Chapter Three: A Quiet Night

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

NSFW Warning: Strong Sexual Content.

“Night in this city seems darker these days,” Ethon mused to himself as he stood outside of the clinic/temple of the followers of Ilmater that was tucked away along a grungy street within the Baldur’s Gate slums. 

Just as Lystra was laying her head down within the Wood of Sharp Teeth’s northern eaves and Kivan rested his against the side of the Shepherd’s lean-to, so now did the Former Thief settle his against the cold stone of the temple, his eyes closed, enjoying the feel of the frigid rain upon his face after the stifling closeness and sickness-ridden air within the clinic.

After the disturbing scene he had witnessed back at the tenement before Marissa closed the door to its third story, Ethon had numbly followed Jewel down the series of staircases, blood leaking freely from where she had struck him while he had attempted to restrain her. They had found Baldwin cradling the body of a young girl he had wrapped in a blanket to his chest amidst the carnage of that first room Marissa had pulled Ethon passed shortly after they had originally entered the tenement.

As soon as she had laid eyes on the Bard, Jewel’s entire demeanor had changed and she had rushed to her lover’s side, frantically checking to see if the body he cradled yet held some life. After his repeated assurances that the girl yet lived, albeit barely, the three of them had proceeded to rush her to the hospital run by the servants of the God of Suffering within the cities’ slums. Not that any other temple would not have lent aid to the poor lass, but that of Ilmater had been the closest, as well as the most discrete and, as such, the one most often utilized by those such as Harpers and Thieves, even former ones.

That had been some hours hence and Jewel and Baldwin yet remained within, hovering over the cleric who tended to the lass, ensuring that she would last the night. For Ethon, however, it had simply gotten to the point where he could no longer linger within and had to step out for some fresh air, even though the cleric who had tended to his wound had insisted he rest in case he had suffered a concussion.

Standing there now, the rain on his face, his head pressed against the cold stone, a strip of cloth wrapped about his brow, the Former Thief couldn’t help but feel drawn back to an earlier time when he, a much younger man, had spent several nights at the temple due to wounds garnered from street fights with rival guilds, or else those gifted by marks singularly reluctant to part with their baubles or purses.

This trip down the paths of the past was interrupted for him by the heavy oaken door to the temple swinging outward, spilling meager light into the darkened street, and venting Baldwin onto the slick cobbles.

The Bard glanced to and fro then, catching sight of Ethon, closed the door and approached solemnly.

“The girl?” The Former Thief asked, concern lacing his words.

“Will survive, thank the gods,” Baldwin said, uncharacteristically sombre. “Or perhaps curse then, given what has been done to her.”

Coming to stand next to Ethon, he too leaned against the temple wall, his eyes closed, his pointed, handsome, features drawn.

“All wounds heal, nay?” He asked after a brief silence. “Or else they fester and transform us into that which made us tremble in our beds as babes.”

“Who will look after her beyond the healing of her wounds?” Ethon asked, unable to answer the Bard’s inquiry and thus choosing to avoid it entirely.

“The Priests of Ilmater are not unaccustomed to such barbacy,” Baldwin explained. “They will find her a home, or else a place where she might earn her keep. They try and work only with kind proprietors but…well, they are not always successful.”

“Tell them that she may come to the Elfsong, should she so desire.”

“That is kind of you,” the Bard offered him a tired smile. “Speaking of The Elfsong, why don’t you head on back there? Enough has transpired this day that you needn’t drag it out further.”

“I suppose I will take you up on that. Alyth will have a fit when she sees me.”

“Ah, I suppose she will. Sorry about that by the way,” Baldwin said, indicating his brow. “I say so only because she won’t and it wasn’t deserved.”

Ethon chuckled. 

“I suppose it was not fully undeserved. I should have let her slash the bastard’s throat.”

“What happened to him? In the end.”

A flash of Jherek’s fingers elongating flashed across Ethon’s mind and he grimaced.

“Nothing pleasant,” he said. “Take care of yourself, Baldwin.”

“And you, Ethon. We will fetch you if we have the need…provided of course that Alyth doesn’t stop us on the stoop, broom in hand.”

“She won’t,” the Former Thief assured him, raising his hand in farewell and walking unsteadily away, down back alleys known to him and towards the Elfsong Tavern.

*                           *                                  *                                   *

“You are sure of this?” Eltan inquired of Jherek, the two of them, along with Kormak and Nors, occupying the Duke’s audience chamber while a gale rose in force without.

“From the lips of our captive to your ears,” the Harper Master assured him.

“Then Kharne will strike us soon. Here in High Hall. A pity he was not privy to the more intimate details of their plan, this captive of yours.”

“If he was, he would have told me.”

“Effective, this interrogation of yours,” the Duke observed. “You will have to teach me your tactic one day, Jherek.”

“Believe me, ye don’ wan’ tha’,” Kormak assured him, the Dwarf withdrawn from the rest of the group, leaning against the hearth, his wide-brimmed cap crumpled in his hands.

“No? Perhaps not. In any case I will have the guards stationed about the keep doubled. Unfortunately, now that both Commander Durham and Captain Emilia have ridden forth to the rescue of Entar, I cannot be sure of what reaction I can expect of the Guardforce.”

“Your Flaming Fist stands ready to counter any threat, My Lord,” Nors assured him.

“Of that I have no doubt,” Eltan said. 

“How prolific has this Storm’s Rising Company become within the city?” He asked of the Harpers.

“Very,” Jherek replied. “Though their full number remains a mystery, they now guard the homes of many prominent merchants throughout the city.”

