Beyond the edge of the fire’s glow, Eldeth sat and held the watch.
She tried to keep the flickering light within the periphery of her vision. After over a tenday and change of travel together, she’d learned to identify her companions by the economy — or lack thereof — in their movements. A patterning of their silhouettes against the deeper darkness that enveloped them. The feline grace of Bith, poised and tight as she slinked around the camp; the sharp clean lines of the bard Orin as he strummed away at his instrument; Merrick hunched over a rock as he meticulously sharpened and honed his arrowheads; the quivering tremble in Zas’ back as he tried to demonstrate a somatic hand gesture for Stool.
A shorter figure, motionless and still as she stared out, past their boat and out beyond the Darklake’s shores.
Eldeth tried very hard not to notice that shadow, in particular.
The crunching of loose stones beneath heavy boots announced Ront’s arrival. The orc held out a sloshing skin, but she waved it away. In the darkness, his broad face was a swath of brighter hue and texture.
“S’not grog this time,” he said. “Well, m’reasonably sure it ain’t. The fish seemed to be happy drinking it.”
“How would you know? Happy, sad, mad, they’re always wearing the same expression.”
Ront laughed. He took a long pull from the skin, then tossed it gently at her. Eldeth caught it one-handed, sniffing. Water. She took a mouthful, then nodded in thanks. Ront settled in next to her, shifting his bulk uncomfortably on the narrow rocky abutment next to Eldeth.
After a beat, Ront said, “S’been more than two hours you been here, you know.”
Eldeth didn’t reply.
Ront scratched the back of one hand idly. “I’m happy if you want to do my shift for me, but don’t get me wrong, I ain’t carrying you on my back once we start up in the morning. Though I suppose you could ride the mushroom. He seems to like you well enough.”
Eldeth snorted. “Like I’d even let you.”
“If you keep up with the brooding, you won’t have much of a choice in the matter.”
Eldeth and Ront tried not to startle as Sarith detached himself from a nearby pocket of shadow. The drow walked — no, sauntered, really, the languorous way he covered the distance between them — and, uninvited, perched on an outcropping opposite them.
Eldeth grimaced. “I have a choice. I always have a choice.”
Sarith tilted his head, arched one eyebrow. “Oh? A choice to embrace exhaustion? A choice to saddle your traveling companions with the burden of a fatigued dwarf too stubborn to know that she needs rest as much as any other of you candlewick races?”
Ront growled. He honest-to-Moradin growled. The orc leaned forward, chest puffing out, but Sarith eyed him coolly and without flinching, and after a beat, the line of Ront’s back noticeably hunched. Eldeth wanted to reach over and steady him by the shoulder, but she did him the courtesy of not doing so in front of the drow.
“I’ll hold my own,” Eldeth said after a moment, “so your concern is duly noted.”
Sarith traced a hand in wavy curlicues. “Oh, if only you were the least of what we had to worry about. Far be it from me to say our previous accommodations under House Mizzrym’s custody were superior in any respect to foraging for mushroom caps and lapping at pools of still cavern water in the dark, but you must admit, fortune has not precisely favored us since our flight from Velkynvelve, and the…erratic behavior of our compatriots has not contributed to that circumstance.”
“I think the emergence of a gods-forsaken demon prince that devoured Brother Shuushar’s home had more to do with our misfortune than anything else,” said Eldeth.
Sarith smirked. He leaned close, close enough that Eldeth could see the texturing on his face as his affliction spread. “Demogorgon? Bah. The merest of frivolities compared to the majesty of Lolth, long may the spider mother’s bulbous sac be fertile.” Eldeth couldn’t place it, the drow always sounded snide and sarcastic, but…was there contempt in his voice just now, for the nightmare queen who commanded his people’s devotion?
“Gross,” Ront said.
“Let’s not forget that good maester Zas, blessings upon his lineage, may it coil shriveled and unfulfilled in his gullet from now till the end of time, nearly got us slaughtered by piscine cultists because apparently at wizarding school they don’t teach you how to keep a secret. Or that our tall, silent, and handsome darthiir—” and here Eldeth felt the particular prickle at the base of her skull, as the mushroom child’s spores pulsed with life, translating for her: alien/surface-dweller/traitor— “tried his damndest to perforate me whilst I worked to secure safe passage for us all. If I didn’t say any better, I’d say we were traveling with a kit of suicidal lunatics.” A pause, then, “Well, more than just the one, actually.”
Ront’s sudden grip on her shoulder was all that held Eldeth’s blade in its sheath.
Sarith held his hands up. “Go easy, friend—”
“We’re not friends,” Eldeth interrupted swiftly.
“Fine, fine, go easy, companion of necessity. Is that literal enough for your dwarven sensibilities? No poetry in your entire species, above or below the hallowed ground.”
“I assume you had a reason for coming here,” Eldeth managed to grind out. “So say what you came to say, and leave.”
Sarith leaned forward. “Fine. I mean to say, and let me say so plainly and with neither artifice nor contrivance of dissemblance: the old man, the darthiir, and your glorious commander-at-arms. That’s three of our number here whom I would not trust with steel at our backs. I’ll not have it be a fourth. Go take your rest. The orc can join you. I’ve rested sufficiently, I’ll hold the rest of the watch.”
“‘The orc’ doesn’t like you talking about him like that,” growled Ront.
“Beg pardon, was that too many syllables for you?”
Sighing, Eldeth got to her feet. “You are a wholly unpleasant person, and the sooner we no longer require your navigational services, the better.”
Sarith spread his hands widely. “On that point, dear madame, we are entirely in agreement. Now go, rest. And if you can, try to suss out whether or not any other members of our cohort mean to murder us in our sleep or shackle themselves into uselessness. I’d rather we were appraised of our weakness before we go strolling into the City of Blades, rather than after.”