The Mural on the Wall
After inspecting the portal he picked up his bags and walked through.
The interiors of the church sounded busy by church standards. Aiden was quickly greeted by an older priestess of Selune who inquired as to the purpose of his visit and asked to see his permits. He showed her his holy symbol and explained the nature of visit; that he had come home to see family and manage some affairs. The priestess, satisfied with his explanation and demeanor, welcomed him back home and summoned a herald who produced a written charter allowing him to carry arms for a fortnight. As she led him from the inner chambers to the front hall, Aiden deposited a sizable sum into the ornate donation box before thanking her and heading out through the front doors. Once outside he allowed his hair, which had grown long enough cover his eyes, to obscure as much of his face as it could. No one he knew well had recognized him yet and he didn’t want anyone to further delay his trip home to see his family.
He patted himself down and took note of all his features. “Fingers, ears, and all the toes feel like they are there. All in all, a pretty successful first go at portal magic.” The church was near the edges of the city Suzail, which he instantly recognized by its prominent temple of Tymora and the royal palace in the center, so he began heading toward the north road that would lead to his family’s estate. The road itself seemed paused or untouched by time, looking the same as always with impressive volumes of merchants coming and going.
A few hours later the scene had given way to gently rolling hills and manors spaced well apart. He took a smaller road leading to the east and was now on course to the Hillsfall Estate, home of the Valentine house. His father got the place at a great price on account of the poor quality of the soil around, but trade and mercantile shops maintained the Valentine coffers and his father, Marcus, had masterfully gained off the Suzail Writ. As he got closer he could see how the grounds had changed. Grand hedges and formal gardens littered the surroundings of the manor in a more impressive display then he remembered and the road showed signs of recently improved stone work. The only sign of life was a young, plainly dressed boy playfully attacking a tree with a wooden sword. “No doubt a child of one of the servant families… well, not servant…” he muttered to himself. The Valentines had always treated their servants more like distant relatives and Aiden trusted and valued them like true family. The boy, finally taking notice of the approaching cleric, dropped his wooden sword and bolted into the house. Aiden walked over to the sword and picked it up, “You shouldn’t just drop your weapon and run off,” he said aloud to the absent child. Looking up at the large manor he wondered, “What has it been? …Two years I think.” A few moments later the side door opened and the child came out with a large woman in a cooking apron holding a pot of something. Aiden recognized the woman right away as Old Cran, the family’s cook. He started to raise his hand in greeting but Old Cran’s expression grew with a mixture of amazement and shock as she dropped the pot and darted back into the side door with the child in tow. “What the hell?” he thought, “and here I thought all that coin I spent in Scornubel on gifts and a presentable appearance, minus the hair, would have netted me a warmer welcome. I’m not wearing my helmet and I don’t look so different that she wouldn’t recognize me…”
He walked back to the tree and dropped the wooden sword by it and followed the road to the front of the manor. After climbing the first set of stairs to the lower stoop he stopped to compose his hair and to situate his armor and cape. He kneeled down to double check the gifts he had. The items included some exotic spices for Old Cran, “though she might not be getting them now…” A collar for the dog, a book of short stories and fairytales for his stepmother Kathleen, a box set of lavished quills for his sister, two small sliver necklaces with seven hanging stars, one for Summer, “and this damned heavy thing for dad” as he loosened a second shield from his back. He had purchased it in Scornubel beforehand. It was beaten and worn from use, but looked so near to the one he left behind in the caves with the sahuagin that it could have been the same shield. He was sure his father would love every mark and dent on the battle worn shield.
After confirming that the contents of his pack were all accounted for, he continued to tidy his appearance. Looking up from a half crouch meant to fix a boot strap, he briefly saw a very serious face give way to a mixture of red hair and white dress as the woman rushed forward and hugged him. “Ah, so Old Cran did recognize me, and ran off to tell you.” Even without seeing her face, the smell of lavender and soap was familiar and telling. Through the open door he could see the tapestries on the wall, thick carpets on the floors, the heavy furniture and Old Cran pushing the boy off to some forgotten chore. It looked like home. “Hi Alex, I’m back."