“Did your captive speak of any means to accost them?”

“Not specifically, but he spoke of some greater plan he was standing by to aid in.”

“Greater than an assault on High Hall?”

“It is my suspicion that they mean to completely upend the established order. Throw this city into chaos and thus make it weak before their main host arrives.”

“Do we have any further reports as to the location of this host?” 

“Kivan has never let me down,” Jherek assured him.

“Very well,” the Duke strode to survey the maps festooned across the surface of his table. Though he stared at them intently, his gaze was disfocused, as though he was not truly seeing anything that was arrayed before him but rather remained lost amidst the paths of his own thoughts.

“Nors,” he said at long last. “Organize all cohorts we currently have residing within the city. I want heightened security within High Hall, but not to an obvious degree. We know that the keep is their main target and so over-securing it might tip them off and cause them to focus more of their attention on their other targets. We must safeguard the merchants however we can. See if we can infiltrate their households in whatever manner possible. Choose your most trusted operatives for this, I don’t want these bastards catching wind that we are onto them. As for the rest of our men, reinforce our safehouses, be ready to react to wherever further moves they might have that we have not premeditated.” 

With a heavy hand slammed to his chest, Nors saluted his Commander before turning smartly on his heel and departing the chamber, the door slamming weightily in his wake.

“What manifestation do you see your Harpers taking in this affair?” The Duke asked, eyeing Jherek over the rim on his glass as he took a hearty swig.

“Kharne will be here,” the Harper Master replied with firm finality. “And so shall I be, as well as my people. I believe the main target still to be you, but we cannot ignore the fact that Entar’s daughter has recently been transported to the keep as well.”

“You do realize that your level of knowledge on the goings on of this keep is exactly why many rulers hold The Harpers at arm’s length,” Eltan smirked. “Do you have someone in mind to watch over Skye as well?”

“I do,” Jherek nodded, indicating the door back out into the main audience hall.

“Without is my agent, Marissa Tame, though she will resent me for saying so, I assure you she is the best one for the task.”

“Very well, Jherek,” Eltan nodded. “I will have extra guardsmen posted outside of Skye’s chambers but your agent is welcome to babysit her as well. I will have something written up that will make it clear to the lass that the Harper’s presence is non-negotiable.”

“I wouldn’t worry ‘bout tha’,” Kormak said, replacing his hat upon his head. “Marissa can be very persuasive.”

“So can the Lady Skye,” Eltan grimaced, taking another swig of wine.

*                                 *                             *                                      *

Jaryn stood, his longbow cradled within the crook of his arm, staring out from the northeasternmost edge of Cloakwood where he had guided the rescue party to take a brief respite after they had ridden hard throughout the afternoon and deeper than he would have normally recommended into the night. 

By this point, the mounts of the Guardsmen were spent and required a decent amount of rest before travelling onward. The Master Ranger had recommended they take shelter within the forest’s eaves until at least first light before traveling onward the following day. Though they were loath to keep their patron waiting, potentially besieged, along the Coastway, both Captain Messalantir and Commander Durham could not deny the wisdom in the Ranger’s words. Their mounts were of no use to them if they collapsed in the mud, nor were their swordarms if they could barely lift them.

As such, they had allowed him to guide them to the sinister shelter of Cloakwood. Though the denseness of the trees, as well as the uncanny sight of the rain ending exactly where the outermost branches extended, did little to make any of the city-dwellers feel safe. Nonetheless, they trusted the Ranger and now sat, stood, or lay about the small area they had staked out as their camp, though many an eye was cast about and multiple were the hushed whispers murmured in discomfort over their surroundings.

Glancing behind himself now, Jaryn spied the Guardforce’s commander, as well as his Captain and that of Entar’s personal guard, gathered closely about a campfire he had permitted them to light. Theirs was the furthest of such from the Ranger’s vigil, between them being the small clusters into which the other guardsmen had gathered themselves about their own meagre flames. None seemed overly relaxed and all kept their weapons and the reins of their mounts close at hand. Whenever the discussions of their officers reached a pitch above their normally hushed tone, many of the guardsmen would glance over as if expecting the order to ride forth to follow quickly behind.

Though he had been invited to take part in their planning, Jaryn had declined. He knew that there weren’t any further tactics that required their scrutiny and that they did what they did only to placate themselves, allowing them the illusion of doing something other than resting whilst their Lord remained in danger. It was hard for men and women such as them to accept that they were mortals in need of rest and that it was only by doing so that they would be of any actual aid to their beleaguered comrades upon the ‘morrow, he knew. It was easier for those like him to accept it as the only rest ever garnered was normally at times like these, when he was on his way to the next important mission but hadn’t quite made it yet and was thus afforded some measure of quick respite before meeting the further threat at some later hour.

“Moorstrider…”

Jaryn’s gaze was torn from his appraisal of the company he rode with by the hissing, sibilant voice. Casting his eyes about, he narrowed them upon a small serpent that had curled itself about a branch near at hand.

“What words have you for me?” He murmured.

“Meet him in the glade said the toad,” the snake hissed back, its tiny tongue testing the air between them. “He awaits you by the Sigil Stone said the crow.”

Dipping his head in thanks to the unlikely messenger, the Ranger turned on his heel and stalked to the nearest campfire where four guardsmen were lounging.

“I am needed within the forest,” he said, loudly enough to startle them to full wakefulness.

“Ah, Moorstrider, it’s you,” the nearest breathed a sigh of relief, his hand slipping from the handle of his sword he had reached for in his surprise.

“Keep an eye on the surround,” he bade them. “I shall return shortly.”

