

Twisting the bow so that the longsword dropped and hit the ground, Ronnath backhanded the attacker with the weapon, catching him in the side of the head. It was not enough to kill the attacker, but it did stagger him back several steps, giving the ranger the room he needed.

Three more men were in striking distance and Ronnath was pushed back as he parried each strike with the bow. Growling in pain-tinged anger, the Elf continued to allow the fighters to push him back, step by step, as he allowed the wound on his leg to close. He finally drew a shaft and launched it so suddenly that the closet of the three took it straight through the chest, puncturing the solar plexus and rending the man’s heart.

And then there were six.

Seeing their comrade die so unexpectedly disheartened the warriors, but they knew better than to run from an archer. The one second pause was more than enough for Ronnath. He drew and fired twice more, wounding one in the stomach and putting the second through the other man’s throat.

Four left. A third of the original attacking force.

One was chasing Cheonsa, who had the sense to run for the forest, away from the attackers. Two more were on Natheria, and when they saw the fate of those who made the fatal mistake of trying to kill the ranger, one lashed out with his sword, pushing it deeply into the Elven woman’s stomach. She gasped in agony and was held upright by the man’s weapon.

He died a second later as Ronnath’s arrow punctured his temple.

With enough range and time, Ronnath picked off the last two fighters with deceptive ease, leaving the man chasing Cheonsa. The little Tiefling girl was dodging and weaving through the trees and she was nearly out of sight as Ronnath carefully targeted her pursuer. At the last possible moment, he let the shaft fly. “Swift defeat to my enemies,” he whispered, invoking the powerful magic present in the weapon and loosed the shaft. It flew straight and true and when the arrow pierced the man’s side, there was a bright explosion of white-light as the magical energy contained in the arrow was released, cooking the man’s insides.

It was overkill to be certain, but no one attacked his daughter and lived to tell the tale.

“Cheonsa, you’re safe!” He shouted and immediately ran to the wounded Elf, pulling a vial from his tunic as he moved. A second later, he was on his knees, gently lifting her head and tilting it back to open her mouth. Her eyes were glassy and he could feel her life-energy flowing out from the wound in her stomach. She had a handful of seconds left to live, at the most.

As soon as the powerful healing elixir hit her mouth, the magical energy contained within began to knit and mend the torn flesh and muscle. The punctured organs regenerated and in moments were as good as new.

Her eyes blinked several times and then she looked up at Ronnath. “I’m not dead?”

“Not while be drawin’… not while I am still breathing,” the ranger amended.

She managed to smile and sat up with his help. She looked down at her blood-stained clothing and frowned, even as her fingers touched where the sword had pierced her stomach. The fingers came away slick with blood, but it was the only sign she had been injured at all. Her eyes went to the blood soaking his clothing, the tattered remains of his tunic and pants and then to his face. “How?”

He held up his right hand and showed her a plain-looking ring. “A trinket from one of my many adventures.”

Reaching out she touched the magical ring and then drew her hand away. “It looks so – mundane.”

“Just be – all you need to do is to inspect my wounds. The ring is enchanted so I heal rapidly, almost as fast as a troll or vampire,” he climbed to his feet and held out his hand to her. She accepted it and he pulled her to a standing position with ease.

At that instant Cheonsa re-emerged from the forest and ran straight for her father, leaping into his arms and hugging him tightly. “Poppa are all the bad men gone?”

“Aye angel, they won’t be tryin’ to hurt ye again,” he gently placed her on the ground, wincing at the sight of his blood on her travelling cloak. “Are you hurt?” He asked, stroking her head with one hand, trying to brush the slick blood out of the locks.

“No poppa, I be fine,” she smiled and looked between the two Elves, her eyes widening at the sight of all the blood covering Natheria’s stomach and legs. “They hurt you!”

“They tried, but your daddy helped me,” she said in as reassuring tone as she knew how. Lifting up the blue shirt – now a deep crimson from the spilled blood, he examined her stomach, running her long fingers over where the sword had entered. She did not so much as wince – there was no pain, there was no sign she had ever been injured.

Ronnath cleared his throat. “If ye – if you want to go back to Waterdeep, I won’t be.. I mean I won’t hold it against you.”

Sighing the white-haired Elf wiped her hands on her pants. A little more blood certainly was not going to make a difference. “No. After seeing you fight, I do believe that I’ll see through the contract. I know I’m in good hands.”

The ranger merely nodded. “It’s not much further to the cabin, and we can get cleaned up when we arrive,” he looked up to the canopy overhead and whistled. “It won’t take me long to get a fire going and heat up some water for the both of you.”

“Daddy?” Cheonsa reached up and took his hand in hers.

“Aye?”

“You should be a teacher too.”

He raised his eyebrows and looked down at his daughter. “Why would ye say that?”

She laughed, her small voice musical and full of cheer despite the events that had recently occurred. “Because you taught them a lesson they will never be forgettin!”

END