Thorny, thorny grove

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Wyll's Gate

As we walked through the grove, we saw what Wyll’s important work was – he was teaching tiefling children to fight.

“That seems pointless,” Astarion said. “One whack from a goblin, and all of those little morsels are going to end up spitted over a fire.”

“It’s alright, Umi,” Wyll said to a frustrated child, kneeling to get on his level and meet his eyes. “I don’t need you to be me – I just need you to be able to hold someone off long enough to run. That’s all. Besides. Do you think I just picked up a sword and magically knew how to wield it? It took me a lot of sweat – and a lot of bruises – to get any good!”

“Ugh,” Astarion said. “This is nauseating. Can we go find someone interesting?”

“I do like his technique,” Shadowheart said, watching Wyll spar with the youngster. “But he’s far too soft on them. The world outside will destroy them.”

“I don’t know,” Gale said, watching thoughtfully. “They look frail, don’t they? But they escaped Elturel, in the middle of Avernus. I suspect the weaklings have already been weeded from this crop.”

“A fair point,” Shadowheart granted. “Are you feeling any urges to pass on fatherly advice or teachings?”

Gale shuddered. “Talking with children is not my favourite pastime,” he admitted. “There are reasons I fell in love with a goddess. Lack of offspring might just have been one of them.”

“I think you’d make an excellent parent,” Astarion said, a gleam in his eyes. “You could tell them all the stories you’re always trying to bore us with.”

“Ha! And if children could be handled with talking alone, I dare say I should be a master in no time,” Gale said, laughing. “As, you so rightly point out, I’m prone to pointing out the obvious.”

Shadowheart just looked at him.

Now seemed like a good time to press on. We headed down towards the heart of the grove… but my attention was taken by more tiefling children. These ones had a stall. I slowed, and a child spotted a likely mark.

“Mister! Here – try one of my lucky rings,” he said.

I took the ring, dubious, and examined it. Astarion guffawed. 

“Why, you adorable little scamps!” he said. “Go on; what’s the game of chance?”

“I… don’t know what you mean, sir. I’m just trying to sell my special lucky rings. So we have food to last us to Baldur’s Gate,” he said, eyes wide and guileless.

Astarion took the ring from my fingers and grinned at the child. If you didn’t know he was a vampire, he probably looked jovial. With the knowledge… he looked hungry. “Well, show me the rest,” he said.

The child asked him to call a coin toss, and at a side angle, I caught the faint flicker of movement that betrayed a substitution. “You win! See! The ring really is magic!”

“Not bad! A little clumsy, but – you’re young. You’ll learn. Keep practising, and keep your elbows in, so –” he reached behind himself and grabbed a child who’d snuck up while they were talking. “And don’t continue a scam once it’s clear that an adult knows it  – you’ll end up knifed if you try that in the city.”

“Thanks, mister!” the boy said, and they all ran.

“Well!” Gale said. “You think I’d make a good parent? Now I’m picturing you with a horde of scruffy urchins, reading to them in bed at night about how to break into people’s homes.”

“Hmm. Having my own gang of tiny thieves is somewhat appealing.”

We continued down to the heart of the grove, and found a fight trying to happen.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“They have our daughter,” the tiefling woman yelled. “And they won’t tell us what they’re doing to her. I heard someone say she’d be locked up. She’s only 12! She’s a child!”

“Can I come through and help?” I asked the guard. 

She looked me up and down and sneered. “We don’t need more outsiders here – we need fewer. Get gone.”

“Wait,” another said. “Kagha asked to speak with these adventurers.”

The guard woman rolled her eyes. “Fine. Go through. Don’t touch anything.”

We walked through and into a cave to find another loud discussion happening. This time, around a small tiefling child and a large snake.

“Oh. You. Hang on. I just have to deal with this… parasite,” a woman said to us. She had red hair, twisted into a crown on top of her head, and an odd mark on her cheek. A druid thing, I guessed. It seemed a safe bet to assume this was Kagha.

“Parasite?” I asked. “She looks like a child, to me.”

“She eats our food, drinks our water, and steals our idol of the grove,” Kagha spat. “Parasite.”

“Then all children are parasites,” I said, trying to understand what was motivating her rage. “We raise them regardless, knowing they will contribute in time, as they’re able.”

“These children will never contribute! Steal, swindle, thieve, and lie. That’s all they know.”

“And if your wolf bites you when you heal its paw,” I asked, “Do you dismiss it as a savage beast who knows nothing but violence? Or do you think, this wolf is afraid and in pain, and lashed out at me barely knowing I was there, leave alone trying to help?”

Kagha sighed. “Will you take her under your wing, then? I need no distractions. I must close off the grove.”

“And lock the tiefling refugees out, with a goblin horde on the march?”

“Lest it level us too? Yes.”

I held out a hand to the child, and she hesitantly came to me, carefully skirting the snake.

Kagha massaged her forehead. “Get the tieflings out,” she said. “Offer them help. Take them to Baldur’s Gate. With an escort, they’ll be fine. And without them here, we’ll  be fine.”

I sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. Maybe we can find a way to resolve this.”

“The Rite of Thorns will go ahead. And we will close off the grove. Best to be out of here before that happens, adventurer.”

As we walked out of the cave, the child still holding my hand, Wyll came bounding down the stairs. “I just heard,” he said. “Arabella – are you alright!”

“Wyll!” she yelled, and ran to him. He knelt, and she buried her face in his shoulder. “She had a snake and it was going to bite me.”

He hugged her, face gentle. “That sounds scary.”

“I’m fine. Nice man saved me from the snake. I need to report back to Mol.”

She ran off, and he stood, sighing. “Mol and her gang of troublemakers,” he said. “They think they’re immortal. I hope this will convince them otherwise. At least for a few weeks.”

“Weeks they might not have, if Kagha has her way,” I said, grim.

“Hmm. I heard about the Rite of Thorns. I have an idea, though – I’ll meet you at your camp after I talk to Zevlor.”

Later, at camp, Wyll sat by me at the campfire.

“I talked to Zevlor,” he said. “He thinks as I do – that we might be able to settle this amicably if we think… a little different.”

“What do you have in mind?” I asked, curious.

“Goblins are renowned for their lack of discipline,” he said. “They wouldn’t band together and march as they have been unless they were forced into it. Someone is leading them. We caught a goblin alive in that raid – Zevlor’s organising her interrogation as we speak. Hopefully she can tell us who the leaders are. If we can figure that out…”

“… we can sneak in and take out the leaders?” I finished, thoughtful. “It could work. It sounds risky, though. So much could go wrong.”

“So much could go wrong for a group of peaceful refugees out on the roads, too,” Wyll said. “We… well, we have worms in our heads, don’t we? Are our lives really that valuable if we might turn into mindflayers at any point? Shouldn’t we try to do some good while we still can?”

“That sort of logic is hard to argue with,” I said, nodding. “You’re right, I think. It’s worth a try, at least. If we succeed, the tieflings get a clearer run to Baldur’s Gate. If we don’t…”

“They’re unlikely to be worse off,” Wyll said with a shrug.

“You’re very philosophical about dying,” I noted.

“Well. It’s easier to face in talk than in deed, I usually find.”

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