“Won’t be much good at that,” another of the guardsmen muttered irritably. “Can barely see my fingers before my face in this gods-be-damned gloom.”

“I can,” the furthest guardsman declared, hauling himself to his feet.

By the slightness of his build, Jaryn identified the man to be an elf, or at least half so. He nodded to them before slipping away, blending immediately with the shadows and foliage, moving swiftly towards the location the serpent had indicated.

As he passed the Commander’s fire, he paused briefly to eavesdrop on what was being said between the three who sat there.

“I know not of what breed they’re spawned from but they were larger than orcs, though less hunched,” Captain Messalantir was saying, his head shaking. “Perhaps they were of some amalgam between beasts, or some species of Hobgoblin I have not yet encountered. Whatever their ancestry, they were smart and skilled in the art of hit-and-run tactics.”

“But you said there weren’t many who attacked you?” Captain Emilia inquired.

“Perhaps a handful,” the Silver Shield confirmed. “Most of what harried us were Gnolls and Goblins.”

“Then perhaps these creatures lead them,” Commander Durham mused. “In any case we will hopefully reach Duke Entar on the ‘morrow. Once we guide him safely to the city perhaps we will ride out to drive these harassers fully from the roadways.”

Emilia chuckled.

“Not like the mercs are doing anything about it,” she said.

A collective chortle was issued from her counterparts and Jaryn drew away, striding deeper into the heavy growth of the wood.

Though it had been some time since he had traversed the woodland, the Ranger knew exactly where he was supposed to meet he who the serpent had spoken of. It was precisely because of the nearness of the Sigil Stone that he had been inspired to guide his companions to their current place of respite. He knew these reaches of Cloakwood to be firmly within the domain of the High Druid Blacktree and thus far safer than anywhere else near at hand along the Sword Coast. He also was under no illusions that it was any other than the High Druid himself who had summoned him hence.

His stride lengthy and confident despite the denseness of the foliage, it wasn’t long before he had reached the edge of a large glade. At its exact center, standing tall and proud, was a gently rounded slab of bone-white stone. Carved upon its face with deep gouges was an esoteric rune, the recesses of which glowed with a faint bluish hue. At its base, a figure stood ensconced in shadow, though Jaryn keen eyesight told him that it was indeed the High Druid, wrapped in his cloak of raven feathers and clutching his ashwood staff.

“Greetings, Jaryn Moorstrider, it has been too long since you have walked in the shade of my forest,” the Druid dipped his cowled head as the Ranger approached him.

“Greetings, High Druid,” Jaryn replied, returning the other man’s nod with a deferential one of his own. “I agree that it has been too long, my station too often pulls me elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere being Baldur’s Gate.”

“Aiding the Dukes is part of my charge.”

“Aiding Eltan, you mean,” the High Druid’s eyes were bright within the depths of his cowl.

“Speak plainly, Criven,” Jaryn insisted. “We have been through too much to bandy veiled words.”

“As you wish. It has been over a fortnight since you disappeared beyond the walls of the city. In your absence, the Gnolls and Goblins that attacked the Percin Caravan have run amok, harassing any who traverse the roadways and driving the farmers of Beregost into the township and to the protection of their High Cleric.”

“Any attacks on Beregost itself?”

“None as of yet but it is only a matter of time. The lack of reprisal has emboldened them I am sure.”

“Morninglord Ormlyr must be warned,” The Master Ranger nodded to himself, bracing the tip of his bow against the grassy glade and leaning upon it, his posture pensive.

The High Druid surveyed him closely, allowing him his thoughts for a moment before interjecting.

“Where are Eltan’s Flaming Fist?” He asked. “Were they not charged with the protection of the Coastway?”

“There is a rising threat within the city,” Jaryn replied. “A new mercenary company seems poised to assault High Hall, as well as perhaps other high value targets. Beyond this, Jherek speaks of a great host marching south whose goal is the destruction of Baldur’s Gate and the pillaging of the surrounding countryside.”

“Myrna told me of this host,” Criven nodded. “Though she did not seem so sure of its existence as you are.”

“The possibility of its existence, coupled with the mercenary company working to usurp the rule of the city, is enough threat for me to treat both with equal severity,” the Ranger reasoned. “Add in the constant ill weather which we can all agree by now is not natural in its manifestation, and you have a perfect storm to topple order upon the Storm Coast.” 

“And because the focus of the threat seems to be the city, you leave the rest of The Coast to its own devices?”

Jaryn narrowed his piercing gaze upon the Druid.

“I cannot be in all places at once, Criven,” he spoke in low, even tones.

“Which is why you have an apprentice is it not? And yet is she not also absent? Sent on another errand for Baldur’s Gate?”

“For one who acts confused as to my motivations, you are very well informed of Lystra’s location.”

“I sent Crie to scout along the Chionthar, to keep watch for this host of Jherek’s.”

The High Druid’s tone was disarming but Jaryn saw through it.

“What is your interest in Lystra?” He asked.

“I see promise in her,” was the Druid’s reply, instantly dropping his coy tone. “There is a power lying dormant within her, a power of the woods and the rivers. She would make a great Druidess, Jaryn.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” the Ranger’s posture relaxed. “But as of now she is my apprentice, Criven, and though I know you to hold no merit in the trappings of civilization, the Dukes must be reunited within the city. It is only by showing this threat a united front that we have any hope of overcoming it.”

“I suspect a requested favor follows closely at the heels of that sentiment,” the High Druid’s tone was dry.

“As I said, Morninglord Ormlyr must be warned.”

