Disclaimer: I do not own the Forgotten Realms.
NSFW Warning: This particular chapter contains graphic descriptions of nudity as well as other suggestive content.
At long last, after over a mile of rugged grasslands traversed at a quick pace, Rendrick and Tiberius made it to the relative safety of the eaves of Cloakwood. Over the course of their escape, Tiberius had regained much of his faculties and now sported a hastily wrapped bandage about his brow to help stem the steady flow of blood that dripped from his head wound.
Despite the High Druid Blacktree’s words of the rain not falling upon his woodland realm proving true, beneath the canopy of the densely grown forest the air proved heavy and moist suggesting an environment more jungle than deciduous forest.
Some ways within the encircling trees, the pair stopped to catch their breath and take stock of their surroundings, Tiberius seating himself on a nearby protruding root whilst Trotter kept a close eye on the surround, wary of any potential pursuers as well as any dangers the forest might hold in store for them.
“How ever will we find our companions in this?” The Cleric asked after a time of heavy breathing and deep gulps from his waterskin.
“I doubt they have penetrated too deeply into the woods,” was the Ranger’s reassuring reply. “And they would have entered somewhere near where we have lest they skirted north along the eaves edge in the hope of avoiding the wood entirely.”
“How likely is that?”
“Not very. I bid Keira ride for where the rain does not fall and, given that she had Katarina with her, I believe she would have heeded my words.”
“So the obstacle now is just to find them,” Tiberius said, peering anxiously about them at the uneven, heavily vegetated terrain. “How safe is this forest?”
“Where we currently are, not very,” Rendrick replied sourly. “The High Druid Blacktree has a fairly secure grip on the forest’s northern reaches but here in the south…” He trailed off as a rustling in the underbrush sent his attention in a separate direction. Once he deduced that the noise was of no immediate threat, he returned his attention to Tiberius.
“We would do well to make our way north as soon and as quickly as we are able,” he said. “Come, let us find our wayward companions.”
The duo set off again, now at a slower pace given their unfamiliar and potentially treacherous surroundings, the Ranger stopping every now and again to check some depression in the loamy soil at their feet or the broken frond of one fern or another to see if these lent any suggestion to the passage of those they sought.
In time, they came to a narrow creek that gurgled among the encompassing undergrowth. It was here that Rendrick found the first clear sign of their query, a definitive bootprint pressed into the mud of the creekside. Eagerly, he motioned Tiberius onward and they forded the shallow waters in pursuit of the tracks.
It wasn’t far from this that Rendrick once more paused, holding up a first at a right angle to signal Tiberius to follow suit. Anxiously, the Cleric peered through the dim light that penetrated the dense canopy, attempting in vain to spot what it was that had caught the Ranger’s attention.
Slowly bringing his sword to bear, Rendrick let out a small trill of a whistle, the response to which was a soft rustling behind a nearby tree as if someone who had been relaxing was suddenly on guard.
“Kearia?” The Ranger hissed.
“Ranger?” Came the immediate reply closely followed by the Mercenary Captain herself stepping into view from behind the tree, her dual shortswords in hand, her posture cautious.
Once they caught sight of one another, all three relaxed and lowered their weapons, Rendrick and Tiberius eagerly approaching the Mercenary, relief clearly written on their faces.
“Thank Tymora you yet live,” Keira smiled wearily at them. “While I am glad to be free of that blasted rain, I find the look of this forest unsettling.”
Trotter nodded to her words, sliding his shortsword, the lone weapon that yet remained to him, back into its sheath at his side.
“You are right to be,” he said gravely. “Though it will hopefully shelter us from our foe, the forest itself holds many perils and we must remain on guard until we reach its northern end. Where is Katarina?”
“She wished to wash herself from this afternoon’s horrors,” Keira replied. “The small creek nearby empties into a pool not far from here.”
“You left her alone!?” Trotter was aghast and promptly rushed off in the direction the Mercenary Captain had indicated.
“Halt! Stop! Trotter!” Keira hissed in his wake before looking to Tiberius, who shrugged helplessly, then charging after the Ranger.
