Chapter Seven: The Noose Tightens

Disclaimer: I own neither The Forgotten Realms nor the cover image.

NSFW Warning: Strong Fantasy Violence

With a forceful jerk, Kivan was wrenched from the dreamlike state of Reverie into which he had lapsed whilst slumped in the saddle of his equally haggard mount. Though Elves retained the majority of their wits whilst in Reverie, the constant action over the last few days had left him drained and less sensitive to potential threats around him. As such, as he awoke, the Ranger whipped his head about, desperately ensuring that there were no Orc raiders lurking near at hand. Discovering that he was indeed alone on the open plains, he returned to his hunched position, exhaustion gnawing upon each of his muscles, as well as upon the corners of his mind.

Just as he was slowly drifting off into semi-consciousness once more, an image suddenly materialized itself in his mind. Unbidden by him it came, the sight of three pyres upon a grassy hillside. The image was cast in hues of black and gray, as if sketched from graphite and ash, the finer details obscured and yet the forefront all too clear. Grief and death radiated from the picture and its sudden appearance in the Ranger’s mind’s eye sat him once more straight in the saddle.

“Huvertrov?” He croaked through a parch-ridden throat.

He recognized the reverberations upon the image’s borders, similar to ripples in a pool disturbed by a wayward stone. They were identical to times past when his Gnomish companion had tried to contact him telepathically. He knew that the Magician had sent the image but any further context was lost on him. That could either mean that Huvertrov was exhausted and, as such, could only summon an image rather than a coherent thought or message, or else that the Gnome was under duress…or both.

Shutting his eyes tight, he tried to gather all that he could from the image. He saw the pyres with flames bursting from them, he saw a shadowy apparition near at hand that, upon further fixation, became more focused as a person of short stature with a braided beard and a wide-brimmed hat, with one of its sides curved upwards and pinned by a long, moisture-drooped feather. 

“Kormak,” he murmured aloud.

Upon the opposite side was a tall figure in a hood-drawn cloak, their features encased in shadow and yet their presence undeniable.

“Moorstrider.”

The Ranger’s eyes popped open and he blinked furiously, trying to clear his vision of the image whilst also attempting to desperately make sense of what he had seen.

Someone had died, he surmised. Well, multiple people by the count of the pyres. Some ill fate had befallen his fellows in Baldur’s Gate. The only emotion he could attach to the image was sadness and pain. He did not know if Huvertrov was under duress, or else merely tired and sad. The fact that both The Moorstrider and Kormak were present gave him some comfort that at least Huvertrov was in no immediate danger.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to focus his thoughts into a response. If the link were still open maybe he could summon a rebuttal before it closed.

Jherek was right,’ he thought, trying hard to keep all other interference from his mind. ‘There is a great host of Orcs and Hobgoblins approaching from the north. Tell the Dukes, tell Jherek, tell Jaryn, people must be warned!’ Along with these words he attempted to summon images of the host he had seen, hoping against hope that they were more than discordant pictures, if they reached Huvertrov at all. 

Once this was done, he opened his tired eyes once more to scan the mist-enshrined countryside around him. Gathering what strength he had left, he urged his reluctant mount into a quicker gait. Hurrying once more southward and ever closer to Baldur’s Gate.

*                             *                                   *                              *

At an hour just before the breaking of the dawn, Keira crept forth from the rim of the well that led to the pocket dimension in which she and Trotter had spent the night. She winced as her boot crunched upon the flooring of the chamber of the Elven ruin and quickly glanced about. Though her vision was greatly limited within the darkness of the chamber, she was reassured that she had awoken neither Tiberius nor Katarina. Treading far more carefully, though in no way silently, she made her way back to where she had originally lain before pursuing the Ranger down the well. Reclining once more against the wall, she feigned sleep, ignorant of the watchful gaze of Katarina upon her.

Sometime later, playing his part exactly as they had rehearsed, Trotter made his much more noisome entrance by tossing up the wrapped canvas of weaponry so that it landed with a loud clatter upon the chamber floor, before heaving himself up and over the rim with a multitude of overly theatrical grunts and curses.

Keira rolled her eyes at his overly dramatic acting, but was satisfied that neither of their companions seemed to take notice, startled as they were from their respective slumbers by the sudden noise.

Almost immediately the chamber was awash in the blinding light emitted from Tiberius’ summoned shield as the Cleric leapt to his feet, his sleep-glazed gaze desperately sweeping the area for any signs of attack.

Playing her own role, Keira likewise jumped up, drawing her blade and managing a prepared stance, though the light did force her to turn her gaze lest she be blinded.

For her part, Katarina rose much more slowly, and with considerably less alarm, raising the Mercenary Captain’s suspicion that perhaps the lass had not been as deeply asleep as she had seemed.

“Steady, Tiberius,” Trotter grunted, shielding his eyes from the sudden, blazing light. 

“Trotter? Thank Lathander it’s only you,” the Cleric said, now fully awake. “Why ever would you wake us in such a manner!?”

“That was not my intention,” the Ranger lied. “The package was merely heavier than I had anticipated. Now dull your shield before we are all of us blinded for good.”

With a sheepish nod, Tiberius willed his shield to a more manageable glow, though he did not banish it fully, allowing all of them to see what it was the Ranger had supposedly struggled to lift.

“Eager as I was to bring up the food and water, I forgot about this last night,” Trotter explained, kneeling to untie the draws of the canvas and flipping it open to reveal the stashed weaponry within. “Though now that you all are awake,” he continued, rising to regard them all. “Let us break our fast and be away. Grab whatever further armaments you require now for we will not be able to take with us this entire satchel. Though I am loathe to leave the safety of these walls, we must yet reach Baldur’s Gate and still have some ways to go.”

Nodding their reluctant agreement, the companions set about collecting their gear and digging into the satchel for some canned good or another with which to gain their sustenance for the road. As they did so, Trotter set out to reconnoiter their surroundings. 

