Dancers in the Wings
The one Inn at Beliard, The Watchful Knight, was rough place built of logs, cold and draughty. Rowan sat at a table, drinking a passable ale, feeling that with only a little work that Arachar, the Inn's owner, might make something decent of the place.
Balconies looked down on the main hall, and two upper floors of rooms ringed it, giving it a sense of great space. Seal up all the cracks, get some dwarves to panel the rough walls with wood and stone, a better quality of beer, and it would have been a pleasant place to spend time.
As it was it The Watchful Knight was simply the only place to spend time. Beliard, a small, tree-cloaked village, offered little else of interest.
She had ridden quickly as she could to Beliard, but Misara was not present, nor had she passed through the village. It was likely the elf was still off on her mission to find out more information. Rowan had decided to wait a tenday at the Inn; and then, if Misara had not shown, she would travel to Waterdeep and continue the investigation on her own.
She did not regret the time, only the place she spent it in, for it would do Olpara some good.
The halfling woman had asked to travel with Rowan once she was well; potions and spells having undone the physical damage that the giants had caused. What they had not done was help her get over the deeper scars left upon her psyche.
The gregarious woman she had met at the Maiden's Rest had become quiet, uncertain. She had lost most of her friends and was in the middle of a land she had come to fear. It was not a situation that Rowan herself had experienced, Sune grant that she never would, but she had seen it before.
The journey might help Olpara, or at least take her to some haven where she might recover. Rowan thought that Waterdeep might offer such a haven. So now she travelled with the halfling that she had likely fallen in love with, or at least had a strong infatuation for. Such feelings were not uncommon for the Paladin of Sune, and she did not bother fighting them. And if Olpara could not return that love, well, a warm friendship would be enough.
The halfling was seated across from her, but her attention was on the far side of the hall where a musician played a dulcimer and sang an old ballad about a fallen warrior and the love he left behind. Then, as if aware she was being watched, she turned to look Rowan in the eyes.
"A pretty song," Rowan said, not looking away.
"But sad," Olpara answered.
"They often are." Rowan smiled and looked over the halfling's shoulder at the musician. "I do not think he has known true love or he might sing it differently."
"A guess, or the word of a servant of Sune?" she asked-present in her voice a humour that had been lacking of late.
"Perhaps a little of both."
"How did you become a Paladin?"
Rowan said nothing for a moment, considering the question. "It is not a very interesting story. Do you really want to hear it?"
"Well, my mother was a worshipper of Sune, father paid lip service to her, but he truly worshipped Chauntea. This is not really important, but it plays a part in the story."
"I was a very attractive child, mother was quite proud of that. Beautiful, red hair, she was certain that I had the favour of Sune, and so I was kept from much of the work on the farm. Digging in the dirt was hardly a proper task for me, or so my mother thought. I personally wanted to work with my brothers and sisters; it always looked like they were having fun.
"When I was just a little over nine summers old my mother introduced me to a visiting priestess. Bethany, the priestess, thought that I should go to the temple of Sune at Athkatla, to study and serve the goddess. My mother was overjoyed, and for father it was a chance to get rid of a child who did not do any work." Rowan laughed softly. "Years later I made certain to send him a small fortune in gold and silver so he might remember me fondly.
"In the temple I started my studies, working with the other acolytes, my mother would have been scandalized to see me working so hard, but I enjoyed it. I was a very active child, and I loved running and playing and even fighting, when it came down to it, with the other children. The temple did not change that, and it was noticed. Rosalar, who was the head of Acolytes, saw that, and it was decided that I was not one who would be happy as a temple priestess, but would do better as a warrior priestess, protecting the faith.
"During those studies I came to the attention of Seomon Westride, a visiting Paladin. He said that I had the calling to join Sune's Paladins. Not long afterwards he took me to Waterdeep, to study at the temple there.
"He was right, I did have the calling. There were many tests of course, and the training of a Paladin is a long and difficult path, but for those that truly do have the calling it is challenging, not impossible. For those without the calling," Rowan raised her shoulders and let them fall, "they find other ways to serve the church.
"And that is it, without going into the details of me crying myself to sleep after a particularly difficult challenge." She smiled, picked up her mug and took a drink.
Olpara picked up her own mug, using both hands, and lifted it to her lips. Rowan watched her, considered the danger in the question she wanted to ask, and decided to ask it anyway.
"How did you take up the mantle of an adventurer?" she asked.
Olpara seemed to grow stiff, and she slowly lowered her mug to the tabletop. Rowan worried that she might have asked the question too soon. A moment later Olpara said, "It is because of a flying, clockwork boat."
Rowan considered those words for a moment, decided that she had heard them right, and then said, "What?"
Smiling, Olpara leaned back in her chair. "I wanted to fund the construction of a flying, clockwork boat. You see, I'm from Lantan, originally. Several years ago some gnome acquaintances of mine showed me the plans they had for a flying boat. They needed funds to construct it; I had talents that could earn a great deal of money."
A thoughtful look appeared on Olpara's face. "Last letter I received from Koger was asking for more money. That was the reason I agreed to start dealing with giants."