With long strides and a comfort with moving through difficult terrain not possessed by his compatriots, Trotter easily outdistanced them and came to the pool a ways ahead. Bursting through the foliage, he found himself in a small, muddy clearing at the center of which lay a large, murky pool. It was beside this he spied Katarina, stripped of her muddied blue dress to her waist, her bare back facing him. He stopped dead at the sight, transfixed by the shapely curve of her shoulders, the smooth flesh of her back, convexed by the rise of either shoulder blade, and the gradual tapering of her form to her hips where she had bunched what clothing she had freed herself from. Her dark hair hung heavy over one shoulder, pulled before her as she sought to clean it in the pool’s no doubt frigid waters. As her arms worked to clean her locks, he caught sight of the curve of one of her breasts, as well as the suggestion of a dark areola.
All of this he took in in but a moment before he turned away, wrenching his gaze from her beauty just as she began to turn in surprise at his entrance. Lifting a hand in awkward apology at his intrusion, he stepped back into the surrounding foliage just as Keira and Tiberius trotted into view.
“What the fuck, Ranger?” Keira demanded in low tones. “Give the lass some peace for pity’s sake. She just lost her father!”
“I know and I apologize for my haste,” he replied, his tone adamant despite the soft redness that crept into his features. “But the southern reaches of this wood are rife with dangers, dangers I have been called upon to repulse from time to time. Believe me, Captain, an Ettercap cares not what woes have recently befallen you, nor does a Wolfwere or a Troll.”
“If this forest was so dangerous, why did you bid us ride here?” She demanded. “Having traveled the Coastway many times in the past, I could have told you delving into the depths of Cloakwood was a bad idea. I thought when you bid me take Katarina beneath its eaves that things had changed since last I journeyed this way, that perhaps the sinister reputation of this place had been quelled.”
“I bid you ride here because a man I trust told me that this would be a sanctuary for those wishing to escape whatever evil it is that brought this weather down upon us,” Trotter replied. “Also, I had hoped that that sinister reputation you spoke of would keep our foes from pursuing us. Gnolls are a superstitious lot and, as far as I know, have never stepped paw across the borders of this wood. I can get us through this forest, Captain, to the safer areas in its northern reaches, but the road will be dangerous and allowing those we wish to keep safe to wander off on their own will hinder that eventuality greatly.”
Before Keira could reply, the voice of Katarina piped up from behind Trotter.
“I thank you for your concern, Trotter,” she said, and he turned to regard her to find that she had not replaced the upper parts of her garment and now stood before them, bold in her partial nudity, doing nothing to cover her small yet shapely breasts capped with chocolate tips, sweat beading her chest and tight stomach.
“But I would like to be of use in this bid for survival of ours,” she continued. “If one of you might have a spare blade, I feel as though another weapon held in our defense would be preferable to a hapless body ripe for the slaughter by one of these Ettercaps, Wolfweres, or Trolls.”
Neither Keira nor Trotter could take their eyes from the young woman as she spoke, and though they could indeed appreciate the charms that she so freely flaunted, it was the stiffness of her jaw and the evenness of her tone they most admired, even though her eyes were red and puffy from tears shed. Tiberius, for his part, averted his gaze, his cheeks reddened, suggesting heavily to Katarina that he had never seen a naked woman before, or at least not one so unabashed of her nakedness.
The three of them, Katarina, Keira, and Trotter held one another’s gazes for a long moment, a mutual understanding, if not an outright attraction, being shared between them before Keira broke the spell by saying, “come lass, let’s get you some travelling clothes and that weapon before an Ettercap thinks you a pig on a platter.”
As she said this, Trotter came to and averted his gaze, turning to join Tiberius in inspecting the nearby bushes as Katarina pulled her dress about her shoulders, covering her exposed flesh and following Keira back to where she had stashed what supplies she’d salvaged from her horse before sending the creature off, knowing full well the beast would be of no aid to them in the dense wood.
“Can you really get us safely to the north?” Tiberius asked as the women departed.