“I had assumed you would go personally, or send some lackey of Eltan’s.”

“None could reach them faster than you, High Druid.”

“I suppose not,” Criven sighed. “In any case, you are needed back in your city. Myrna has just sent me word that this threat poised against Eltan and High Hall will manifest itself soon. Within the next day or two as suspected by Jherek.”

“Do you lack entertainment, Criven?” Jaryn asked, snatching up his bow in irritation. “Need us have bantered before you deigned to give me this news?”

“What of Entar?” The High Druid asked. “Were you not en route to rescue him?”

“Commander Durham will have to see to that,” the Ranger said, beginning to stride away.

“Moorstrider, before you go,” the Druid entreated, giving him pause. “Something you said to Karma must have resonated with her deeply. She has spent all of the time since you last saw her hunting Gnolls between here and The Friendly Arm Inn.”

A ghost of a smile played across the Ranger’s lips before he remembered another mystery needing solving.

“Other creatures have been noted among the Gnolls and Goblins…” He began.

“Oh yes,” the High Druid closed the distance the Ranger had placed between them. “Tall creatures, dark of flesh and armored in black?”

At the Ranger’s affirmation, he nodded. 

“They are Ogrillons,” he stated. “Though, given their number and apparent training, I would assume them to not have been birthed by any normal meeting between Ogre and Orc. Similar to the Goblins who run with the Gnolls, I believe them to be the product of fell sorcery, some magically enhanced breeding perhaps.”

“Yet another layer added to the threat,” Jaryn muttered. “Thank you for the information, High Druid, I assure you I will only be kept within the city so long as I must.”

“Do not tarry too long, Moorstrider,” Criven turned from him and stalked back towards the Sigil Stone. “Or there might not be anything left for you to save beyond its walls.”

*                                 *                                            *                                   *

“Ethon!?” Lortimer’s surprised voice rasped from beyond the peephole set into the sturdy door of his cottage in the city’s slums.

“Will you grant me access, or leave me on the stoop?” The tired Former Thief asked. While the rain had been refreshing after the closeness of the Temple of Ilmater, now that it has soaked through his cloak he found it tiresome and biting.

“Aye, of course,” the other man said, snapping shut the peephole and beginning the long process of unlatching his door. 

Once it was opened and the meager light from within highlighted the haggard features of his unexpected guest, Lortimer quickly moved aside and ushered him in, closing the door smartly in his wake and setting about resetting his myriad of locks.

“You look terrible, Ethon,” he admitted, brushing past the Former Thief and bustling towards his cupboard to fetch a half-empty bottle of strong liquor.

“It’s been a long day,” the other man admitted.

“And your head, please sit, is everything all right? Were you in some sort of battle?”

“A scuffle perhaps but I wouldn’t consider it a battle when one side wins so handily,” Ethon muttered, seating himself heavily across from Lortimer and gratefully accepting the offered glass of amber liquid.

“Is anyone else hurt?” Lortimer pressed.

“Of ours? Nay, but there was much blood spilled near the harbor.”

“I figured that was Jherek’s doing,” Lortimer said darkly, sipping his own drink.

“I am unsurprised you have already heard.”

“And if I have so have the comrades of they you lot killed. How could you be so careless?”

“It was not my call, I assure you.”

“And yet you took part.”

“If this is all I have to look forward to in your company, I will take my leave,” Ethon said darkly, beginning to rise.

“Nay it isn’t, please sit,” Lortimer urged him. “I know how persuasive Jherek can be. Though he shouldn’t have mixed you up in it, Alyth will have his head. On that topic though, why are you here and not the Elfsong?”

“I was headed there,” the Former Thief admitted. “But at this hour the taproom will be packed and Alyth busy. I have no desire to distract her with my current condition.”

“If that is what you think, Ethon, you are a far stupider man than I thought.”

“Sharp is your tongue this night, Lortimer,” Ethon commented darkly. “Tell me how tired your finger becomes when it is wagged so constantly.”

“I merely point out that, even after all these years, you still underestimate that woman,” the other man reasoned, refilling his glass.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that Alyth knows who you are, Ethon. Do you think she would have gotten with you if she had any doubt about what it is that drives you?”

“Have you been speaking to Gyselle?” Ethon questioned through narrowed eyes.

“Perhaps I am merely observant.”

Ethon chuckled, taking another sip of his drink, knowing full well that it was either the Gnomish Housekeeper, or else perhaps Alora, who had spoken to Lortimer of his and Alyth’s argument. In the end though, how he had been informed was of no importance. Information was Lortimer’s trade and so it did one no good to be angered by the fact that he knew some tidbit or another.

“No one could deny you of that, old friend,” he said, tipping the other man his drink. “In any case, I will return to the Elfsong soon, perhaps after one more glass of that horrible liquid courage you’re serving me.”

*                         *                                 *                              *

Duke Eltan entered his chambers to find Viconia seated upon the sill of his tall window, which sat open. The moisture-laden breeze teasing what locks of her hair framed her face, small droplets of water clinging to her cheeks.

“I thought we had agreed that you would never be here without me,” he said, pausing in the doorway.

“It has been several nights since you visited me, my lord,” she said, not turning to face him, the sheerness of her robe suggesting strongly her nakedness beneath.

“It has,” he cleared his throat, tearing his gaze from her curves and securing the door behind himself. “A regrettable, but necessary, turn of events.”

“An interesting way of putting it,” she said, wiping the moisture from her face, leaving him to wonder if it had been raindrops or tears that had lingered there. Turning to face him fully, she continued, “you share my bed for many a month, then encourage me to advise you amidst the current malcontence within the city, then you toss me aside as soon as the Moorstrider shows trepidation at my presence.”