While Rowan wanted to know more about what had happened to Olpara, she did not ask. The set of the halfling's shoulders told her that she did not want to say anything else.
"Do you want another drink?" Rowan said as she got to her feet.
Olpara nodded, but said nothing else.
Liman lay under the camouflaged blind, staring down at the Beliard, watching as the people began to settle in for the night. The two women he had been tracking had arrived the day before and appeared content to wait. Obviously they were waiting for someone. Beliard had nothing else to offer the two. He was certain that they were waiting for the elf Paladin.
He wanted to remain where he was, to wait and be certain that he could catch the elf when she came. He also needed to go to Deeppond and see to Ippla. There had been no trail left. Either Ippla had not caught her or he had already killed her. Either way Liman had to know.
"I want you to stay here," he said to Siishi. "Watch, follow if you have to."
"I will," she said from his side.
He nodded, knowing that Siishi would do as he said. He pushed himself out from under the cover of the blind, looked about to make certain that there were no threats, and then he shifted, becoming a red tiger. He swung his huge head back and forth, using his sharper senses to again take stock of the area. A moment later he set off, running towards the High Forest.
Liman had a number of magical items, ones that he could use in any of the forms he might take. The dark bands of fur around his legs were bands of leather -worn around his ankles and wrists-in his human form. They allowed him to move faster than any horse, and on straight paths he could easily pace swift flying eagles.
When the sun began to rise many hours later he was already under the canopy of the High Forest, near the hidden glade that was called Deeppond. He stalked through the underbrush, his dark red coat giving him a surprising amount of camouflage in the deep shadows of the forest.
He stopped, listening, breathing in deeply to bring the scents of the forest into his mouth. Then he returned to his human shape and started walking forward. Within seconds a pair of black wolves had appeared in front of him, barring his way.
"I am here to speak with Ocrast. I am Liman, also called Stealthpaws."
The wolves looked at him for a few seconds, then at each other. A moment later one moved back into the thick, forest brush while the other turned and started towards Deeppond. Liman returned to tiger form and followed.
The sun was only a little higher in the sky when the wolf entered the open area that was Deeppond. A small river plunged over a rocky cliff; the water had carved a deep pool at the waterfall's base. There was less ground cover in the area, but it was not cleared. There were a large number of wolves, some lounging by the river, others sleeping in the large hollow behind the waterfall, and a few on two legs, doing things that a pair of hands was needed for.
Liman shifted to his human form, standing on the edge of the glade, waiting for Ocrast.
The wolf that had led him there continued on, leaping across a set of stones, and moving behind the curtain of water. A short time passed, during which several wolves padded closer to him, taking measure of him. He said nothing; he was a guest there, and not an entirely welcome one.
A very large wolf, black fur, greying about the muzzle, walked out from behind the waterfall. His stride was long and quickly he stood in front of Liman. He shifted, bone and muscle creaking, until a wild haired man stood where the wolf had.
"The Ocrast pack welcomes Liman Stealthpaws to Deeppond," Ocrast said formally.
Liman nodded. "I accept and thank you for your welcome. Malar lend strength to your hunt." The blessing was not required, but that they he worshipped the Beastlord was one of the few things that tied himself and the wolf-changers together.
"Malar lend strength to your hunt," Ocrast replied.
"I am on a hunt," he said plainly, "and one of my pack was to come here to wait if he did not find the prey." Liman saw Ocrast frown slightly. "What is it? Has some offence been given by my follower?" he asked, worried that Ippla had done something to offend the wolves.
"Come. There is something I must show you," Ocrast said, then turned and walked away. "Send Redfur to me," he called out.
Liman followed, wondering why the leader of the wolves seemed so concerned. He suddenly felt that something might have happened to Ippla.
They climbed a narrow path, up the cliff, and then walked across the rocky ground towards the trees. Soon Liman could smell the scent of death and he began to fear for what might have happened to his companion.
Ocrast stopped near a cover made of woven branches. He knelt down and lifted it. There upon the rocky ground lay Ippla, several days dead. Liman dropped to his knees by the body, his hand reaching out towards, but out touching the body.
There were wounds on the body, and Ippla's few possessions lay in a bundle at his feet. Beside him were the weapons that had killed him. Three arrows, one broken near the tip, silver shafts of birch wood, green and black fletching, the tips on the two whole arrows broad and leaf shaped. A badly corroded knife lay beside him as well.
He looked up at Ocrast. "Do you know how this came to be?"
"I will let Redfur tell you. He was the one who found your friend."
Liman nodded and awaited the one called Redfur. The wait was not long, the sun had hardly moved when the young man with red hair approached.
"Redfur," Ocrast said, "tell Liman Stealthpaws how you came to find his friend, Ippla."
Redfur nodded, and then turned to Liman. "I was patrolling the outskirts of the forest when I heard a cry of pain and anger and knew it must come from one like me. I quickly went to where I had heard the cry, hoping to help or avenge, but when I arrived all I found was this one. Of his slayer there was no sign.
"I searched to see what I might find out, but there was little.
"There was an elf, the scent was of an elf, a female I think. Ippla and the elf fought. They traded blows, toe to toe, and then Ippla was badly wounded. He tried to flee, but the elf finished him with arrows. The scents and the tracks told me that.