Turning to follow them, though careful to keep his distance, Trotter gave the Cleric a noncommittal look before trudging off in the Mercenary Captain and Merchant Daughter’s wake.
* * * *
Late in the morning the day following her entrance to the City of Baldur’s Gate found Lystra saddling Shadowflight in the rear courtyard of the Elfsong Tavern, beneath a light misting of rain, whilst Alyth looked on reproachfully from beneath the overhang of the establishment’s rear entrance.
“You know you don’t have to do this,” the Barkeep was saying as she watched the Ranger groggily saddle her horse having had little sleep the night before thanks to Commander Adrian Durham’s company. Not that she was annoyed with him at all for staying with her, or didn’t enjoy the second round of fornication they’d engaged in later in the night, but it hadn’t afforded her much rest.
Offering the other Half-Elf a pained look, the Ranger Apprentice continued her securing of her horse’s panopoly. “You know that isn’t true, Alyth,” was her tired reply.
With a sigh, the Barkeep crossed her arms. “You’re as bad as Ethon,” she said. “You hold yourself to a set of principles you personally don’t abide fully in only out of fear you might disappoint those who have placed themselves in positions of power over you.”
“It’s not a matter of power, it’s about respect,” Lystra replied, hauling herself into the saddle. “I respect Jaryn, Jaryn has asked me to be beholden to Eltan. Jaryn is relying on me to be where he can’t, and no I do not like working for Eltan, or any Duke for that matter, but I trust Jaryn and if he says Eltan is worth obeying…” She sighed deeply. “Obey I shall.”
“Eltan’s vision is not perfect, Lystra,” Alyth shot back. “And nor is Jaryn’s.”
“You’re right,” the Ranger nodded. “But Jaryn has proven himself a reliable teacher, a stalwart friend, and an honorable man. If it is not his word I can follow then who?”
“Your own conscience?” Alyth offered.
In response, Lystra let out a humorless chuckle before smiling down at the Barkeep warmly. “Thank you, Alyth,” she said sincerely. “But if you think my whims are an adequate guiding force then you know me less than I know myself. Jaryn is a compass, he always points north, and he has never once steered me wrong.”
In response, Alyth could do naught but smile sadly, yet warmly, up at her friend; to which Lystra could do naught but dip her head, her own heartfelt smile touching her lips, before urging Shadowflight down the narrow alley at the building’s side and out into the courtyard beyond.
Upon reaching the courtyard, she urged Shadowflight into a light canter up the High Avenue towards High Hall. Between their rompings the night before, Adrian had told her that she was to report to the seat of the Dukes the next morning as soon as she was able to accept the letter of summons from Eltan to Belt. Lystra had only ever been to High Hall once or twice in the past but always hated the ascent to its gatehouse, passing through both the drudgery and the opulence of the city on her way. There was just something about structures set above the world about them that churned her stomach. It was the clearest testament, in her mind, of obvious superiority over gathered masses.
She smiled to herself, remembering what Jaryn had said to her when she voiced her opinion upon their initial climb together, up that long, cobbled road to the Duke’s seat.
“Those who live within city walls need such displays to remind them that they are looked after,” he had said. “And those who sit on such lofty chairs need to remember who it was who put them there. That even though supreme power might be theirs, the true power rests within the hands of the people for, after all, should they become unhappy with a leader’s rein, there is always the threat of them rising up to overthrow their oppressor.”
Such was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, she mused. Where, although new Dukes were elected from among their peers, it was only with the support of the people that they retained their seat. This was not the case throughout the Realms, however, she knew, for there were many places where people toiled under the yoke of an oppressor yet did nothing for they could do nothing, so deprived were they of resources to enact such clandestine reforms.
She knew Jaryn believed this because he needed to. She knew he supported Eltan because of what he saw in him, or rather what they had seen in each other. And she was reassured in her faith in that if Jaryn caught a whiff of tyranny he would no longer aid Eltan in his machinations.