Keira watched him go, attempting to puzzle through the mix of emotions she was experiencing due to the intimacy they had shared the previous night, as well as discern why exactly it was she was enduring them at all as she never had in the past after spending the night with another. All the while combating the urge to glance towards Katarina, for she felt the younger woman’s gaze hot upon her. This in turn summoning an entirely new set of confusing emotions that the seasoned mercenary was ill-equipped to deal with.

Settling for an angry growl, similar to one one might expect a confused grizzly to emit, she dug into the satchel for a can of peaches, heedless of the concerned glance Tiberius cast her way.

*                                      *                                 *                                     *  

Stirred by the distant cawing of ruffled crows, Lystra lifted her chin from where it had rested upon her chest, not out of sleep but rather contemplation, to gaze out of the rocky crevasse within which she and Belt had made their camp late the previous night. Beyond the jagged sides of their hideaway, she saw the cloud-laden sky, highlighted by the blue light of pre-dawn, as well as the equally concerned heads of their horses that they had left above, turned towards the south to discern what it was that had disturbed the birds. 

Unfurling from the crouched position in which she had remained throughout her watch, unable to conjure the desire for slumber upon the making of their camp and thus electing herself to be the soul watchman of their rest, she brought her bow to bear from its place nestled against her breast. Beside her, the wayward Duke continued to snooze comfortably, undisturbed by that which had alerted his traveling companion. 

Careful not to disturb his slumber, which she felt was deceptively heavy, the Ranger rose and padded lightly and effortlessly up the incline of the crevasse to where their horses held their vigil. 

Upon reaching its zenith, she stepped out onto the open grasslands of the lands just west of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, she and Belt having broken its eaves the evening prior, before making their way towards Baldur’s Gate until it had become too dark to travel. Now, perhaps a day’s ride from the city proper, they were only a handful of miles from the Flaming Fist Fort and would probably reach it before noon, should they decide to deviate towards it from their current beeline to the city gates.

Lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the falling rain, she spied the offending birds rising from the hilly plains and flying westward. Casting her gaze to the lands from which the birds had flown, she saw naught amiss at first but, upon closer inspection, noticed subtle shiftings amongst the stalks of grass. 

Something, nay a group of somethings, were moving through the tall grass not a mile south and east of her current position. By the movement of the grass, she discerned that, whoever or whatever, it was was moving at a southerly trajectory directly towards the distant Tradeway.

Glancing back towards the sleeping Duke, she saw that he had not stirred. 

“What do you think?” She asked Shadowflight, stroking the horse’s muzzle, her gaze returning to the moving grass. “Shall we take a closer look?”

The horse nickered in reply and she smiled softly. 

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, gripping the horn of her saddle and pulling herself up. With a light tapping of her heels against its ribs, Shadowflight took off at a swift gallop across the plains, the Ranger guiding her further east than the moving grass, tracing a wide semi-circle around her quarry.

After spending a cramped night in the ravine, the swift ride across the plains was invigorating and she pushed back her hood, allowing her long hair to stream behind her as rain splashed her face, stripping away any remnant of weariness due to lack of sleep.

The blue of the predawn was fading to a more sombre gray when she reined Shadowflight in amongst a jumble of jagged rocks. Slipping agiley from the saddle, she instructed her mount to stay hidden before taking off once more, this time on foot and at a low crouch. The grass was tall here, reaching as high as her shoulder in some places, providing ample cover but also hampering her view of her surroundings. Allowing her inherit directional knowledge, as well as her senses of smell and hearing, to guide her, she approached her target. 

She came upon her quarry not long after, gathered in a small bowl amidst a ring of haphazardly spilt boulders. Having smelled them well in advance, she guessed them to be orcs, and, for the first time since it had begun, she was thankful of the rain as it did well in masking her own scent. Wedging herself between two especially large stones, she peered down into the natural earthen bowl to spy they she hunted.

They were indeed Orcs, she saw, though to what tribe they belonged she was not immediately sure as the only identifying mark any of them wore was the image of a black, jagged fang somewhere upon their hulking frames. Beyond this, they were equipped much as the ones who had ambushed her, Kivan and Huvertrov along the road as they had travelled north from the Friendly Arm Inn, though their number was far greater and among them were scattered a handful of larger creatures in dark armor, who seemed to the Ranger to hold themselves as commanders above their comrades. Ogrillons, she guessed them to be, though she had never seen so many gathered at once, nor so uniformly armed and armored. 

Given the size of the force, and their armaments, as well as the course they had cut across the plains, she guessed their goal was the Tradeway, perhaps to set up another ambush akin to the one Jaryn had stumbled upon at the onset of all the evil that seemed to be now spreading across the breadth of the Storm Coast. 

Gritting her teeth, she withdrew herself from between the rocks and scampered back the way she had come, a plan formulating in her mind.

*                     *                               *                                      *

With an insistent shaking, Huvertrov roused Kormak from where the Dwarf had curled himself within the corner of Lortimer’s home. Blurrily, the Dwarf blinked at the Gnome as the diminutive wizard signed frantically in front of his nose.

“Hold ye finger’s,” he pleaded, pushing himself to a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. Having gotten very little sleep over the past several days, he found his weariness clung to him like a heavy damp.

Once he had adequately cleared his head, he motioned for the Gnome to commence his signing once more, which he did with gusto.

“Why by Clangeddin’s brass balls didn’t ye tell me sooner!” He cried once Huvertrov had finished, leaping to his feet. “Ye sayin’ ye spoke with Kivan an’ he showed ye a what now?”

Huvertrov signed anew, an exasperated look on his face.

“A great host ye say? In ther Fields o’ the Dead? How far out? Ye don’ know? Message garbled? What ye warblin’ abou’?”

Huvertrov flipped him off.

“Alrigh’, alrigh’ don’ get yer knickers in a bunch,” Kormak waived him off, striding to Lortimer’s table to pour himself a hefty glass of the Information Broker’s brandy as well as tear himself a hunk of stale bread from where Lortimer had set it out for them to break their fast before he himself had set out in search of Alora. 

Kormak had thought it best, given that they had lost the majority of their number, to close ranks and take stock of their allies. Unfortunately, beyond Alora and Lortimer, they had precious few.

