Emmeline and friends had ridden hard to Primel and the horses needed rest. And realistically, so did they. They had a long way to go yet to Derrien and it wouldn’t be any easier.
Her friends had been good enough to stick with her on the ride home — at least for a while. She appreciated that since no one else seemed willing to give Carlotta a second chance at life.
She was disappointed they refused to help give her that. It seemed to her that if the enemy was weak and small, like that goblin, they’d be fine giving the evil creature a second chance. Not so for Carlotta, even if the price for the second chance was execution. Clearly there was some kind of line that Typhon and Elemix drew as to who was worthy of forgiveness and who was not.
Still, in a way she was okay with their decision. Disappointed, but not upset. Emmeline believed that Carlotta would likely become her most powerful ally. Carlotta would have no attachments to anyone but Emmeline, the Circle and Mahryswenifar. Carlotta would have the best chance possible at becoming a better person and having a chance to do something really good. Because Carlotta had been able to speak and think clearly about this thanks to Mara’s potion, Em believed her.
So yes, she had to come up with a thousand gold worth of materials. She could manage it. And it would be an investment in the future of Cerisey and the Vale of the Mother Tree. All she had to do was get back to Vale in time.
They stopped at an inn within Primel for a much-needed rest. Emmeline hired a page to deliver a message for Herald Aeron that read:
Segeant, Herald, and Noble Warrior Aeron,
How fared you on the way home to Primel? Are your men well and recovered from their terrible ordeal? I hope that your fortunes only brighten from this point forward.
I know that war has come and Thalassa calls us to defend the East and so I hope that you remain safe and remain with those you most wish to protect, though I know that your Baron would be very well served should he call you to war with him.
The three hags have been dealt with, as was the swamp drank. All is well and we rest tonight at the Twin Mugs Inn of Primel. Should your curiosity bring you forth this night, I’d be happy to discuss recent events with you in detail. However, I and my young companion Renee must be away immediately at first light.
Mademoiselle Emmeline d’Cerisey
That evening at the Twin Mugs, Emmeline and Renée were sitting at a table near the stairs when Sergeant Aeryn stepped in. She made a quick gesture to a waitress for a drink and upon seeing the two of them stepped to the table. “May I join you?” she asked, and upon assent, pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Hi,” Emmeline said informally. “Thanks for coming out. I take it you got my message?”
“I did,” she replied. “Your hunt was successful then. I take it that the barbarian and the wizard did not make it?”
Emmeline looked a little startled, but then smiled and shook her head. “They are fine. Everyone made it, but I had to travel faster to get to Derrien and then my home.
“You know? About those hags. There was one, the leader I think. She was really powerful, deadly dangerous. Horrid. But she was barely older than you and I. She could have turned out completely different.
“We did some investigation,” Em continued, “dug into things a little bit. Ten years ago she was a little girl that grew up in the nearby village. She didn’t know she had been made by a twisted crone. How could she know she would go insane and cause a bloodbath that would seal her own fate? She was innocent once. A human being with family like anybody would have. The true horror here is how a hag comes to be.”
“We should wipe them out. All of them. Until they are but a children’s story or a legend.” She added, “we are all innocent at some point in our lives. But we must take responsibility for our fate. The hag could have fought against her nature when she turned. She didn’t. I have some sympathy as I would for anyone, but if a Brentine child-warrior tried to kill me, regardless I would defend myself. We had the same thing happen in the ogre fight. Was it simply defending its home? Probably. But if it is us versus them. I choose us. The same goes for the hag. You did the right thing extinguishing it.”
Emmeline shrugged. “They are all dead now. But it’s very interesting, isn’t it? I feel the same way about goblins. I wouldn’t care to show a single one of them mercy. Because they hurt people that I care about, that my Baron cares about.
“I didn’t much like that we had to kill an ogre child, but to me it was the same thing. How could we let something like that go? It didn’t even matter if the ogre child was innocent because even if we pretend that this is the best of all worlds and that ogre could be really a force for good one day — that ogre child would be doomed to a horrible life of ostracism and probably starvation because who would ever help it? There was literally no way for it to turn out to be anything other than like its parents.
“It’s harder for me, though, when it’s a human being. Mind you, I will always defend myself. But… well let me share something with you.
“We were out east, at Storuvan when the Malith refugees arrived this winter. They couldn’t get across the river to escape the orc horde at their heels. The city didn’t trust that the refugees wouldn’t turn on them and destroy them once inside the gates. It all rapidly went to hell when sorcerers began a full scale assault of the city.
“But I couldn’t bear it, you know? Sorcery can be wielded by truly evil people. I know that first hand. But there were a lot of innocent people there, too, being guided down a very dangerous, very slipper path to horror and pain and death. Everybody just wanted to live and they’d do whatever it took to ensure that. In the end I stepped in and brokered peace between them so everyone would have a chance to stand together against the oncoming orcs. Whether they did or not, I don’t know. But people had a chance, you know? A second chance.
“Yet… where do we draw the line? As we join our Barons in the fight for Adera against more refugees, at what point to we decide there have been too many wrongs committed and there is no way back? When do we decide they all must die? When does mercy end? I really struggle with this.”