Alex continued to hold Aiden as the house came to life. “Two years,” she cried, half sad, half laughing as she drove a small fist into his shoulder. The full extent of his absence impacted in a single rush. “Idiot,” she chided. Clutching as if the reunion would at any moment be interrupted by the coming of dawn and the realization it was only a dream, she buried her face against his coif, unsuccessfully trying to hide the wetness in her eyes.
Cran’s yelling and uncharacteristic bustle piqued Chloe’s sharp ears in the upstairs study. The old one never hurried without due cause. Something was up. Curious, Chloe pulled herself off the fur rug and started down the hall. Her canine mind ran the gauntlet of exciting possibilities. Burning food, a stray raccoon, or robbers to thwart; it deserved investigation. Halfway down the stairs, the smell, almost hidden by the flowery scent of her favorite human and the watering aroma of cooked stew, hit her nose. She recognized it instantly. One of the best smells in the world. Aiden; as welcome as apple pie. Nearly exploding in anticipation, Chloe bounded down the remaining steps in a single stride, rounded the corner leading into the kitchen, and jumped up against the two figures holding each other. Determined to summon the rest of the house, she began to bark without end.
Aiden had felt the pull of death more than once, and each time he had amazingly come back from its clutches, and each time, he felt relief from still being alive. But this was a different kind of relief, not the relief of living, but something worth living for. He hugged her tight and reminded his memory of lavender and soap, her smell, his childhood, and his homecoming. Home now meant that his armor was now a burden and not a necessity. The footfalls of a half dozen light footed children approached. “No”, he thought, it was Chloe, so excited that it seemed like she remembered him.
“You crybaby” he jested at Alexandria, “It seems like the ‘I can do anything you can do’ little sister had grown older and more emotional. You’ll have to forgive me, but there is another lady of the house that seems equally upset with my delayed return.” As Aiden pulled away Chloe took the opportunity to approach demandingly. “She knows not to jump up on people, but it’ll be Alex’s problem later, I’ll spoil her a little." He fell backwards on his ass and beckoned the dog with a low head and menacingly cheerful grin. Chloe took note and a playful battle position. One feint later, Chloe jumped at him and he grabbed her and dragged the dog’s face next to his own, blowing in her ear and rubbing his cheek against the side of her face, just outside of biting or licking range. He had hoped to exhaust the dog’s energy this way, but it seemed Chloe was willing to spend hours refusing this greeting in lieu of a more acceptable dominance over the cleric’s homecoming.
“Alex” as he got up, “I have to go back, there is too much to ignore now. BUT, before you voice one of what I am sure are many well thought-out objections, let me see mother and father and lets have dinner together? It’s been a while since I’ve tasted what Cran can do, and I have some gifts and stories. And what about Summer? I’ll tell you everything again, in detail, but is she here? How is she?”
Alex half-choked trying to hold back a sob. “Crying? Over you? Your armor’s dusty, that’s all. Got in my eyes.” She laughed, smiling both at Aiden and her transparent attempt at deception. “You really should clean it more,” she added, starring at its highly polished sheen as Aiden pulled himself away to attend to Chloe.
The self-apointed defender of Hillsfall attacked, simultaneously eager to show her skills yet holding back against the prone human. She played along, biting and snapping in mock irritation as he grabbed her and began blowing in her ears. It didn’t bother her near as much as she let on; he just seemed so pleased to see her riled up that she couldn’t resist acting the part. Regardless, she’d make him admit defeat first, until he submitted and called a halt the barrage would continue.
Alex laughed again at the canine/priest antics. It was long since she’d seen anyone whole-heartedly take on Chloe. As Aiden stood and announced his imminent departure, Alex opened her mouth in attempted protest but bawked at his interjection. When he mentioned Summer, she responded with a sharp nod before frowning. “She’s here. With mom in the sunroom, I believe, attending plants. But… she still hasn’t said anything.”
While her brief pause seemed to indicate an unspoken concern another noise in the hallway distracted from her unease. Heavy footfalls, the commanding stride of a powerful, old man with boyhood exuberance, echoed off the polished floor. A low baritone hummed a familiar Cormyr marching tune about getting the fire ready for returning soldiers. Father, the lord of the manor, emerged from the hall with characteristic swagger before embracing his son in a bone-rattling hug.