“That was not the reason for it, Viconia,” Eltan assured her, striding to his table and filling a glass with deep, red wine.

“Will you at least enlighten me as to the reason? Or is it a hastening of my departure that you seek?” She pressed.

“That is, most definitely, not what I seek,” he said. “There have been few developments of late, and I have been too distracted preparing for the arrival of my fellow Dukes to do naught with a bed but sleep.”

“You’re lying,” she accused through narrowed eyes.

“I certainly have little energy to waste arguing with you.”

“Then I will depart.”

“Was an argument all you sought?”

“I sought an explanation, Eltan!” She shouted, slamming her bare foot upon his stone floor, her eyes wide and enraged.

“I have none other to offer than that which I have already given,” he replied, taking a swig of wine.

She glowered at him for a moment longer before stiffening her back and lip and striding from him, away through the secret passage to her own chambers. As the concealed entrance grated shut, the Duke dashed him yet half-filled glass of wine upon the cold stone of the floor.

Though she was already concealed within the confines of the secret tunnel, Viconia heard the smashing of the glass, the sound of which summoned a smug smirk to her full lips.

*                                *                                 *                                       *

Skye Silvershield was in the process of staring sightlessly through the diamond-sectioned, glass pane of the window to her quarters within High Hall when the lock to the door to the room turned and the portal swung open to admit a tired-looking woman in attire not dissimilar to Eldoth’s, though, the Noblewoman had to admit, the newcomer kept her’s in much better order than did the Bard.

“Excuse me!” She demanded indignantly, rising, her own tight leggings and loose blouse catching the other woman’s eye and causing her eyebrow to raise in questioning surprise.

“Going somewhere, my Lady?” The newcomer asked, her tone in no way sitting well with the Noblewoman.

“It is of no concern of yours…whoever you are,” Skye replied indignantly. “Guards! Remove this woman…”

“Oh, quit your harping,” the blonde interloper waved off her cries. “Who do you think let me in? My name is Marissa Tame and I have been hired by Duke Eltan to keep you safe.”

“Duke Eltan has no power here,” Skye sniffed. “This wing is the residence of Duke Entar Silvershield and only his word, or that of his family, hold any sway here.”

“Well, unfortunately, your father isn’t in the city,” Marissa countered. “And, given the threat upon High Hall, as well as your life he, has the authority, as the sole reining Duke within the city presently, to send anyone anywhere he damn well pleases, which has, to both of our misfortune, allowed him to command me to guard you.”

“I have guards without..” the noblewoman reasoned.

“And now you have one within.”

“You’re staying in my chambers!?”

“Have no fear, your highness, I have no desire to watch you bathe,” Marissa assured her. “I claim not but this chair,” she snagged such a piece of furniture from the Noblewoman’s breakfast table with her boot and scooted it towards the door. Seating herself upon it heavily, the Swashbuckler leaned back on its posterior legs and surveyed Skye closely. “Well, I suppose, the chair and the knowledge as to why you are dressed as though you were considering climbing out yonder window.”

“Do you have any proof that it was Eltan that sent you?” Skye asked, deflecting from the question.

Her gaze still fixed closely on the Noblewoman, Marissa reached into her jerkin and slowly produced a folded sheet of parchment. 

Striding stiffly over to her, Skye snatched the parchment out of the Swashbucklers hand and perused its contents.

“That is the Duke’s seal,” the Noblewoman allowed, her tone as stiff as her posture.

“Lovely, so we are agreed,” Marissa snatched the parchment back, tucking it safely once more into her jerkin.

“So are you just going to sit there and watch me?”

“Are you going to climb out that window?”

“No.”

“Then, as I said, I have no interest in watching you bathe.”

“Then it’s uncomfortable silence then.”

“Have you a better idea, Highness?”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Very well, Lady Silvershield…”

“Not that either…have you cards, or dice?”

Marissa’s brow once more headed for her hairline at the other woman’s words.

“Not a very ladylike proposition,” she observed.

“Perhaps I am not very ladylike then,” Skye offered.

“Very well…Skye,” the Harper replied cautiously. “Have you a preference between the two?”

“I like dice.”

“Have you coin?”

“Please,” the Noblewoman scoffed.

“How foolish of me,” Marissa smirked. “All right then, pull up a chair and let’s see how unladylike you truly are.”

*                                   *                               *                                        *

“Ethon!” Alyth exclaimed upon happening upon him in the larder where she had gone to fetch another cask of ale.

“Forgive me my skulking” he beseeched her, knowing how he no doubt appeared, soaked through and haggard, a bloody bandage about his brow and no doubt stinking of liquor, as he had lingered a bit longer than he had originally planned at Lortimer’s. 

“I merely wished to not upset any guardsmen who might be patronizing the Elfsong, given the manner in which I garnered my current appearance.”

“You foolish man,” she admonished, rushing to his side to inspect his crown. “If you were truly with whom I know you were to gain you such grisly trophies then you should be better informed than I as to why there are no guardsmen currently patronizing my taproom.”

“What do you mean?” He insisted, grasping her hands in his to cease its perusal of his brow. “Why are there no guardsmen present?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, snatching her fingers from his grasp and returning to her prodding. “But I would assume it to have something to do with the fact Jherek recently reentered our lives.”

“I am sure you’re right,” he cringed. “Have any of the Harpers been by.”

“They haven’t,” she said, taking a step back and setting her hands on her hips. “And that is no cause for you to go rushing out to inquire as to the cause of theirs, or the guardsman’s, absence.”