Where did she fit into all of this though? Alyth’s questioning of her actions had made her think, and not for the first time, of whether her obeyance of Jaryn’s commands, or as she would rather view them, requests, were truly in keeping in what it was she wanted the course of her life to amount to. She had fled Shadowdale all those years ago in the hope of distancing herself from a Guild that did nothing but throw away the lives of their members in the name of the greater good. Was being Jaryn’s apprentice really so different? She had to believe it was but, deep down, she had to admit, she often struggled with the comparison.
She was taken from her reverie upon reaching the gates of High Hall where she was stopped by the guardsmen stationed there inquiring none too politely as to her reason for approaching the Duke’s keep.
“I come upon the insistence of Duke Eltan,” she told them. “I am Lystra, Apprentice to Jaryn Moorstrider, and you would do well not to hinder me.”
As they allowed her passage, she couldn’t help but admit that the invocation of her mentor’s name, and the power it commanded, did feel good. Though, she knew, that was only in so how long it was that Jaryn commanded the respect of the Dukes, fickle as they were.
Leaving Shadowflight with a stablehand with the command that her mount was to be kept ready as she didn’t mean to stay long, she entered the keep and was met at its threshold by a steward whose tunic bore the insignia of Eltan’s Flaming Fist.
Allowing herself to be led by the courtier, the Ranger Apprentice soon found herself in the Duke’s audience chamber that now stood brightly lit and inhabited by servants rushing about appearing to be in the midst of preparing the hall for visitors of a higher status than a lowly ranger of the wild.
Following the steward who had admitted her to High Hall, Lystra found herself led to a far corner of the room where two women stood somewhat distantly, one near the doorway to the antechamber where she knew Eltan to hold private audiences, the other some ways detached, leaning against a pillar across from the door, an air of boredom haloing her demeanor.
The woman leaning against the pillar Lystra recognized as Marissa Tame, a tolerable member of the Harpers with whom she had had one adventure, an adventure she would never like to repeat, though the aftermath did beg a sequel. The woman by the door, however, she did not recognize, though, by her garb, she was able to identify her as a member of Adrian’s Guardforce. She was Half-Elven, like Lystra, and seemed to the Ranger as one accepting of their duty and yet resenting their having to execute it.
As the steward left her, assuring her Duke Eltan would see her shortly, Lystra chose to approach the Harper rather than the Soldier, and so sauntered towards the blonde swashbuckler, a mock air of indifference injected into her posture.
Seeing her approach, as she had noted her entrance to the hall, Marissa offered a lascivious smirk as the Ranger neared, her eyes roving the other woman’s body with undisguised interest.
“Lystra Silverdragon,” the Harper crooned. “How long has it been?”
“Two years, almost to the day, by my estimation,” Lystra replied, standing before the other woman, hands on hips, one thrust out in an evocative manner. “How’ve you been, Marissa?”
Surprisingly, the Harper grimaced at the question and nodded to the closed door to Eltan’s audience chamber.
“Damn hard to make sense of,” she said. “Don’t rightly know what to make of recent occurrences.” Her gaze traveled to Lystra and her smirk returned.
“Looks like you might be feelin’ something similar,” she remarked.
“I take it Jherek is in there,” Lystra said sourly, making no attempt to hide her disdain for the man, to which Marissa merely offered a humorless chuckle.
“I know why I hate him,” the Swashbuckler said. “But I never understood your disdain for him.”
“What makes you think it isn’t all Harpers I hate?” The Ranger asked coyly.
“The way your tongue worked my clit for one,” was the other woman’s blunt response. “And that I know you’ve recently traveled with Kivan and Huvertrov and didn’t leave ‘em in a roadside ditch for two.”
“I’ll give you number one,” Lystra was quick to answer, not wanting to yield the upper hand to Marissa’s boldness. “But do you really think I could take both Kivan and Huvertrov.”
In response, the Harper shrugged, eyeing her with open respect.
“I’ve seen you move,” she said. “You could probably take Kivan, though you’d be hard pressed to do so. He’s a better shot with a bow but you with that sword of yours, well, that in and of itself is why I let you be on top.”