“Ye stay with Marissa,” he decided, speaking to the Gnome yet nodding to himself. “An’ for Moradin’s sake get some rest. If ye can get ahold o’ Kivan imma need ye ter do so as soon as possible an’ im guessin’ ye won’ be able to lest ye recharge.”

Huvertrov signed to him, his question quizzical and the Dwarf sighed in reply.

“I have ter get ter High Hall,” he replied. “If Entar means ter take me head he can do so after I tell him about the army marchin’ to beat down his gates.”

*                                *                                        *                                             *

“How many of ‘em were there?”

Belt spoke the question whilst securing his sword to his belt, having been recently roused by the Ranger Apprentice with word of the raiding party headed for the Tradeway.

“Near fifty by my estimation as they might have had scouts further abroad,” Lystra replied, collecting her own kit.

The Duke paused, his hip flask half-raised to his lips. 

“Fifty?” He confirmed. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised but I would have assumed even the Flaming Fist wouldn’t have allowed such a large force to slip through their net.”

“It would be my assumption that they came over the Chionthar piecemeal,” she said. “Uniting somewhere within the Wood of Sharp Teeth before launching probing attacks from within Eltan’s net.”

“Giving them a lot of credit aren’t you.”

“The presence of the Ogrillon commanders, not to mention their successes against us thus far, suggests they have further aid,” she reasoned. “In any case it matters not, they are trespassing within our realm and thus must die.”

A smile that ranged somewhere between admiration and hunger spread across Belt’s face.

“Did I just hear you say that you mean to attack fifty Orcs single-handedly?” He asked, a strange sparkle in his eye. 

“Well I meant to do so with your aid but if you’d rather sit it out by all means ride for the city,” she shot back.

Throwing his head back, the Duke laughed aloud, his mirth echoing off the ravine’s walls about them and alarming their mounts above, as well as making Lystra wince.

“I didn’t think you had it in you,” he beamed like a proud mentor. “I take back all I’ve said against you, girl, and, have to admit, you’ve caused quite a stirring in my loins.”

Casting a disdainful look his way, she said, “whatever sword you choose to wield, I’d welcome it at my side…as long as you agree not to turn it on me.”

“So what’s your plan?” He asked, waving her words away like a cloud of annoying gnats. “I do hope it’s better than charge ‘em headlong cause that’ll lose you all the respect you’ve gained from me thus far.”

“And the world would collectively weep,” she said dryly. “Nay, I propose we head them off, get in front of them and lay an ambush of our own, kill as many as we can then run for the Flaming Fist Fort as if all the fires of the Nine Hells are behind us.”

“Well it’s better than charging but not by much,” he said. “Hiding beneath Eltan’s skirts ain’t my idea of victory.”

“Whatever you do under Eltan’s skirts is your business, my Lord. Beyond that, the sight of the Fort will at least dissuade further pursuit, and perhaps encourage the guard to ride forth and we can wipe out the entire force in one go.”

“Gotta learn to crib that tongue of yours, Ranger’s Apprentice,” Belt said, a dangerous note underlying his tone. “But there is wisdom in your words, much as I hate to admit it.”

“In that case, let us be off,” she replied matter-of-factly, ignoring the threat in his voice and striding back up the ravine towards their horses.

*                             *                                    *                                     * 

Striding across the courtyard of High Hall, flanked by Captain Emilia and the banner-bearer, Seara, Commander Adrian Durham glowered about himself at the remnants of battle that dotted his surroundings. The day was nearing noon and this was the first time he had been able to approach the keep, having been preoccupied with restoring order throughout the city since his arrival earlier that morning. 

How did this happen?’ He could only wonder to himself. From what he could gather from his Guardsmen, as well as the apparently current Flaming Fist Commander, Nors, mercenaries under the command of none other than the infamous Kharne had assaulted the keep, poisoned Eltan, leaving him in a comatose state, absconded with Entar’s daughter, Skye, as well as attack various noble and merchant houses throughout the city, succeeding in slaying many of the city’s elite and descending the streets into chaos. All of this, combined with the Harper funeral he had witnessed upon their approach to the city, left Baldur’s Gate in a dangerously vulnerable position. The fact that there was yet a Duke in residence, and that Duke being Entar Silvershield, should have come to at least some small comfort to the Guard Commander. Yet he had received no word from the keep since he and Entar had parted ways at the gates, each to salvage the situation in whatever way they might, and he feared that the disappearance of his daughter might have derailed the otherwise stalwart Paladin. 

There was certainly a palpable tension within the keep, he felt, upon his passage through its front doors, that went deeper than the fact that enemy forces had very recently walked its halls. Two of his Guardsmen stood watch in the entrance hall, and he had noticed only his own men at their posts throughout the courtyard and upon the walls. 

‘Where are the Silvershields?’ He wondered, ‘where are the Flaming Fist?’

Nors had seemed reluctant to relinquish command of the situation within the city to Adrian upon their meeting in the city’s courtyard, and had promptly ridden to the hall upon finally doing so. The Guard Commander had been relieved that he had, for the very tension he now felt within the castle he had likewise felt there. The Watch Commander, Mikael, had apparently refused to coordinate with the Flaming Fist and it had taken Adrian some searching to finally track him down in the Gray Harbor District, coordinating his own offensive against the mercenaries. This had amounted to little more than securing various storehouses and shop-fronts for businesses he personally deemed “vital” to the city. He had, however, managed to conjure up a functional fire brigade and had proven far more amenable to working with the Guardforce than the mercenaries.

A further frustration of Adrian’s had been the fact that apparently no one knew under whose colors the saboteurs had performed their acts. They had worn no identifying markers and no live captives had been taken. There were no active engagements by the time he had taken command, and any surviving mercenaries seemed to have mysteriously disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. There were some prevailing lines of thought that pointed blame to the Storms Rising Mercenary Company, given that all attackers were of Northman descent, and further, though more desperate, accusations flung towards the Church of Talos as numerous holy symbols dedicated to the god were found amongst the slain. 

