Disclaimer: The world of the Forgotten Realms is not owned by me.
NSFW Warning: Some violence and cursing.
Night had fully engulfed the land when the Percin caravan hauled itself into the small roadside dell Rendrick had ear-marked for their first night’s camp. The ranger, Keira, and Tiberius led the way into the sheltered space, guarded on all sides by high outcroppings of stone and roofed by the canopies of great oaks that had taken root there. All three were exhausted, their fronts covered in mud, evidence of their recent labors of dislodging the latest wagon wheel.
Despite her obvious fatigue, Keira set about barking orders to her guardsmen, as well as the caravaneers, to set the wagons in a semi-circle, for sentries to be posted on the surrounding outcroppings, and for a large fire to be kindled at the camp’s center.
“A large fire is unwise,” Trotter warned her between her shouted orders.
Her response was merely a deathly glare before she returned to her barking.
With a shake of his head, Trotter led South-Eye over to where a couple of mercenaries were erecting a makeshift corral for the night. Tiberius followed him, leading his own mount.
“If you have perceived of no threat in the surrounding countryside, what worry have you for a fire?” The cleric questioned him as they tied their horses among the others.
“Just because danger is not immediately evident does not mean one should lower their guard,” Trotter replied, drawing his bow from its place on his saddle.
“You mean to go out there,” Tiberius surmised, watching as the ranger also shouldered his quiver.
“I shall accompany you.”
“Nay, stay here and keep an eye on the wizard.”
They both looked back to regard Edwin approaching Keira
“Very well,” the cleric consented. Gripping the handle of his mace, he made for the mercenary captain as well.
Trotter watched him go but his gaze was drawn away to behold Percin’s daughter descending from her father’s wagon. Katarina he had learned her name to be earlier that day whilst he rode with the caravan. She possessed a lively spirit, her eyes darting ever this way and that about the surrounding countryside and the constant delays due to stuck wagon wheels seemed to bother her not at all. This contrast to her father, who sputtered and complained at every delay, only served to endear her more to the ranger.
Setting his jaw, Trotter turned from the camp. Leaving his spear with South-Eye, he leapt to the roots before him. Scaling them nimbly, he soon found himself at the dell’s lip and, hauling himself over the crest, bounded away into the rainy night.
* * * *
The night post at the main gate of Baldur’s Gate had been slow and dreary as of late, but for the two guardsmen standing their posts just within the portcullis, at least it was dry.
They stood across from one another, each leaning against their respective sides of the arch. One was a half-elven woman with short, spikey, black hair and the other was an older human man with a shaved head and a scar pitting his left cheek. Both looked up at the sounds of an approaching horseman.
The half-elf moved first to the grate of the portcullis and peered forth, squinting into the blackness for any sign of the rider. In short order, a brown horse appeared within the nova of torchlight, its gait slow and weary, its mouth frothed from hard riding. On its back sat hunched a figure in a dark, road-worn cloak, their head bowed and cowl obscuring their features.
“Oi!” The half-elf called out to the rider. “You approach the city of Baldur’s Gate, what business have you in the city at so late an hour?”
Her words seemed to jerk the rider to wakefulness and they sat up straighter in the saddle. With movements slowed by fatigue, they lifted a hand and gradually lowered their hood to reveal what could only be described as the face of a corpse. Their skin was sallow and stretched over the bones of their skull. Their eyes were as two shiny black beetles set deep in their head, the flesh around which was darkened from lack of sleep. The top of their head was covered in a sort of peach fuzz, though several bald patches could be seen accompanied by angry welts. They were a man, of that the guardsmen were sure, and one who had seen far too much suffering.
The rider continued forward, approaching the portcullis, and the half-elf recoiled despite herself, casting a sign to ward off evil as she did. Her male counterpart stepped forward in her stead, saying, “Sir, who are you? What business have you here?”
The rider stopped just shy of that which barred his passage, a wheezing, humorless chuckle his only immediate reply.
“Unless you state your name and business we cannot allow you entry,” the guardsman growled, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. “Identify yourself!”