Aiden returned his father’s hug before realizing the situation he was in. “Father! It’s good to see you. You look well. Hopefully you don’t have any big plans tonight for dinner. I was hoping to get everyone to myself without company or guests.” Aiden shot Alexandria a glance that only long-time friends or siblings could interpret as a ‘help-me-out-here’ look. His father loved his family, there was no doubt about that, but the old man was also very shrewd and never missed an opportunity. Aiden needed appropriate intel before carelessly engaging in conversation with his father and he wanted to talk alone with Alex and his stepmother before inadvertently broaching sensitive subjects. The one thing his father wanted more than anything was grandchildren, particularly grandchildren who were also related to royalty. He wanted to be a grandfather and to have a hand in the raising of the next generation of the Valentines. If those grandchildren could give the Valentines royal ties, then the family’s prestige and influence would be solidified for more generations to come. It was the only thing Aiden and his father had fiercely disagreed about and one of the last things they discussed before he left to travel west. Aiden refused to allow Alex to be considered for marriage arrangements to some random royalty. Even if there was someone Alexandria might have liked, he had yet to meet a man he approved of. His father knew all this and used it to his advantage, for if not his stepdaughter, his father would say, “then it must be my own strong, courageous and noble son, right?” The topic was sure to come up at some point again, but not now and hopefully the amazing and deadly stories he had to tell would offset the possibility of the topic arising again anytime soon. At least Aiden knew he wouldn’t wed her in his absence and he couldn’t arrange anything for him because he was gone, so his travels were a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve got lots to tell you…” Aiden said before Alex cut in, “But, you look tired, and you’re still in your dusty armor.” Aiden took advantage of Alex’s interference and went through the motions to excuse himself. He gave his father another quick hug, assured him that they would see each other at dinner in just a couple of hours, and headed through the open door with his bags. He gave old Cran a quick hug and asked if his old room was still open. After she nodded he headed towards the stairs. The house was the same as he remembered but more expensive. Rugs, chairs, and end tables where all in their usually places, but had been substituted with more expensive versions of themselves. Upon reaching his old room, he dismissed the servants and removed his armor. Only a few minutes after he had changed into some nice evening dinner attire, he heard a knock at the door and Alex’s voice. Aiden responded sharply, “Oh come on, you know you don’t have to observe formalities with me, come in come in.” She came in to see Aiden digging in his pack for something, and once it looked like he found what he was looking for, she guessed at what he wanted to do next, “To the sunroom right? I don’t believe mom knows that you’re here. She will be very surprised. Chloe has been forced to go outside before dinner and Dad is off making sure dinner tonight is perfect and nothing interrupts his interrogations of your adventures. What is that?” Aiden removed the velvet wrappings, exposing two thin silver chains each with seven small stars hanging from the chain. “They’re almost indistinguishable from each other, but if you look closely, the middle, fourth star on this one has an eye overlapping the star, and it’s the third star on this one that has an eye. I had them specially made; they’re the only two in the realms. This one is for you.” He handed the one with the different fourth star to Alexandria. “If you keep this with you, I’ll always be able to protect you, so don’t lose it. "It’s pretty right? I hope you like it. This one,” holding the other, “is for Summer. So, let’s head to the sunroom shall we?
Once at the sunroom, Aiden stopped to see in. There was his mother, Kathleen, and Summer. It looked like she was reading to Summer, who was either fast asleep or had closed her eyes to concentrate. Either way she looked more alive like this than the wide-eyed horror ridden expression that was on her face when he first met her. Aiden started to nervously complain to Alex, “I want to give her this because, like the one you’re wearing, I will always be able to find her and she can’t get lost. But… but what if seeing me only reminds her of when we first met and what happened? Ahhh damnit! I wanted to take her into town with me tomorrow. I need to get something made and leave it with you, and while in town, I was going to get her portrait painted and reproduced. I wanted to send it around the sword coast via the churches, you know, to see if she has other family looking for her, but now I don’t know if it’s a good idea. You said she still wasn’t talking right? What if she gets worse from remembering me? What do you think?”