As much as he would love to pursue these accusations, Adrian was wise enough to know that a delicate touch was needed now. He knew, despite his loathing to do so, that working with the Flaming Fist was tantamount to reestablishing order within the city, and he kept this at the forefront of his mind as he crossed the entryway of the audience hall of the keep.

If tensions were high elsewhere throughout the keep, they veritably radiated within the hall. Upon entering, he found himself amidst a cluster of his own Guardsmen. He identified their commander to be a man of slight build he recognized as Sergeant Corkrin Mentkris who stood currently at their head, his ear bent towards the murmurings of Jaryn Moorstrider who, in turn, stood nonchalantly, his forearm resting upon the pommel of his sword, though the way he scanned the rest of the hall suggested a certain unease. 

Looking beyond the pair, Adrian saw immediately what it was that set the Ranger on edge. Though the perimeter of the hall was held by black-armored Guardsmen, assembled in twos by each pillar, as well as any viable exits, the hall’s center was dominated by a large contingent of Flaming Fist, led by Nors, who were seemingly squaring off against an equally large squadron of Silvershield Knights, led by Captain Messalantir, who were assembled about the dias upon which the Duke’s thrones sat.

As soon as Adrian and his entourage entered, both Jaryn and the Guard Sergeant glanced back at him. A look of relief immediately shone upon Corkrin’s olive-toned features, whilst the Ranger’s countenance remained unreadable as he encouraged the Commander to join them.

“What’s the situation?” He asked, moving to stand between the two men and survey the hall for himself. His arrival, he noted, had not gone unnoticed by the other factions as many heads turned his way, not least of which were the gazes of both Nors and William, the former narrowing his gaze whilst the latter smirked triumphantly, as if The Commander’s arrival spelt victory for his cause.

“Been like this since the Flaming Fist Commander returned,” Corkrin said, his tone hushed as though he feared his words might spark the powderkeg the room had become. “When Duke Entar entered the keep, he ordered his Knights to hold there where they stand now. He then retired to his wing and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since. We were kind of put off by his seemingly brusque nature, as well as the aloofness of the Silvershields, but we went about our business, even the mercs, until their Commander returned from the city. He came stomping in here, a large party at his back, and set up shop where he stands now.”

“Have he and Captain Messalantir exchanged words?”

“None as of yet, Commander, but I am half expecting them to form battle lines any minute. I called a few extra of our lads and lasses in incase there’s to be a tussle. Not rightly sure what we’d do except make sure things don’t spill out into the streets.”  

“Very good, Sergeant,” Adrian nodded. “You did well to do so but what we need now is less people in this hall. Thin our ranks a bit, send some of them out onto the walls.”

Corkrin licked his lips nervously but saluted all the same and departed to obey.

“Well said, Commander,” Jaryn nodded. 

“Have you spoken to either of them?”

“With Nors briefly when I first entered.”

“And?”

“He made it clear that I wasn’t to interfere should a scuffle arise.”

“So that is his aim…”

“Since it hasn’t occurred yet, I would argue that that isn’t his aim so much as a path down which he would not be opposed to treading should the Silvershields make the first move.”

“What of Entar?”

“I haven’t spoken with him.”

“Then where were…?”

“Eltan.”

“Is he..?”

“Still unconscious.”

Adrian nodded. He knew what it was that he must do. As Commander of the Guardforce it was he whose voice carried the most weight currently among those assembled. Though Nors might currently lead the Flaming Fist, and Captain Messalantir might answer to the soul Duke currently conscious in the city, as the commander of the force ultimately responsible for the city’s protection, a role that placed him beyond the authority of any singular ruler, it was he who then held authority, at least insofar as keeping the peace within the keep went.

“I would ask you to accompany me,” he said to the Ranger.

“I would even if you didn’t, Commander,” Jaryn assured him.

With an appreciative nod, Adrian turned to Captain Emilia. 

“Hold position here, Captain,” he ordered her. “Keep the men steady and make no threatening moves, even if any are made toward myself or The Moorstrider.”

“Yes, Commander,” she saluted, though the dubious look she gave him belied her support of his instruction.

Satisfied regardless, Adrian pivoted and marched forth, Jaryn in tow, towards the gathered mercenaries and knights.

Making his way first to the Flaming Fist, he marched purposefully into their midst. Reluctantly, the men and women of the mercenary company parted before him, allowing him to approach their commander who stood defiantly amidst a group of his captains, his arms crossed and countenance stern.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” Adrian began, planting himself firmly before the grizzled sellsword. “Forgive me for not offering them sooner on your new command.”

“It is not a congratulatory thing,” Nors sneered. “Especially when Eltan still lies comatose above.”

“He is strong, he will pull through,” Adrian continued. “Though his current state does beg the question as to why you have assembled your men here and not at his side.”

“He has guards enough, we are here to protect his position.”

“Against a fellow Duke?”

“Who has assembled his own men here.”

“Duke Entar was wrong to do so..”

Nors chuckled humorlessly.

“I never thought I’d hear those words out of your mouth, Commander,” he admitted. “Seeing it is at his boot-heel that you lap.”

There was a smattering of chuckles among his captains and the looks of disdain were numerous.

“If you speak of earlier troubles between myself and Duke Eltan, he and I spoke on that matter before..,” Adrian began, forcing calm into his voice.

“Before you abandoned the city, cloven to your lordship’s side,” Nors strove onwards. “Just before this hall was invaded and Eltan wounded. If not for the prowess of my Company their triumph would have been ultimate and you would not have a keep to return to, so I will be damned if I allow these peacocks,” he jabbed his finger at the Silvershields and spoke loud enough for them to hear his words, leading to a bristling among their ranks, most notably from William Messalantir. “To strut in and act as though the ground is theirs. Ground upon which my boys bled the night through.”

“It was not Flaming Fist blood alone which stained these stones last night, Nors,” Jaryn spoke up for the first time, his voice low and yet garnering the attention of all gathered near. 