“Summon your commander,” the rider rasped. “He will vouch for me.”
“I do not take orders from random vagabonds,” the guardsman replied irritably. “You speak with me or we drive you from here at the end of our blades!”
With these words, both guards drew their weapons.
With a haggard sigh, the rider dismounted, stumbling somewhat as he hit the ground. Standing straight, he allowed his cloak to part to reveal worn traveling clothes as well as a belt with a ruby-encrusted buckle and the hilt of a finely crafted longsword, the pommel of which also bore a similarly large red stone.
“I do not bandy words with oafs,” he said. “Drive me off if you might.”
The human guardsman snarled and barked loud enough to be heard within the gatehouse, “raise the portcullis!”
“We shouldn’t do this Kullik,” the half-elf hissed but the human paid her no mind, squaring himself as the portcullis began its grating ascent.
The haggard man set his feet apart and rolled his neck, audible pops sounding as he did. As soon as the rising grate gave him leave to do so the guardsman, Kullik, charged, his blade sweeping in a high arch towards the vagabond’s throat. At the last instant, and with uncanny agility, the man stepped back, deftly avoiding the blow. Leaving his blade in its scabbard, he instead stomped upon the guardsman’s sword, tearing it from his grasp, leaving it in a puddle between them. Immediately he stepped back, offering no further assault upon his assailant, instead, reassuming his relaxed stance.
Kullik stepped back as well, his features still angry but his body language spoke of a new wariness for his foe.
“You just gonna stand there, Seara?” He growled over his shoulder.
“We should await backup,” the half-elf cautioned, nevertheless stepping forth to her counterpart’s side.
“He’s a vagabond!” Kullik insisted. “Just gotta lucky hit, move around his side we’ll get him gone!”
The wanderer said nothing and so Seara, still wary, began to move to his right.
“Not that way,” the vagabond rasped.
Seara stopped dead and looked at him quizzically.
“If you step between me and my horse he will take offense, I assure you,” the man enunciated shortly followed by Kullik’s cry of: “now!”
The guardsman charged, barreling towards his foe like a bull. Once again the rider stood relaxed until the last moment. Just as Kullik was about to tackle him, the man sidestepped him, batting his outstretched arm aside with an elegant sweep of his forearm, striding calmly forward as the guardsman scrambled to catch himself.
With a yell, Seara leapt forward, her blade slashing in. In a blur the rider drew his own sword and deflected her blow, spinning as he did to deliver a vicious elbow to her temple.
“Enough!” The command was barked by Captain Emilia who came now striding from within the city, a dozen more guardsmen at her back. None had drawn swords but all seemed ready, and all too willing to, if given the command by their captain.
The captain’s retinue paused just within where the portcullis would close should she command it. Her eyes scanned the scene for but a moment before resting solely on the vagabond.
“By what right do you assault guardsmen of the city?” She asked, her tone severe.
“I assaulted none who did not first assault me,” the man explained calmly. “I requested only to speak with Commander Adrian Durham.”
“I am Captain Emilia Jannath,” she replied curtly. “Whatever words you would trade with the commander you can trade with me.’
The man looked meaningfully at her defeated guardsmen and the captain’s eyes narrowed..
“If you think that you can so easily beat a retinue of Baldur’s Gate’s finest we can cross blades, wanderer,” she said, making a curt gesture in the air. In response, the twelve men and women behind her drew their blades as one and took up a defensive stance.
The wanderer eyed them for but a moment before sheathing his blade fluidly and saying, “very well, captain. My name is Jherek and I would once more respectfully request to speak with your commander.”
Emilia’s eyes widened briefly at his words but she regained her composure quickly. Turning smartly to her retinue she said, “you three, take this man to the northern tower. You, summon Commander Durham. The rest of you, secure the gate and bring these two to the infirmary. I will be along shortly to debrief them.”
As one the retinue sheathed their blades and fell about obeying her orders. The wanderer allowed himself to be led away, his gaze locking with the captain’s briefly as he passed her, before entering the city.