“Oh that was the reason?” Lystra countered. “I just thought you needed your rest after all those ghouls.”
“Well that too,” Marissa allowed, her smirk returning anew. “But as to whether or not you could take my compatriots, I think Huvertrov would roast you alive.”
“I am sure you’re right,” the Ranger nodded, sauntering closer and leaning against the pillar just behind the other woman.
“I do still remember how you tasted, and wouldn’t mind another round if you are ever of the mind,” she murmured, running her hand up the back of the Swashbuckler’s thigh out of view of the other woman near the door.
“What? You got another crypt you need clearing out?” Marissa asked over her shoulder.
Lystra chuckled, then, nodding her head at the Half-Elf Guardswoman near the antechamber door asked, “what’s her story?” In low tones.
“Former lover of the esteemed Captain Jannath,” was the Harper woman’s reply, her own hand reaching back so that her fingertips could run along the front of Lystra’s thigh.
“Why do you say former?” The Ranger asked, her own exploratory hand cupping the other woman’s shapely ass, appreciating the curvature of her form.
“Because Jherek kicked the shit out of her and her drunken counterpart upon his entrance to the city,” Marissa said, her fingertips coming to the top of the Half-Elf’s thigh and teasing their way inwards. “Word on the street is she and Emilia had a falling out when she refused to rest her Sergeant’s head on the chopping block.”
“Trust a Harper to know the latest gossip,” Lystra teased, moving forward so that her body could press against the other woman’s back, gasping slightly as Marissa’s fingers teased her through the barrier of her trousers.
“Trust a Ranger to make a girl wet when she can’t do anything about it,” was the Swashbuckler’s retort, just as the door to the antechamber was wrenched open and Jherek strode forth, his gaze distant, his footsteps determined.
Lystra was put off by the sight of him. Though few were her dealings with the Harper Master before now, all of which were brief and distasteful to her recollection, he appeared now but a shadow of his former self. Almost a walking corpse of the commanding man he once was.
For his part, Jherek seemed to notice Marissa, her, or anyone else in the audience hall not at all, but strode onwards as if only what it was that occupied his thoughts commanded his being.
Slapping Lystra’s nether regions playfully, Marissa strode away in her commander’s wake, turning only to blow the Ranger a kiss before making her exit on Jherek’s heels. Lystra watched them go until Nors stuck his head out of the antechamber door and growled, “Duke Eltan will see both of you now,” to her and the Half-Elf Guardswoman, before retreating back into the chamber.
Sparing the Guardswoman nary a glance before making to follow, Lystra cast one last glance after Marissa Tame before she ducked into the room on the other woman’s heels.
Within, Eltan stood at the far end of the table cluttered, as ever, with maps and letters from various contacts. Lytra and the Guardswoman took their places at the table’s opposite end, the Guardswoman snapping to attention, the Ranger adopting a relaxed pose, one wrist draped over Skysinger’s hilt.
Glancing up at them, the Duke smirked at their differences in posture before saying, “at ease, Private Seera, you will need all the stiffness of posture you can muster where you’re going.”
As the Guardswoman relaxed, Eltan nodded to Nors who approached the women bearing two identical wrapped parcels and handed one to each of them.
“These are official summons to court bearing my seal, as well as that of this city,” Eltan explained to them. “Private Seera, you will ride south and give that to Duke Entar at his estate. I trust you know where that is located?”
At her nod, he turned to Lystra.
“And yours, Ranger Apprentice, is to be given to Duke Belt. Where exactly he is I cannot say but it is my belief that he can be found somewhere in, or else nearby, Elturel.”
“Why does she get the easy one?” Lystra asked, slipping as she did the parcel through her belt.
Not bothering to respond to her obviously rhetorical question, the Duke waived them out, returning once more to pouring over the maps before him.
* * * *
Within the warehouse where he had met with Viconia a day earlier, Kharne held court with his two Captains, Dorn and Nook. They stood close together about the table within the clearing amidst the towers of crates, speaking in hushed tones despite the security of their meeting place.