“Many were the Guardsmen who fell, their blades rising and falling alongside your own, here and in the streets below.”

“As was your blade, Moorstrider, clashed against that of Kharne himself,” Nors allowed, a respectful nod offered to the Ranger. “But I do not recall seeing the blade of Commander Durham rise beside that of his men, or my own..”

“And yet, do you recall, Commander, the laws which bind this city?” Adrian interjected, careful to leave any vehemence from his tone, though he truly felt the vitriol rising within his gullet. 

“Laws to which your Lord and High Commander cleaved and yet you have discarded in the name of right and reward? Bleed upon the stones of these halls you might but it is I who command here. The providence of the Guardforce is the walls of both High Hall and the city at large and so, in a way, you are right in your accusation. But if I am to be found at fault then so are you and yours for it is the roadways of the Sword Coast that have been delegated to the Flaming Fist. As such, it is I who should have led the defense of these halls, and you who should have ridden to the escort of Duke Entar Silvershield. Thus, by your logic, neither of us have done our duty and so save me your sanctimonious bullshit and withdraw your men to what parts of the keep are theirs to manage. Allow me to deal with the Silvershields, for they have erred in ways equal to you and should be castigated equally thus.”

Nors glared at him throughout the entirety of his monologue, his gaze fluctuating between disdain, outright rage, and, finally, something approaching, quiet, grudging admiration.

“You speak boldly..,” he began to counter after a brief silence in which he considered Adrian’s words.

“Commander Nors,” Adrian cut him off immediately. “Do not demerit the blood yours and mine have spilled within the corridors of this keep alongside one another by challenging me further. If I speak boldly then it is because it is my command to do so, as it is yours to safeguard your Lord, and I beg you to do so now before some ill occurrence erupts here, the fallout of which your lord will scarce condone upon his waking.”

There was a bristling among the mercenaries and two of the Captains stepped forward, hands falling to hilts of blades, even as Jaryn stepped between them and Adrian. So too, however, did Nors step forward with the barking command of, “to heel!” Upon his lips.

Immediately, those Captains who stepped forward froze, obedient to their Commander’s order, yet their gazes remained murderous.

“He’s right,” Nors growled, clapping a hand upon each of the captain’s shoulders, though he glared at Adrian all the while. “We are better than they who seek to incense us. Render unto me as befits your creed and allow the Commander to temper his cohorts, if he the skill. Moorstrider,” he dipped his head once more to the Ranger before, with firm hands upon the collars of his impetuous subordinates, he drew backwards, his retinue retreating alongside him, until he and his ilk had committed to full withdrawal, heading towards the hall’s exits even as Commander Durham and Jaryn Moorstrider made their course towards the Silvershields.

“Commander Durham,” Captain Messalantir smirked at their approach. “It is good you have come. Those ravenous wolves have been straining their leashes ever since we entered the hall.”

“They have had a long night, Captain,” Adrian replied. “And you assembling your knight as you have was not helpful to the situation.”

Taken aback by the cold steel in the Guardsman’s tone, the young Nobleman cleared his throat audibly as he composed himself.

“We were ordered to hold this position by Lord Silvershield..” he began but Commander Durham cut him off.

“I am doubtful that Duke Entar ordered you to assemble in such a defensive manner, Captain,” he said sharply. “In any case, this hall is not for your Silvershields to guard but my own guardsmen, please retire, as your counterparts have, to your respective quarters.”

William bristled, though, to his credit, he kept his features bestilled. He did, however, clench his fingers tighter about the hilt of his blade and there was a visible twitching in his jaw.

“We are all of us tired,” Adrian continued, his tone softening. “None of us have had a decent night’s rest in days. It would behoove you not to antagonize an already volatile situation by grandstanding.”

“My orders are to stand firm here, Commander, and I will do so until I hear otherwise from my Lord,” William replied tersely.

“Then stay you may, Captain, but send the majority of your retinue to the Silvershield wing. That is where your Lord resides and where they are most needed.”

“Duke Entar Silvershield is the only Duke with the ability to command within the city, his orders hold precedent!”

“Not above me,” Adrian said, the steel creeping once more into his voice. “The Guardforce serves the City of Baldur’s Gate, no singular Duke. It is my command to keep the peace within these halls and upon those streets, peace that you have compromised by arraying your knights here thus. Being under the command of a Duke does not set you above the laws of this city, Captain Messalantir, and I will not hesitate to enforce those laws should you continue to act stubbornly against them.”

“Captain,” the night to William’s right lifted their visor to reveal themselves to be Sergeant Featherglare.

“With your permission I will take a detachment to check on our Lord,” she continued, her icy gaze upon Commander Durham, though he did detect a flicker of admiration within their depths.

Captain Messalantir’s gaze, however, was murderous, though he did offer her a stiff nod.

“Thank you, Captain,” Adrian dipped his head to the Nobleman, and again to the Silvershield Sergeant, before turning on his heel and marching back across the hall towards his own retinue.

“That was well managed, Commander,” Jaryn said as they walked.

“Thank you,” Adrian replied. “Though it disturbs me that such was necessary to begin with.”

“His will be an ego that will ever be at odds with the order of things,” the Ranger nodded. “I am sure that this will not be the last distasteful interaction you have with him. Or Nors for that matter.”

Commander Durham chuckled humorlessly and had just opened his mouth to reply when a thunderous retort echoed throughout the hall and a wind whipped up about them with the ferocity of a gale. Beyond this, the room became bathed in a deep purple light and the pair turned to behold a maelstrom of swirling purple and silver light that had manifested between themselves and the Silvershields. From the depths of the swirling miasma a figure materialized, growing larger as it approached and gaining form until, stepping from the portal, was a tall, slender woman with a youthful, beauteous appearance. Noble of feature and poise, the woman faced the Commander and Ranger, wrapped in tight-fitting robes of hues equivalent to the portal from which she had just stepped. Raising a carefully manicured hand, she snapped her fingers and the portal vanished as suddenly as it had come, leaving the room to return to its normal hues, and leaving its occupants blinking.