* * * *
Rendrick sat, his back to the encampment, wrapped in his cloak, beneath an overhang of stone, his gaze upon the dark, rainswept countryside before him. His mind drifted as he sat, detached from his senses which remained sharp. It had been some time since he had been this far up the Coastway. There were reasons for it. Chief among them being his distaste for the Dukes and their ever-expanding reach. Also, there was the fact that the river that bisected the road north of Beregost, the river the caravan had crossed earlier that day, marked the southern reaches of the territory claimed by a lycanthrope now reserved for legend upon the Sword Coast. A being of eldritch age and immense power that most believed rooted in myth. A being Rendrick knew to live on. A creature who had killed his mentor.
Sitting now as he was now, alone with but the rain as company, the ranger could feel the reverberations of the creature’s roar as it came upon them as if materialized from the mist. He could hear his mentor, Eldarion’s cries for Rendrick to flee whilst he faced the beast down. A massive bear was it and Rendrick had stood his ground against his mentor’s command, not wishing to leave him to what could only be certain death.
Just as, in his mind’s eye, the beast’s paw came flying at his face, a soft crunch near at hand tore him from his reverie. Immediately rising to a crouch, the ranger listened. Among the pelting drops of rain upon the earth, a soft scraping could be discerned. Laying an arrow across his bow, he crept slowly forth, keeping low so as to not strike too large a silhouette should a flash of lightning seek to highlight his movements.
Where he had chosen to set his vigil was upon a small outcropping of stone, and the scraping sounds seemed to be coming from near its base, as though someone sought to climb its face but were having some difficulty with it. Moving softly, he found a place where the stone jutted forth and crouched, awaiting his would-be assailant’s arrival.
In short order, whoever it was found their footing and began their ascent. Rendrick held his position until he heard them pass just behind his hiding place then, with sure footing, crept round the jutting of stone so as to come up behind them. They were alone, of that he was certain, and somewhat small in stature. Perhaps one of the merchants lost their way trying to find a place to piss, he mused, but nevertheless drew back his bowstring and spoke in a commanding tone.
The figure froze at his words but did as they were bid, a sudden flash of lightning revealing the youthful visage of Katarina, her heavy blue, woolen cloak wrapped tightly about her slight frame to ward off the cold and wet of the night. Her black hair was plastered to her scalp and shoulders and, above her slightly upturned nose, her brown eyes were wide as they stared down the length of the arrow he had pointed directly between them.
Immediately upon recognizing her, Trotter lowered his bow, just as they were once more plunged into near darkness. For a moment neither spoke, then Rendrick asked, “what are you doing out here so far from camp?”
“I was looking for a place to relieve myself and got lost trying to find my way back.”
Her response was immediate, as was the ranger’s retort.
“No you weren’t,” he said, harsher than he intended.
“I am sorry,” she sputtered. “I was only…I didn’t mean..I..”
“It’s all right,” he bade her soothingly. “You do not need to fear me, girl. I am the least concerning thing you could have come across out here.
“I am not a girl,” she replied disarmingly. “You are called Trotter are you not?”
“Everyone has such interesting names out here and yet they seem perfect for their environment. So rugged and wild, and yet possessing a certain softness, like a snarling dog that lets you rub its tummy if you get its guard down.”
A dreamer, Rendrick mused, smiling softly to himself. His smile, however, quickly turned into a frown as he knew how quickly that was wont to change should she stay on the Sword Coast.
“Let’s get you back,” he murmured, stepping aside to allow her to lead the way back to camp.
She nodded and began to walk past him. Before she had fully, however, she paused and, looking up into his face, barely visible in the night, said, “ thank you, Trotter.”
Rendrick watched as she began to carefully descend the hillside and, with one last scan of the surround, followed closely on her heels.
* * * *
The clatter of horse hooves echoed across the courtyard just within Baldur’s Gate’s main entrance, heralding the approach of Commander Adrian Durham astride a massive black warhorse. Upon reaching the gate, the commander dismounted fluidly and strode towards the doorway of the northern tower where Captain Emilia awaited him.
