The barmaid brings me my tankard with a smile. The smile broadens when I hand her coins, but it seemed genuine from the first, and I am glad I gave her too much money. She has kind eyes. The smile brightens her face, and for a moment she is beautiful. I smile back, though I know she cannot see it, and nod my head in thanks.
Almost out of instinct, I splash a little bit out into the fire near our table. Over the hissing, I murmur quiet thanks to Olladra for the gift of beer to make us joyful. Leaning back into the shadows then, I cautiously raise my visor and take a sip. It is good. Humans do not brew as well as dwarves do, but they appreciate the finer things in life.
Treestrider leans over to me, lightly touching the raised visor. “Why are you keeping your helmet on at all? Isn’t that uncomfortable?” There is frank curiosity in his voice; I am pleased that I can hear it. Three months ago I would not have been able to. I wonder briefly whether this is because he has become more at ease with me, and therefore more expressive, or whether I have simply learned to listen better. “A few people are staring at you.”
“That may be.” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Do you imagine they would stare less if they could see my face?” I peer at him from beneath my raised helm.
His wooden head tilts slightly to one side, the glowing fire in his eyes flickering briefly. “Are you afraid of them?”
I smile then, unable to help it. “My friend, there is very little that I fear.” With my tankard, I indicate the rest of the room. “But look at these people. They are happy. Enjoying the evening. As am I, despite any discomfort from my helmet.” I take another sip of beer. “If I were to remove my helmet, many of these people would become afraid of me. And I would be unhappy, because I find it unpleasant to be feared. Some of them might even try to hurt me, and I would have to do violence to prevent that – which I do not want.”
He sits back. Like all warforged, he is an enigma – an old soul in a young body. In some ways, Treestrider knows more of life than I do; in others, he is still a child. I do not know how much he truly understands about the differences between the fleshy races, or why a hobgoblin like myself would not get a warm welcome in a human tavern no matter whose symbol he wears around his neck. To illustrate the point, I wave a hand at our newfound companions, at their own table a little ways away. “Do you see how they react to Phut?”
In truth, reaction to him is mixed. For every human who stares suspiciously at him, another laughs despite himself. The feisty woman he’s currently engaging in banter might have something to do with that. They are a mismatched pair, Phut and Tuph – a large barbarian orc and his pint-sized halfling partner, born on opposite sides of the continent but so close they could have been raised together. That novelty alone would be enough to make him a curiosity rather than a threat in some people’s eyes. Mostly, though, I suspect it is simply Phut himself. For all his size and ferocity, for all his lack of social graces and distinctly un-human features, there is something about his guileless grin and booming laugh that makes people like him. It is something I never learned, how to be easy with people and put them at ease in return. Even with that, though, there are still some who are clearly not comfortable with him in their tavern. Their mutters and glares are not subtle. He doesn’t seem to notice – although, to judge from their postures, the remaining members of their quartet do. The elf Meloria appears to be reading a book and ignoring them, but her pose is too casual and her shoulders are stiff; Vel engages them in conversation, but his smile never reaches his eyes.
“They did rescue us from that cavern,” I say quietly, answering a question Treestrider never asked. “It would be gracious of us to assist them in their endeavors for a time.” He grunts. Glancing over, I see he is drawing again, filling his leather-bound book with sketches and blueprints for armor modifications that I know he’ll never make. I continue. “And we will need their help if we ever hope to go back and face that thing in the deeps. It needs to be destroyed. I do not think we can do so on our own.” He grunts again. It might be agreement or disagreement, or it may simply be an acknowledgement that I have spoken.
I sit back as well, enjoying my beer and taking pleasure in the companionable silence. Treestrider is good to travel with. I know he likes the idea of traveling further into the humans’ settled lands as little as I do, but I hope he will decide, like me, to accompany this group. I would be sad to part ways with him.
Long minutes go by in which neither of us speaks. After our long captivity in the caves, I savor the simple joy of sitting in a tavern with a friend, hearing the laughter around us. After a while I finish my beer and lower my visor again; the barmaid graces me with another room-brightening smile as she picks up the empty mug.
As she leaves, Treestrider stirs. Without lifting his head, he says, “If any of the humans here tried to hurt you, they would have to go through me.” His voice is very quiet and very implacable, and despite his muted inflections I can hear the anger under his words. It is a deep anger, an old anger, and I realize anew that the desire to avenge old wrongs is still in him. There is a part of him that would not mind a fight tonight.
Something stirs in my soul in response. The old thing, the red thing, the fire that still burns. In the back of my mind, a sweetly reasonable whisper wonders if he might be right. After all, to harm the innocent is an evil act. If these humans picked a fight with me, knowing nothing of me and when I had done them no harm, wouldn’t it then be my duty to punish their wickedness? As one who has sworn to eradicate evil, would it not be proper to allow these men to expose whatever evil might be in their hearts, so that it does not go unchastised? And behind and beneath these arguments, the voice of the Fury growls. The faded marks on my shoulders tingle, and I feel the old lust for blood and violence rise.
It is a feeling as tiresome as it is familiar. Reaching up, I touch the crude wooden pendant, not much bigger than a coin, that hangs from my neck. As my fingers trace the symbol carved onto it, I silently offer a prayer to the Bright Lady, Dol Arrah, noblest of the Sovereign Host and my personal patron. As if in response, a feeling of peace and joy washes over me, like stepping out of darkness into sunlight, and I push my darker urges aside as I have done so many times.
“Of that, I have no doubt,” I say, after a pause. “But who would be helped by it? To interrupt peace and happiness with anger and violence would ruin these people’s nights as well as my own. They are not my enemy.” Nor yours. I lay a hand on his arm, the smooth wood warm to my touch. “I am grateful for your concern, but it is misplaced. I am happy tonight. Leave it be.” He meets my gaze, and I smile, hoping he can read the sincerity behind it. After a moment, he nods, and his eyes brighten in what I have come to realize is an answering smile of his own. Clapping him on the shoulder, I lean forward and beckon the barmaid to bring another round.
Thank you, my Lady. As the merriment around us continues, I thank Dol Arrah once again for calming my mind and showing me, in a hundred small ways every day, how to walk the path of virtue and honor.
For that is the duty of a paladin.