“Commander Durham,” Liia Jannath, as there could be no mistaking who she was, spoke, her tone imperious and yet possessing a certain mischievous jingle upon its periphery. “Please tell me where I might find my counterparts as they have, apparently, made a mess of things in my absence.”

*                       *                                     *                                      *  

Just as the sun was crossing its zenith beyond the clouds, Kivan came across a large gathering of men, women and children upon the plains. Refugees, he surmised, of the ravagings of the orcs.

While most were huddled together in a large cluster, a small group of mostly men held council upon the top of a large mound of earth the Ranger recognized uncomfortably to be one of many such embankments that marked mass graves of wars fought long past upon the Fields of the Dead. Those within the small group appeared to be engrossed in a heated debate, though all conversation ceased, and a ripple of fear spread through the huddled mass, upon the sighting of the lone rider approaching.

With the rasping sounds of ill-used blades being drawn from makeshift scabbards, as well as the brandishing of equipment best used to maintain fields, the refugees prepared to defend themselves. Not wishing to alarm them further, Kivan slowed his weary mount to a halt and lifted his hands to show he was unarmed, leaving his bow upon his lap.

With a great jostling, the group upon the mound descended, making their way through the throng to its fore, their weapons still held ready as they neared the Ranger.

“What manner of spectre are ye?” Their apparent leader, a mountain of a man with a long beard who brandished a worn broadsword, demanded. “To come riding out o’ the mists as ye have?”

“I am no spectre, I assure you, People of the Fields,” Kivan replied, lowering his hands. “My name is Kivan and I am a Ranger out of Baldur’s Gate. I was sent here because there was fear within the city of a possible threat heading south through these lands. A threat from which you now flee.”

“I recognize this Ranger, Togeric,” another man spoke, stepping forward. “He stayed the night in my sheepfold two evenin’s past, and saved me family come morn from the brutes. I can vouch for ‘im.”

Kivan dipped his head in thanks, recognizing the man to indeed be the shepherd in whose paddock he had lain his his head seemingly an eternity past.

“Very well Veckles,” the lead man, Togeric, replied gruffly, lowering his blade. “Though I be admittedly surprised that the Dukes took any care on our behalf. Never before have they ridden out when the orcs come raidin’.”

“I fear the orcs are but the advance scouts,” Kivan replied, dismounting so that he stood on a more even footing with the refugees. “What they who sent me feared indeed exists and is marching south as we speak. A great host born of the northern Troll country descends upon us.”

A new ripple of fear spread through those gathered nearest the Ranger who could hear his words. 

“Well that settles it then,” a Half-Elf with a long ponytail and sideburns piped in. “We must continue with all haste to the Chionthar.”

“We need rest, Lief,” Veckles replied desperately. “The young and the old cannot keep up this pace any longer!”

“And yet you must,” Kivan interjected ardently. “I have seen no orcs through the night, nor this morning, but that is not so good a sign as you might think. It either means that they have pulled back to the main force, which wasn’t far behind to begin with, or else they are raiding further abroad which means we must reach the Chionthar before they are able to cut off our course to it.”

“But we are more ‘n a day from its waters, Ranger,” Togeric said. “An’ we’re movin’ about as slow as a slug even when we are movin’. Ain’t no way we’re makin’ it.”

Just then a horn blast sounded distantly from the mists behind Kivan and two answering calls rang out nearer at hand, one off to the west, and another closer still to the east. Cries of alarm and audible weeping rose from the refugees.

“They already seek to cut us off,” Kivan cursed. “Take my horse. Have the slowest among you alternate riding, everyone else is to move as quick as they may. Whomever among you is armed, keep to the edges of the group, form a perimeter around those who cannot defend themselves. I will need five of your number to form a rearguard, they will need to be swift on their feet so that we might counterattack or defend any point where they hit us. Now go! We must make the Chionthar by daybreak tomorrow lest we become the latest testament to the namesake of these fields!”

*                           *                               *                                 * 

Though it had taken longer than she would have liked, Lystra and Belt finally found a suitable location from which to launch their surprise attack against the orcs. And not a moment too soon, she noted, as the stalks of tall grass began to shift upon the southernmost edge of the gully within which they had camped for the morn.

Laying an arrow across her bow, she crouched lower against the jagged rock formation they had chosen that offered a slight vantage point and cover from the surrounding plains. Belt, she knew, lurked below, awaiting her signal to attack.

Just to the west of their position, the grass shortened for a wide expanse, and it was upon this that she kept her eye trained, knowing that the raiding party would have to cross its breadth if their destination was indeed the stretch of road west of the Flaming Fist Fort as she had predicted. 

Within the span of a few moments, her prediction proved accurate as the first of the brutes stepped into view, then another and another, their posture relaxed as they obviously expected no resistance to their movement across the plain.

Eager to show them the error in their ways, the Ranger chose the lead Ogrillon and leveled her shot before popping out of cover and loosing. Before her arrow had even found purchase upon her first victim, she had let three more fly, two of which also hit their marks, dropping three of them before the others had even registered that they were under attack. As they did, a series of angry bellows rose and weapons appeared in meaty hands as the patrol pivoted as one in her direction. 

Not so easily intimidated, Lystra continued to loose her shots, even as several among her foe’s number lifted crossbows to respond in kind. Thankfully, it was at that moment that Duke Belt decided to make his own presence known and charged forth from behind the rock upon which the Ranger crouched, his blade held high as he rushed the nearest orc. Distracted by his sudden appearance, the archers’ shots went awry, their heavy bolts slicing the air harmlessly around the pair, allowing Lystra ample time to drop another three beasts.

By then, however, they were out of surprises and the raiding party was quickly recovering from the initial shock. Barking commands, another Ogrillon was waiving its blade, directing its troops, and Lystra knew that it was high time they made good on their escape.

“Belt, to the horses!” She cried, dropping an orc who was charging the Duke on his flank. 

Thankfully, the strong-willed lord heeded her and broke away, leaving her to cover his retreat as he dove into the surrounding grasses. Loosing one final shot, Lystra lept from her position, bounding after him, the orcs hot on her heels.