“Has he said anything?” He asked, joined her beneath the small overhang before the tower door.
The captain shook her head, seeming distracted by other thoughts, before pulling the door’s latch and pushing it inward, admitting her commander to the wide circular room at the tower’s base that served as a small armory for the tower. Seated at the room’s center at a small table with a single candle, surrounded by racks of spears and crates of arrows, his back to the door, was Jherek, his figure hunched.
Giving his captain a questioning glance but receiving naught but a shrug, Adrian entered, Emilia closing the door behind him.
Walking with measured steps as one would towards a wounded beast, the commander approached the Harper Master. Jherek made no move at his advance and, as he circled the table, Adrian saw that his gaze was disfocused, staring sightlessly into the flickering flame of the candle before him.
“Jherek,” Adrian spoke softly, seating himself across from the Harper.
Slowly, the man raised his gaze to meet that of the guardsman. “Ah, Commander Durham, good of you to meet with me,” he spoke tiredly.
“It has been some years, Jherek,” Adrian murmured. “We thought you dead.”
“A belief beneficial in some ways,” the Harper replied distractedly, lifting a hand to toy with the strands of smoke drifting from the tip of the candle flame. As Adrian watched he pressed his flesh closer to the flame, the pain he no doubt felt from its proximity bringing a renewed light to his sunken eyes. Blinking, he gazed at the commander anew.
“I come with ill tidings, Adrian,” he said gravely. “I left those years ago on the trail of Kharne, on it I remain. He is here, within the city, once more at the behest of the Zhentarim.”
“All reports are that Kharne died, Jherek,” Adrian insisted. “Slain by the very same adventurers who killed Xantham.”
“Funny though, that no body was ever recovered,” Jherek retorted. “In any case, I have not traveled through what horrors I have faced to debate with you, Commander. Kharne is here. For what purpose I have not yet discovered but discover it I will. I need to know that I will have the city’s guardforce at my back should I need them.”
“Should you discover a credible threat to the city, Jherek, we will be at your disposal, but I remind you we operate at the behest of the Dukes, not the Harpers.”
“Duke, I hear only Eltan remains in the city.”
“That will not be forever.”
Jherek smirked. “Your loyalty to your lord is commendable, Commander, but your responsibility is to the people of Baldur’s Gate first and foremost, not Entar.”
“Do not lecture me on responsibilities to a city you abandoned in the name of an obsession, Jherek,” Adrian spoke, his tone heavy with warning.
The two glowered at one another briefly across the table before Jherek stood in a fluid motion.
“I must meet with what remains of my operatives,” he said tersely.
“Jherek, halt!” The commander barked as the Harper turned to leave. Jherek paused, half turning to regard the guard commander.
“You assaulted two of my men gaining entry to the city, there must be recompense.”
“Your men are fools, Commander, grown soft from inactivity. Do you mean to arrest me?”
The Commander said no more and the Harper Master took that as an answer in itself. Turning on his heel, he departed, calling over his shoulder as he did, “see to it my horse is stabled at the Elfsong, Commander.”
* * * *
As he approached the camp’s perimeter with Katarina, Rendrick hailed the guards standing watch. They allowed them through without argument, though the ranger was aware of their distrustful looks causing him to wonder if he would have been given passage had he not had the young woman in tow. It also made him wonder how she had bypassed them to begin with. Either they were exceedingly inattentive, or else she had some skill in moving unseen.
As they approached the camp’s center, Rendrick noting that Keira had forgone the giant central fire in favor of numerous smaller ones, they were hailed by the mercenary captain herself, rising from one of the fires near the camp’s southern edge where she had been seated alongside Tiberius.
“Have you decided there is no danger then, Ranger?” She chided, approaching them. Her eyes narrowed somewhat, however, when she caught sight of Katarina at his side.
“What is the meaning of this?” She demanded, setting her hands on her hips, her gaze disapproving.
“She got lost whilst searching for a place to relieve herself. I found her and brought her back,” Rendrick replied casually, cutting off Katarina who had opened her mouth to reply.
Keira continued her disapproving glare but seemed to accept the ranger’s answer.