“What else did the erstwhile Sergeant have to say?” Kharne was asking of Nook, his arms crossed as he heard her account of the torture she’d just recently enacted on a poor fool recently stripped of his standing among the cities Guardforce due to drunkenness on duty.
“He confirmed that the architects plans we seek are indeed held within the library at the Temple of Oghma within the city,” Nook hissed, the feminine tenor of her voice revealing her to indeed be a woman, the telltale hiss marking her as a Yaun-ti Pureblood.
“Good,” Kharne nodded. “Those plans need to be in our grasp as soon as possible.”
“I will see to it myself,” she assured him.
Nodding, the Soldier of Fortune turned to Dorn.
“And what of your mission?” He asked of the massive Barbarian. “Were you able to locate the feckless Bard?”
“Aye,” the mountain-of-a-man rumbled. “Eldoth Kron will help us get to the daughter of Enter.”
“For a sizable sack of gold, of course,” Kharne mused. “What was your take on the man?”
“Squirrelly,” was the Barbarian’s reply. “He is not to be trusted.”
“No one is, my friend, but keep a close watch on him nevertheless. I want him to know without any doubt that if he fails to deliver Skye, or else tries to doublecross us in some other fashion, that you will personally remove his ability to ever woo another noblewoman again.”
Dorn nodded, grinning evilly at the prospect.
“What of your agent within High Hall?” Nook asked. “Are you sure she can be trusted? It’s been a long time since you two have worked together.”
“Viconia can be trusted,” Khorne assured her, a hard edge creeping into his voice. “And she is not to be touched or followed. If we give away her position before she is able to complete her task our greatest ace in the hole goes out the window. Eltan must be killed, the rest of this is just fluff.”
“What is our contingency if she fails…or is unable to complete her task?” Nook challenged, not backing down despite the obvious warning in his voice.
“Get me those plans and I will see to it personally that Eltan dies,” he assured her, the intensity of his stare evident despite the concealing nature of his helm.
“And what do we do about the Talosites?” She questioned, pivoting smoothly from the contentious topic of the trustworthiness of her Commander’s lover.
“Nothing,” was Kharne’s easy response. “We have gotten what we needed from the relationship, and so have they. If they manage to successfully enact their ritual, that is merely icing on the cake. Garbrand’s army marches south as we speak, and that, my slippery friend, is a flood no dam but the walls of Baldur’s Gate might now stem. Let’s keep our eye on the prize, get it done, and get paid.”
* * * *
Guiding her mare through the light, midday traffic along the High Avenue, Lystra made her way back towards the city gates, the missive given to her by Eltan now safely stowed in her saddlebags. Though an errand-girl she might be, she was an errand-girl headed for the open road and that, in and of itself, put a smile on her face.
Cantering across the courtyard before the gates, her gaze drifted wistfully to the front door of the Elfsong Tavern. She could imagine Alyth and Gyselle bustling about, serving the early crowd, as well as preparing for the evening rush, Ethon observing from his usual place at the bar, ready to comply with any barked requests for assistance by his love.
Turning her gaze from the closest thing she had to a home these days, the Ranger Apprentice made for the open gate, her eyes straying only momentarily to the gatehouse top in the hopes of spying the Commander at his vigil. It would seem this day that he had been called elsewhere for she saw no sign of him at its zenith.
Passing beneath the gateway, the Half-Elf made her splashing debut upon the open moorlands before the cities’ gates, only to be surprised when a voice she recognized hailed her from the shadow of the northern tower. Turning in the saddle, she beheld Kivan guiding his horse from where he’d no doubt been waiting for her, to trot to her side.
“Spying on me now, Harper?” She asked.
“A little birdie told me you’d be setting out on an errand for Eltan,” the Harper Ranger said. “Figured we were headed in the same direction and thus might as well share the road for as long our paths allow.”
A small smile curving the corners of her lips, the Ranger Apprentice dipped her head in agreement before kicking Shadowflight gently to a slow trot, Kivan falling in beside her as they made their way east, along the Tradeway and away from Baldur’s Gate.