Immediately engulfed by the long grasses, her sight becoming severely limited, the Ranger nonetheless sprinted ahead, knowing full well that to pause was to die. Relying on her heightened senses, she steered her flight towards where they had left their mounts, an almost half-mile run to the southeast. Within seconds, she had outpaced her larger ally, and so began to twist occasionally to loose a blind shot into the plains behind them, hoping to at least give their pursuers momentary pause despite the low chance of her actually hitting anything, as well as the tax on her near-empty quiver. 

In the span of only a couple minutes, though it felt far longer to her, she broke once more from the confines of the tall grass to where they had left their horses beside a large boulder. Without slowing her stride, she leapt upon the stone and then beyond, twisting in midair, before landing heavily upon Shadowflight’s back. Sliding her bow into its sheath upon her saddle, she drew Skysinger just as Belt broke the edge of the long grass, stumbling towards his own mount, a towering Ogrillon hot on his heels, its jagged scimitar raised to be brought down upon his back.

Crying aloud defiantly, Lystra kicked Shadowflight into a charge, lurching past her comrade to sever the arm from the Ogrillon in a single, savage swing. Roaring, the beast toppled aside and she turned her horse in a wide arch, ducking the occasional bolt sent her way from the hulking forms in the tall grass, to ensure that Belt had made it onto his own mount’s back.

Once they were both secure in their saddles, she led them away to the south, towards the distant palisade walls of the Flaming Fist Fort.

*                                 *                                 *                                       * 

Aware of the lengthening shadows among the trees about them, Trotter signaled for his companions to halt for a short rest so that he might scout ahead and see if there were any desirable places for them to take their rest that night. Despite their reinvigorating night, they readily agreed, Katarina plopping herself down against the nearest trunk, her eyes closed and a long exhale escaping her lips.

“Aren’t we a bit exposed here?” Tiberius questioned with a dubious look cast out to the nearby plains that could just be discerned beyond the dense foliage of the forest’s eaves.

Following his gaze, the Ranger grimaced. Against his better judgement, he had led them along the forest edge for the majority of that day, reluctant to delve deeper into the woods lest he steer them off course as he had before. It was risky, but he had been willing to run the wager so that they might attain the forest’s northern reaches in a more timely fashion.

“I have seen no movement upon the plains,” he replied, “and have discerned no sign that we are yet tracked by our foe…or any other creature for that matter. In any case, stay vigilant and I will not be away long, I assure you.”

“Perhaps we should stay together as a group,” Keira offered, “with us so near our goal, I see no reason why you should so needlessly imperil yourself.”

Perceiving Katarina’s raised brow at the Mercenary Captain’s words, Rendrick shook his head.

“I will be fine,” he assured her, with a bit more force than he had intended, awarding him another raised brow, this time from Tiberius. “In any case do not gorge yourselves, I feel as though we have all of us learned our lesson on that front.”

His words were met by a series of cleared throats and averted gazes as they each had, at one time or another, over the course of the day, fled desperately into the underbrush to void their bowels, the richness of the canned fruits having proved too much for their nutrient-starved stomachs.

Satisfied that he had adequately distracted them from his and Keira’s uncomfortable exchange, though feeling remorseful that he had responded to her in such a manner, as well as frustrated that he was experiencing any emotion on the topic at all, the Ranger departed, heading northward along their trajectory.

It certainly was an odd sight, he marveled as he moved through the foliage, his gaze tracing to the right to behold the wall of rain falling along the forest’s edge that bled into the shadowed eaves where clouds reigned and yet no precipitation fell, and then further into the woods on his left where the last amber rays of a fast-setting sun could be discerned occasionally piercing the forest’s thick canopy. 

“Silvanus has not yielded yet,” he murmured to himself, heartened by the sight, despite the more sinister gloom that lurked not too far deeper into the woods. This was another reason why he had decided to keep his and his companion’s course closer to the forest edge. They were passing the midpoint of Cloakwood’s breadth. To enter the forest’s deeper reaches now would be certain folly. He knew he must keep their current path until they drew nearer to the High Druid Blacktree’s domain. It was there, he hoped, that he might enlist the Druid’s Grove’s aid in seeing them the rest of the way safely to Baldur’s Gate. 

With this grim resolve, he focused his sight on the path ahead, keen to find them a safe resting point in the hope that this might be the last night they need spend fearful of their safety beneath the trees.

Not too far along from where he had left his companions, he discovered a foliage-covered ravine that was relatively dry. Parting the surrounding ferns to peer within, he was distracted by the raspings to harsh voices that came to him distantly from the direction of the forest’s edge.

Immediately dropping to a low crouch, he cautiously made his way towards them, his heart sinking as he recognized their tongue to be orcish and, by the sound of it, their numbers to be many.

Creeping his way between the trunks of two close-grown elms, he peered forth to spy, just within the wood’s overhanging canopy, a large gathering of the brutish, pig-nosed creatures. It was a sizeable party, he noted, and among them stood taller, darker creatures he readily identified to be Ogrillons, as well as a small smattering of goblins. Out of all of them, it was the smallest that gave him the most trepidation, for they were of the same ilk as those that had attacked their caravan.

Slowly drawing an arrow to lay across his bow, he began to withdraw from his position, eager to be reunited with his companions that they might escape as one when a droplet of water, falling from the treetop above him, splashed upon the head of his arrow. 

Instantly, he retracted and dove aside, his shoulder hitting the ground hard as he rolled. There was a rushing of air past his ear as he moved and, coming out of his roll, he saw that it had been the sickled blade of a goblin that had dropped from its hiding place above him to land silently beside where he had crouched not a moment earlier. Leveling his arrow upon the wicked creature, he loosed, his missile pinning it to the trunk of the tree behind it. 

Though it had saved his life, his sudden movement had also alerted the main body of the hunting party to his presence and the air was soon filled with the sounds of hammering feet and growled orders. Not waiting to see how many pursued, he turned and fled, heading towards the forest’s deeper reaches in a hope to lead the main body away from where his companions had taken their rest.