“Very well,” she said. “Head on back to your father’s wagon, little one. Ranger, join us by the fire.”
“I am not a ‘little one’,” Katarina replied with strained patience. “And I too would like to join your fire, Captain. Father is asleep and will not notice my absence and I would like to hear your worldly banter.”
Seemingly both shocked and amused by the young woman’s words, Keira looked to Rendrick, who shrugged and made his way towards her fire. Behind him, he heard Keira’s reluctant agreement to Katarina’s joining them, followed shortly by their pursuing footsteps.
Seating himself beside the cleric, Rendrick gratefully accepted his offering of food, consisting of small portions of both dried fruit and hardtack, before leaning in and asking, “where is the wizard?” Tiberius motioned towards Percin’s wagon with a half-eaten biscuit. Casting his gaze in the encouraged direction, Rendrick indeed saw that Edwin was seated near the wagon’s rear end as if on guard.
Glancing up as Katarina passed him so that she could sit on the further side of Tiberius, Rendrick was forced to wonder anew how she had managed to bypass not only the encircling guards but also the watchful wizard. He decided that it was something that he would question her on later before digging into his meager supper.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Ranger,” Keira spoke after a brief pause, filled only by the sounds of each of them gnawing on their respective dinners. “Who is this High Druid Blacktree you spoke of back at the Burning Wizard?”
“As I said there, he is the High Druid of Cloakwood,” Trotter replied.
“Yes I recall,” she said dryly. “But I also recall that Cloakwood has no High Druid as it is an exceedingly wild and unruly forest, home to all manner of sinister creatures and cabals.”
As she said this, Rendrick noticed Katarina’s eyes widen and eagerly look to him for his response.
“It is indeed still so,” he replied, seemingly more interested in his meal than the conversation. “At least the southern reaches. The High Druid Blacktree took up residence there some time back and has since cleared many of the fell creatures who called the wood home from their burrows and groves. The forest is, however, not his sole concern, and he has made himself available for aid to us rangers on more than one occasion.”
“Is that not odd for a druid?” Tiberius asked. “From what I have heard of them, druids tend to keep to themselves and their groves, rising only when a threat is posed to their domains.”
“Such is how it is for most circles,” Trotter nodded. “Such as with Allurust, the High Druid of the Wood of Sharp Teeth. At first, I thought Criven to be of the Emerald Enclave as they have a habit of injecting themselves into the lives of those who choose a wall to protect them over a canopy of leaves.”
“What changed your mind?” The cleric pressed.
Rendrick paused for a time. He knew that these folk would not understand, that if he spoke the truth they would hold it against the High Druid. They who did not understand the laws of nature. Did not reap its wrath on a daily basis.
With a small sigh, he opened his mouth to reply when he perceived a small hiss, no more than a whisper on the breeze, but he heard it land and so jerked about to locate its source.
Upon the lip of the dell just above where they sat, he saw that a guardsman had stiffened, a hand rising to probe a projectile that had just buried itself in his throat.
“What ails you ran-…” Keira began to ask but he cut her off with a cry of, “To arms!” Whilst jumping to his feet.
All the camp burst into movement, the mercenaries instinctively grabbing for weapons and shields as the merchants either looked about wildly or peered forth groggily from their tents or wagons.
All seemed momentarily confused by the sudden call to arms and glanced about warily, or else glared towards the ranger in question. A split second later, however, their questions were answered when the air was filled with the whistling flight of assaulting missiles and the camp sprang into reactive response, the mercenaries lifting shields, the merchants diving for cover.
Rendrick glanced back momentarily to ensure Katarina was safe and saw that Tiberius had conjured a shield of golden light and was covering her retreat back towards her father’s wagon under Keira’s direction. Assuring himself that they would keep her safe, the ranger jumped to the nearby rockface and scaled in with simian ease, hauling himself up beside the fallen guardsmen.