“I’ve lived through enough current events for one day, I assure you,” he smiled, drawing her into a tight embrace, one she returned with equal strength. 

“Wait,” he drew back to eye her closely. “Why are you here, headed for the casks of ale, if no guardsmen currently patronize your taproom?”

“It’s that northern barbarian,” she replied. “He has done naught but sit at my bar the last fortnight drinking pint after pint as if it was water, and I have a doubt as to their effectiveness on him at all.”

Ethon grinned.

“At least he’s keeping you in business,” he said.

“And you’re keeping me in duress,” she accused. “Now grab the cask if you have the strength, then it’s straight to the tub with you.”

“Yes ma’am,” he smiled privately, as she turned to strut back to her post at the bar, her shapely ass swishing wither and thither before his much-interested gaze. 

‘Fuck Jherek,’ he thought. Whatever might be the cause for the guardsmen’s absence, and he was sure it has something to do with the happenings of the day, something the Harper Master had garnered from his prisoner no doubt, all he wanted that night was to be with this beautiful woman who had somehow seen through the tribulations of his past and loved him despite them all.

Shouldering the cask of ale, he followed in her wake, a contented smile upon his lips.

Within the taproom, the Former Thief saw indeed that it was near-abandoned. With naught but a handful of adventurers populating its tables, including the fur-clad barbarian from Icewind Dale who had been there when Lystra had visited. 

Though none other seemed to, the Barbarian did take note of the Former Thief, as well as the bandage wrapped about his brow and his shockingly blue eyes narrowed at the sight.

After setting the cask upon its mount, Ethon excused himself, retreating towards the stairs to the tavern’s upper levels, aware that both Alyth and the Barbarian watched him closely.

“You seem mighty interested in my man, stranger,” the barkeep commented, her eyes flicking to the Barbarian as Ethon disappeared up the stairs.

“I was told this was a city of adventure,” he rumbled in reply, surprising her as it had been the first time he had spoken since he seated himself at her bar. Furthermore, his heavily accented words reminded her strongly of a distant avalanche within the mountains.

“So far, nothing but your man’s brow suggests anything of the sort,” he extrapolated.

“You’re in the wrong bar if you’re looking for adventure,” she told him flatly. “This near the gate, you’re unlikely to find any but guardsmen seeking a drink between shifts.”

“The raven-haired ranger was here,” he countered.

“What of her?” She realized too late that her tone was defensive, but if the Barbarian noticed, he gave no sign. Instead he merely shrugged. 

“She is the apprentice of Jaryn Moorstrider,” he stated.

“What if she were?”

“She is, and he is a great warrior,” he shrugged again. “She must also be a great warrior if he chose her to apprentice him.”

“Reason would suggest…” She allowed.

“I await her return then,” he nodded, drinking deeply of his mug before slapping the empty tankard down upon the counter, motioning quickly for her to refill it.

“So long as you pay, you may sit and drink for as long as you wish, friend,” she offered, taking his mug to fill it anew at the cask Ethon had brought from the larder. 

For his part, the massive man from Icewind Dale merely nodded, his gaze, once again, returning to the vacancy that had occupied it since he had first sat upon the stool.

Whilst Alyth traded words with the Barbarian, Ethon sat within his and Alyth’s room, his own gaze vacant as he reminisced on the events of the day. His hands absentmindedly playing with his curved dagger that had taken its first life that day in many a year.

“Much on your mind?” A piping voice asked, drawing him from his thoughts and focusing his eyes on the diminutive figure of Gyselle as she bustled past, hoisting in her small, pudgy arms a bucket of heated water far too large and, seemingly, heavy for her. 

Fighting off the urge to rush to help her with her burden, an act he knew she would resent far more than she would appreciate, the Former Thief merely shook his head, tossing his dagger upon his and Alyth’s tabletop as he did.

“Do you ever feel as though you have chosen the wrong profession?” He asked, beginning to pull off his muddied boots.

The Gnomish woman eyed him over the rim of the bucket as she poured its contents into the chipped, porcelain tub between them.

For her age, which he could only assume was far beyond the waking of the world, Ethon was always surprised by the keenness of the Gnome woman’s gaze. Beyond that, her age-worn, yet handsome, face, complete with cherry cheeks and the ever-present spring in her step decried a youthfulness she had, by all rights, long left behind and yet had, apparently, never fully abandoned.

“I’ve always found that the profession we end up with more so chooses us than we it,” she replied, returning her gaze to her task.

“How so?” He asked, his eyes, unwittingly, casting themselves towards his discarded dagger.

When he returned his gaze to her, Gyselle quickly looked back towards the tub, but it was obvious that she had followed his look.

“I mean that, when our bones grow old and our muscles weary, we truly discover who we are,” she said carefully, waving her chubby hand above the tub and whispering a few choice, arcane phrases, magically summoning further hot water to fully fill its bounty.

“That response is no less cryptic, Gyselle,” he admonished. 

She sighed.

“This is something you were better to discuss with Alyth,” she said.

“My question was innocent and off hand,” he countered. “I merely sought your take on whether or not the lot in the life we end up with is by our own choosing.”

“And what better question to ask of the woman you love?” She countered smoothly, taking her bucket and bustling from the room.

“I feel like there’s some history behind that reply,” he muttered to himself, divulging of the rest of his clothing and striding naked, save a golden medallion he wore about his neck, to the tub.

“Tymora’s tits,” he sighed, sinking into the scalding water. “No offense,” he added to his medallion, which depicted a buxom, smiling woman.