He hadn’t gone far, however, when a desperate scream echoed from their direction, closely followed by a brilliant burst of light. Cursing audibly, Rendrick immediately changed direction, charging back towards their position, sending a screen of arrows back towards the orcs and their ogrillon allies, who also had not failed to notice the blinding flash.

Being a Ranger by trade, Trotter easily outdistanced his pursuers in the uneven, heavily foliaged terrain, though he knew that it would not be a permanent thing, especially with the deadly, silent goblins to lead them. 

Coming upon his companions, he saw that they were harried by a pack of goblins, Keira and Katarina standing back to back with Tiberius guarding their flank, his shield of light held aloft.

“Flee!” Rendrick shouted desperately, pausing to send an arrow past Keira’s ear to strike a goblin from its perch atop a nearby log.

Reacting immediately to his words, the Mercenary Captain grasped the collar of Katarina’s shirt and half dragged her from the combat, sprinting towards the Ranger as he covered their flight.

Hastening to follow suit, Tiberius left himself exposed and a sickler was quick to capitalize, rushing in to slash a wicked gash along his thigh, even as one of Rendrick’s arrows sent it sprawling back. Crying aloud, Tiberius managed to make his escape, though blood flowed freely from the wound, hindering his movement and staggering his steps.

Fluidly slinging his bow across his chest, Trotter drew his sword and rushed to the Cleric’s side, delivering a vicious kick to the side of a goblin’s skull before ducking beneath the other man’s arm and half carrying him away, following as quickly as he might in their companion’s wake.

They didn’t make it far, however, before the first of the orcs caught up to them, barrelling through the trees and barring their passage. Dropping Tiberius unceremoniously, Rendrick ducked into another roll, sliding easily beneath the creature’s swing, and slicing open its hamstring as he passed. Coming out of the roll, he finished off the creature as Tiberius clamoured to his feet, a glowing palm pressed to his own wound, his healing magics staunching the flow of blood.

As soon as he was healed, they were off again, fleeing through the foliage, though they were harried continuously by their foe. At one turn Tiberius would be forced to use a spell to clear their path, at another Trotter would have to pause to fight off a pursuer closing in so that the Cleric, less accustomed to moving through a thick forest at great speed, might gain some headway.

Not far from where the attack had begun, they found themselves entangled within a marsh, the trees growing sparser and the ground softer and harder to traverse. By this time, however, they had gained some space between themselves and their harassers and Rendrick spied Keira and Katarina at the bog’s far end, catching their breath and egging their companions onward.

At the marshes’ center was a rise of higher, dryer ground, illuminated by the sun’s last rays, and it was towards there that the Ranger hurried, outpacing Tiberius in the hope that he might gain a good vantage point from which to cover the Cleric’s retreat. As soon as he began to climb the rise, however, he heard Katarina scream aloud. Reflexively, he looked towards her and beheld the look of abject horror upon her face as she stared past him. Turning, he beheld Tiberius driven to his knees, sunken to his waist within the bog’s murky waters. Incoherently, he thought that perhaps the Cleric’s leg wound had once more driven him low. That was until the Priest drooped forward and he beheld the thick crossbow bolt protruding from his back.

“NO!” He heard himself cry, bringing his bow to bear and dropping the crossbow wielding orc who stood upon the bank they had left, even as he leapt once more into the marsh, making his way desperately towards Tiberius whilst firing arrows at the other beasts who were, even then, wading into the murky waters themselves.

As Rendrick neared him, Tiberius somehow managed to find his footing  and lurched forward in a desperate attempt to continue onwards. He would have surely fallen again had not the Ranger been there to catch him. Cradling the other man against his side, Rendrick began the frantic slog back towards the island, crossbow bolts splitting the air around them. 

Beyond the rise of land, he saw Keira struggling against Katarina to come to their rescue as the younger woman clung to her, tearfully begging her not to go, to not leave her alone. 

‘Run. Get out of here. Flee,’ he willed them, though he had not the breath to yell it. 

Finally, his boots found firmer footing and he hauled himself and the Cleric upon the island. Kneeling there in the mud, he gripped Tiberius’ face, calling for him to hold on even as a second missile thudded home in his back, sending a spew of blood from his lips to splatter upon the Ranger’s face.

Seeing the light quickly fading from his eyes, as well as the shield upon his arm begin to dim, Rendrick desperately grabbed the Cleric’s empty hand, as he had somehow managed to keep a grip on his mace, and slammed it against the holy symbol upon his chest whilst crying, “dammit, Lathander, save your servant!”

Instantly, time seemed to slow and a warm, rosy glow spread about the Cleric’s form, returning color to his cheeks, vibrancy to his shield, and the light of life to his eyes. Expanding from them, the red-tinted glow formed a dome about them against which their foes’ missile’s rebounded harmlessly.

“Tiberius?” The Ranger gasped, gazing about them then back into the other man’s eyes. He was surprised to find a small, peaceful smile upon the Cleric’s features.

“You prayed to Lathander,” the Priest said, his smile maintaining. “Thank you, my friend. Now run, flee from here and I shall hold them at bay.”

“But you’re healed,” Rendrick reasoned desperately.

“This is temporary,” Tiberius assured him sadly. “My Lord has granted me the strength to cover your passage, now go before it is wasted.”

As he said this, the Cleric rose unsteadily to his feet. Even then, the Ranger saw the life within him dim slightly and so he rose beside him. Gripping the other man’s shoulder he could but tighten his jaw and nod his thanks before turning and doing as he was bid, leaping into the waters on the isle’s far side and making his hurried escape towards their other companions as Tiberius stood alone upon the mound’s crest, the last rays of the setting sun silhouetting his form.  

Reaching Keira and Katarina, he urged them onward, the heartbroken looks in their tear-rimmed eyes he knew mirrored his own. Some ways deeper into the forest, they perceived a blinding flash behind them and they paused only briefly to mourn the passage on their friend, before continuing onward into the deeper, darker reaches of Cloakwood.

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