Behind him, cries arose as more were hit by their unseen assailants but he paid them no mind. Hunkering down near the base of a massive oak, he peered forth but found the darkness unyielding. Twisting ‘round he spotted the nearest guardsman stationed upon the dell’s lip and made for him, careful to keep low among the ferns that grew between the oaks. Coming up beside the guardsman, a large man holding aloft a shield that was far too small to protect him from a foe able to hit a man in his throat in almost total darkness, Trotter pressed himself against the trunk of the nearest oak, nocked an arrow, and slowly twisted himself about the massive tree’s base until he was aiming forth into the black. He could hear the continued whistle and thud of projectiles landing near at hand, as well as the further cries from those within the encampment, but paid either no mind. Despite the chaos about him, the ranger remained calm and awaited his shot.
It came soon enough, he spied the missile zip in from the darkness towards the guardsman beside him, adjusted his aim, and loosed his arrow into the impenetrable night.
In quick succession, he nocked and loosed three more arrows in a spacing he believed the assailants to be, before reaching over and grasping the neckline of the now fallen guardsman beside and hauling the wounded man into cover behind the tree.
Silence rained in the encampment. No more missiles came forth from the darkness and Trotter went about attempting to aid the guardsman. A quick glance, however, told him that his efforts were fruitless. The man was dead, pierced through the eye by a long thin dart. Laying the guardsman’s body down gently, the ranger wrenched the projectile from his socket.
“Stay down! Keep even spacing!” Keira was calling below him in the dell, moving among her mercenaries. Trotter also saw Mellick moving at a low crouch, a massive battle-axe gripped in his hands, heading for the dell’s entrance with a small cohort of guardsmen, their shields raised.
Turning his attention to the dart he’d pulled from the fallen mercenaries’ eye, Rendrick saw that it was simply, but well, crafted. Lifting it to his nose, he sniffed gingerly. Along with the strong smell of blood, he detected upon it light earthen notes. Poison.
With a soft curse, the ranger dropped with lupine grace into the dell below and jogged at a low crouch to Keira’s side.
“We have a problem,” he told her in a low, harsh whisper.
“No shit,” she shot back hotly.
“A problem beyond our unseen foe,” he continued, showing her the dart he’d pulled from her guardsman’s eye. “It’s poisoned.”
“Assuming it is what I think it is, not very, though without the antidote those affected will succumb in time if they have other ailments. If not, they will still suffer from severe muscle pain.”
“I assume that you can craft such an antidote.”
“I can, but not with what we have on hand. I will need to forage.”
“You aren’t going out there now,” she said incredulously. “We know not the number of our foe or their likelihood of attacking again.”
“These are skirmish tactics, Captain. They mean to harry us all night I would assume. Weaken us with their poisoned darts and deprive us of sleep.”
“Any idea who they might be?”
“What I warned you about,” was his matter-of-fact reply. At her narrowed-eyed glare, however, he relented.
“Given their method of attack and chosen weaponry I’d assume goblins or Kobolds,” he said. “But given their absolute silence on the attack, and apparent cohesion, I am given cause to doubt it. Perhaps they will attack you outright and you’ll get a good look at ‘em but on this I am also doubtful. Stay vigilant and stay low, Captain, you’re in for a long night.”
She grabbed his arm as he made to leave.
“Take someone with you,” she bade him. “I’d rather not lose you now that you are proving useful.
He offered her a wry smile, one she couldn’t help but return.
“Nay, Captain,” he replied, gently removing her hand from his arm. “I move faster alone, and you need everyone you can here. See to stabilizing the wounded, Tiberius can help you in this. Perhaps he knows of some cantrip to stave off the poison’s effects.”
With that he was off, jogging towards the far end of the dell. As he passed by Percin’s wagon he spied the portly merchant cowering behind Tiberius, who still held his golden shield aloft, Katarina at his side watching the ranger closely, Edwin lurking further behind them, also watching Rendrick, his eyes narrowed. Locking eyes with Tiberius, Rendrick offered him a stiff nod, one the cleric returned, his gaze determined. Dripping his own gaze to that of Katarina, the ranger held her’s for the briefest of moments before turning and scaling the dell’s steep side, disappearing moments later once more into the night.