“Though I suppose I could have used your help today,” he continued, gingerly prodding the bandage on his brow. “Or perhaps it was by your mercy this was all I got. Considering how long it’s been since I’ve wielded a blade.”

As he pondered this, his mind replaying the events of the morning. He and Marissa fighting back to back in the dingy tenement room against the Northlander mercenarie, he was surprised by a stirring in his loins. The Former Thief glanced down to see the tip of his cock rising above the steaming waters. 

“Well how about that,” he murmured, a small smile coming to his lips as he leaned back against the rim of the tub, his eyes closing as he savored the therapeutic effects of the bath, combined with the invigorating thrill the thoughts of the day brought to him.

Reaching down, he slowly began to stroke himself. His fingers, gliding up and down the length of his manhood, taking his thoughts, unwittingly, back to the prostitutes and whores he would frequent in his youth. When he was a lesser member of the then established Thieves Guild in Baldur’s Gate. These were not thoughts that he had entertained for the majority of his adult life. 

Just as quickly as they had arrived, the reminiscence of his former life fled. Replaced by thoughts of Alyth. The beauticious, Half-Elven Barkeep accepting him into her life after months of his frequenting of her tavern after the fall of his Guild. Her gradual reliance on him, and subsequent welcoming of him into her bed. The desperate hands of needy whores replaced by the gentle caress of her own. Her teaching him what it truly meant to touch a woman, and be touched in return.

He groaned. His orgasm wracking his body more fully than any of the cares of the day. Thoughts of his lover careening through his head as his nerve-endings fired. Jets of his semen shooting into the bathwater about him just as he collapsed, his head knocking against the rim of the tub as the waves of his orgasm rocked him to full restfulness, images of Alyth carrying him to the very end.

*                             *                                     *                                        *

“I am grieved to hear it, Moorstrider,” Commander Adrian Durham lamented upon Jaryn’s return to their camp and relaying to him, in abridged fashion, the words of the High Druid Blacktree. “But I know that you would not abandon the mission were it not for the greater good.”

“I am less sure,” Captain Messalantir interjected, stepping forward into the firelight.

“Captain, this man is one of the most honorable to ever stride the breadth of the Sword Coast,” Commander Durham stated firmly.

“He seems more to me a pawn of Eltan’s to so hastily abandon the rescue of my Lord to expedite his returning that wretch’s side,” the Silvershield Captain barrelled onward as if Adrian had never spoken.

“Duke Eltan,” Jaryn corrected the younger man, a hard edge to his voice that resonated throughout the clearing and carrying, he was sure, to the surrounding guardsmen who, he knew, had heard the Silvershield’s slander.

“I am sure you meant to correct him, Commander, but forgive me, I couldn’t help myself,” he continued, his glare remaining on William Messalantir. “In any case, I feel the necessity to remind you all that any domino that falls will take the others with it. Four Dukes lead Baldur’s Gate, not three, not two, not one. By decree of the people since the death of Balduran and it is my duty, as well as yours, Captain, to ensure that it remains such.”

“My oath is to Duke Entar Silvershield,” the Captain stood firm, his back rigid.

“As is mine!” Adrian assured him, his own tone raised. Stepping to the young captain’s side, he laid a hand firmly upon the other man’s shoulder. “But so is it to all the Dukes, and the City of Baldur’s Gate,” he continued, slightly louder, his gaze flicking about the campfires around them.

“These are my men!” He continued in far lower tones, so that only those gathered ‘round his own fire might hear, grabbing the Silvershield’s gorget and bringing the other man’s face close to his. “There is no singular lord to whom we swear fealty and, if you challenge my command again, I shall bring law and order to this camp, right here, right now. Are we in full understanding of one another?”

“We are, Commander,” the Captain replied, his earlier vigor calmed.

Releasing the other man, Adrian turned back to Jaryn.

“We will rescue Duke Entar,” he stated. “You must do as you must, Moorstrider, though I do hope that a day will come soon when we will truly draw swords together.”

“Perhaps sooner than we might suspect, Commander,” Jaryn dipped his head to the Guardforce Commander, before turning to take his leave.

“Allow me to walk you to your horse,” the Commander insisted, stepping to his side. 

“Of course,” the Ranger agreed, choosing a shorter stride so that the other man might more easily keep pace with him.

The two of them walked quietly together until they reached Sundril who stood impatiently at the camp’s edge, as if he could sense that they were to leave and yearned for nothing more than the open road.

“You have an amazing steed, Moorstrider,” the Commander commented.

“He is of the Elvan Court,” Jaryn replied, stroking the beast’s neck. “And far more intelligent than most men I have encountered on my journeys.”

Adrian chuckled. 

“Do not resent Captain Messalantir,” he beseeched the Ranger. “He is impetuous and young and beholden to his lord.”

“He is,” Jaryn agreed. “And thus I thank Silvanus he has a competent commander.”

“Entar is a great man,” Adrian agreed.

“I mean you, Adrian,” the Ranger said. 

Commander Durham said nothing, but merely nodded to his words. Hoisting himself onto Sundril’s back, Jaryn looked down upon the Guardsman.

“You spoke truly, Commander,” he said. “Your loyalty is to the city and not one of its lords.”

“As is your own?”

“My loyalty is to the Sword Coast and all those of good heart who traverse its lands.”

“Such as it is.”

“Such as it has always been.”

With that, the Ranger guided Sundril to the forest’s edge before lurching out into the Lightning-lanced, rainswept night.