Aeron replied, “You are young. When you are a little older like myself you may see things differently – or you may keep your ideals. I do not know. I would hope you do, the world needs idealists to keep us realists in check.” She drank some wine and then said, “Now to your point on second chances, I never knew my father and he abandoned my mother to scandal. If not for the kindness of others and a chance to prove myself I’d just be a serving wench or worse. Now I am in line to become the Baron’s herald with a lieutenancy to boot thanks to the last mission, to which you both I offer thanks. All of that due to second chances. But had I failed, I wouldn’t expect another chance right away. To your question, ‘where does mercy end’, my answer is simple. Mercy is earned. You get it once if you repent of your deeds and are honorable enough to be believed. Betray that and mercy is extinguished whether it be an individual, a tribe, or even a race of beings. That’s hard, but life is hard.”
“You know what? I think you are absolutely right,” Emmeline said. “One chance is all most of us ever get. A second chance is a gift too precious to be thrown away. It’s mercy. But if that mercy is shoved aside by someone who can’t see it for what it is, only a fool would continue to give more chances.”
“I agree. A fool or a saint. I’d like to think we are neither but I do call you both into question for working with that madwoman Typhon. She is dangerous.” Aeryn said with dead seriousness. Renée sat silent, sipping at her juice and water waiting for Emmeline’s response.
“She is very dangerous,” Emmeline agreed with a nod. “She can be managed when angry — barely. But she is also very brave and an accepted Justice of the Aarithine temple. She is a weapon, like a sword with two edges. There is no malice there, but she will cut the hand that holds her if we are not very careful. Still, the things we face in this world are deadly dangerous and we must use our most effective weapon if we are to survive.”
Em did worry for a moment. If her Baron knew that Typhon was a berserk, would she be allowed to travel with Typhon anymore? Best keep that particular detail to herself, should it come up in his company.
“I’ve heard of her valor. But to attack an ally in some kind of blood fury is dishonorable. I cannot abide by it and I will not volunteer to fight by her side nor recommend anyone to do so. Justicar or no.” she replied.
Renée said, “well it is not really her that is at fault. It is complicated. She means well and is a solid ally and I’ve learned a lot from her so far. I hope to learn more in the future.”
Emmeline agreed. “I don’t blame you, Aeron. What she did to you was unacceptable and you deserve an apology from her. I wish she’d given one. I’ll talk to her about it when I see her next because… sooner or later I think we’ll be coming through here again. Well, not just Primel. I mean back to the villages near the old forest where we found those hags. You see, there is something else about that night hag being so young that’s very important to consider.
“Hags are made. Someone came along and made Carlotta what she was. That means the creature that did it is still out there somewhere,” Emmeline said ominously. “And I think Typhon’s sense of justice will send us back to hunt that one down one day.”
“I wish you luck there. No doubt the creature is quite powerful. There has long be a rumored darkness in the depths of the Cloakwood. Some adventurers have gone looking. Few have returned. For instance, the haughty Sir Harcourt Mercuré disappeared with his crew in the area you were in late last year.” she replied.
“I’m not surprised,” Emmeline said. “And I don’t intend to be back until we are much stronger. Those three hags nearly did us in. They took Typhon Ne down immediately and then it was all hide and seek with fireballs and kill-o-zap spells. We were lucky they didn’t manage to turn us all into bunny rabbits and have us for stew. Well, my friends for stew and me for much worse things.”
“I think they would have such a mind toward all your friends. Except perhaps your wizard.” she replied.
“Well… yuck. That’s about all I have to say about hags,” Emmeline said. They’d been talking a while so she bought a round of ales — or more juice for Renee if she preferred. Once delivered, she took a drink and said, “I know I could wait until I get home to find this out, but I’m more than a little anxious about it. Have you heard when the barons will need to have their troops called up and sent off?”
She nodded, “Just this morning we received word that a company of the Thalassan Legion landed in Breven. They will be dispersing and lending their aid with the training of the volunteers and the leveed men. It takes perhaps three months to train a unit I am told, less if there is an emergency but they are less effective. So I don’t see any unit leaving until August. The bulk of the Legion is already in or on its way to Adera.”
Emmeline counted it out. “So not for four or five months yet. That’s quite a lot of time, really,” she mused.
Aeron leaned in and then said, “there is rumor that a new ruler has arisen from the civil war in Maelith. I don’t know much more, but what that person does or does not do here in the next month or so will weigh heavily on how fast the troops will be trained and shipped. This is only a rumor and its source is sketchy at best, but it sounds genuine.”
Emmeline was interested. “So… the refugees could go home?”
She shrugged, “or it could be a lot worse. Maelith is rich country. Rich in silver especially I’m told, but it has never been united. United it could begin directly threatening its neighbors.”
“That… Is grim,” Emmeline concluded.
Aeryn replied, “Don’t despair. The League is strong. The Periphery once let such a threat divide us long ago. We won’t make that mistake again. If anything we will be more prepared.”
“I really hope so, and that the cost to us all isn’t too high,” Emmeline said.
“I’ll drink to that,” she said, offering her cup.
Emmeline smiled and raised her glass as well.