                      *                          *                                 *                            *

After he was finished with his bath, Ethon quickly dressed himself in the clean linens Gyselle had brought up for him before whisking away his soiled ones for laundering. He did not know how much time had passed since he had first sunk into the steaming water, having dozed off shortly after masturbating, and was eager to rejoin Alyth in the taproom. Even on a slow night, the Elfsong could be a handful for one person and, though he knew the Half-Elf to be fully capable of handling things, his guilt over his absence over the last few days hastened his steps.

Just as he reached the door, his dagger laying upon the tabletop caught his eye. Lortimer’s words concerning the Storm’s Rising Mercenaries having no doubt already discovered the remnants of their operation in the tenement echoing in his head, he reached over and snatched up the blade, sliding it through the slim belt Gyselle had left with the new clothes, before wrenching open the door and striding to rejoin his lover.

Descending the stairs, he was surprised to find the taproom deserted of patrons, with only Gyselle bustling about cleaning up what crumbs or spills they had left behind, as well as gathering any dirty dishes.

“I must have slept longer than I thought,” he remarked to the Gnome, his footsteps taking him down the stairs and into the taproom proper.

“Not too long,” was her reply. “Alyth decided to close up early given the slow night.”

“That’s odd,” he muttered, rounding the bar as if expecting to find the Half-Elf lurking behind. “Where is she?”

“The larder,” was the Gnome’s terse reply. “Taking stock after that Barbarian emptied three casks all on his own.”

Dipping his head in thanks, the Former Thief made for the door behind the bar, snatching a bottle of Dalelands Brandy as he did.

Within, the larder was surprisingly dark considering that Alyth was supposedly counting her stock. The loud sound of falling rain echoing in the rear courtyard drew him to the tavern’s back entrance where he found the barkeep seated upon a stool, leaning against the doorframe, her gaze vacantly staring at the droplets falling near at hand, highlighted by the lantern that hung just outside of the door.

Drawing nearer, Ethon swished the contents of the bottle he held to draw her gaze. As she looked up, he smiled at the sight of her beautiful face.

“Need a drink?” He asked.

In response, she lifted the bottle of her own she held before bringing it to her lips and taking a deep swig. Taking a draught of his own bottle, he meandered to her side, leaning against the doorframe across from her.

“What’s going on out there?” She murmured after a brief silence. “Are they fighting yet another battle against our mysterious foe? Has one of them fallen?”

Without her having to specify, he knew that by “they” she meant the Harpers.

“I would assume that they are pursuing whatever lead they garnered from the prisoner I saw them with last,” he replied, taking another swig in an attempt to wash away the sight of Jherek’s fingers elongating once more.

“You weren’t there?” 

“I was…encouraged to leave,” he said, gingerly touching the bandage that remained wrapped about his head.

“So you weren’t caught up in it too tightly,” she said, relief coloring her tone.

“More than I would have liked,” he admitted. “It all happened so fast. One moment we were trailing a mark, the next there were blades swinging and men dying. Then Jewel struck me and I…”

“Jewel did that to you!?” The accusation rang between them and echoed throughout the courtyard beyond their vigil.

“She was in a rage,” he explained. “Marissa and I tried to retrain her and she lashed out.”

“And is Marissa sporting a similar wound?”

“No, I was just lucky I guess,” he smirked and her and, after a brief moment of frowning, she chuckled, her gaze returning to the darkened courtyard and her bottle to her lips.

“Tymora willing, that will be the only mark you get out of all this,” she said a moment later, sobering from her momentary mirth.

“Tymora willing, they garnered enough information from their prisoner there will be no more need to call on me,” he agreed, his free hand unthinkingly going to the gold medallion he wore beneath his shirt.

“Those are tomorrow’s concerns,” she said, setting her bottle down beside the stool and rising to draw herself closer to him.

Accepting her body against his, he wrapped an arm about her to draw her in close, his other arm setting his own bottle down on a nearby shelf. Snuggling against his chest, she bent her lips upward to meet his in a deep kiss, just as thunder rumbled outside.

The kiss, as well as the liquor she had consumed, invigorating her, she broke away from him and retreated to a nearby pile of potato sacks. Laying herself upon them whilst facing him, she slowly began to lift the hem of her skirt, a mischievous smile playing about her lips.

A smirk coming to his own, he pursued her, pressing himself down upon her languished form, his lips seeking hers once more as he positioned himself between her spread thighs, his nimble fingers quickly unlatching his belt and opening his trousers. As he did so a loud clatter momentarily distracted them, and they both looked to see his dagger skittering away across the flagstones. Giggling like a schoolgirl, she drew his face back to her’s, locking his lips and sparring with his tongue.

His pants now loosened, he reached between them, his roughened fingertips grazing the soft, moistened lips of her sex, then parting them wide to allow his hardened cock to slip within.

She gasped as he entered her, one of her arms flinging itself about his shoulders, whilst the other hand pushed his pants further downward and grabbed his bared ass, her fingernails digging into the soft flesh to urge him deeper.

He eagerly complied, his hips thrusting hard against hers, driving the burning length of his manhood to the hilt within her dripping depths. She gasped as he did so, her back arching, offering her ample cleavage to his hungry mouth. Bringing one hand up to support himself against the lumpy sacks behind her, he used the other to grip the side of her blouse at her neckline and tear viciously. Her gasps of pleasure were joined by one of astonishment at his action. Never had the Former Thief been so aggressive in their lovemaking. As his mouth descended upon the breast he had bared in his tearing, she arched her back anew, wrapping her legs about his waist as his thrusts became harder and more vigorous. Reveling in the onslaught he was heaping upon her.

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