"The elf approached Ippla, to assure he was dead perhaps. The elf's scent was on Ippla's face. The elf closed his eyes I think, such is the custom among those who are civilized." He said 'civilized' with a tone of disgust.
"How badly was the elf hurt?" Liman asked.
Redfur was silent.
Liman looked up at him. "How badly?"
"There was only a faint smell of the elf's blood. I do not think the elf was hurt very badly at all. The elf must have been a mighty warrior to best one of the tigers."
"Enough Redfur," Ocrast said. "You may go."
The young man nodded, shifted into a red furred wolf and then darted away.
Ocrast knelt down and gingerly picked up the knife. "This is made of silver," he said. "The blade was enchanted so that the silver came free in his body, poisoning his blood. Your prey is ready for you."
"My prey is wise in the way of the changers," Liman told him. "I knew she was dangerous, but Ippla was a blooded warrior. He should not have fallen so easily."
"You must use care on your hunt."
"Your words are wise."
"Do you know the name of this elf?"
Liman nodded. "She is called Misara Dawntide."
Ocrast looked surprised, jerking back slightly as if stung.
"Do you know this name?" Liman asked.
"I know of the elf called Misara Dawntide. There have been times she has called the forest home, and times when she and this pack had come to blows. She has killed many of our warriors in the past. My grandfather fell to her sword fifty winters ago and they say the no wolf changer has been his equal."
Liman considered the pack leader's words, and wondered if he might ask for help, but quickly discarded that notion. The tigers and wolves might meet in peace, but they would not work together well, and the wolf would demand to lead, as was its nature. Liman would not follow a wolf.
"I must go." Liman reached for the bundle by Ippla's feet. "I ask that you place his body somewhere that the birds might feast on it and where his bones might be scattered." He removed a bracelet and a short sword from the bundle. "The rest of this things I give as a gift to the Ocrast pack."
Ocrast nodded. "I shall do as you ask. Good hunting, Liman Stealthpaws. May Malar speed your blows and sharpen your claws."
Liman nodded, and put on the bracelet before shifting to his tiger form. He picked up the sword in his mouth and then sped off, leaping down the cliff side in long bounds, running into the forest, soon leaving Deeppond behind.
South of Silverymoon was the small town of Lake Edge, one of the Free Towns, populated almost entirely by retired Zhentarim soldiers and their families. Almost two hundred people lived in Lake Edge, fishing and farming for their living.
Etham Lios had lived in Laketown since its founding. At sixty years of age he had led a small group of people looking for a new life to the site. He had been a driving force behind its quick growth, even when his health was failing him. He was almost seventy now, likely near the end of his life.
His home was grand, by the standards of the frontier, two stories, well crafted of wood and stone. It was easily defensible, a place for the villagers to come if ever there was need. Several men guarded it, apparently to keep it safe for such a day.
Inside it was well furnished, with several fireplaces to stave off the chill that the old man felt more and more. He was seated in front the fireplace in the library, surrounded by a collection of books.
While many felt he lived in luxury, Etham could only compare it unfavourably to the townhouse he had left behind in Zhentil Keep. He had been exiled from the city, sent to build a town in the Silver Marches, forever denied the luxuries he had once known. At one time he had hoped to return, but his heart was failing, and an apoplexy had left his left side weak. He did not think he would see the coming summer. He certainly would never return to his home.
"Etham Lios," someone said in a voice he recognised, though the manner of speaking was unknown to him.
Etham turned his head slowly and looked towards the entrance to the library. There stood young Winsen, one of the guards who protected him and his house. It was not Winsen however. He did not stand like Winsen, he wore a grin that would never have graced Winsen's face, and he looked far too intelligent.
"Are you an assassin, here to end my life?" Etham asked, surprised to note that such a thought scared him. Apparently he was not so tired of life as he might think.
"The assassin you should fear is time Etham Lios. I am only here to seek information," the one who looked like Winsen said.
"Information. The most valuable coin, and I will have some of it first. Why take the guise of Winsen?"
For a moment the one who looked liked Winsen said nothing. "I have not taken his guise. I have taken his body."
"I see," Etham said. "A useful ability. It would make you quite the assassin."
Winsen smiled in a way he would never smile. "If I chose such a path."
"What exactly do you wish to know?" Etham felt a small stirring of excitement. For too long he had been ignored, pushed into unimportant postings. Now he was once again part of something that had the potential to mean something.
"I have been told that you are something of an expert on the Paladin Misara Dawntide."
Etham felt a mixture of surprise and disappointment. He had hoped, he realised, that the strange visitor might have been planning something in Zhentil Keep. He would have enjoyed knowing that he was the cause of any problems that might occur at his old home. "Why do you wish to know about Misara?"
"I wish to kill her." It was simply stated, no anger in the voice, just a fact.
Etham began to laugh, he laughed until he began to cough, and he coughed until he was robbed of breath, was doubled over, and could feel tears in his eyes. Finally the coughing passed and he spat something thick into the fireplace before straightening. "You wish to kill her," he said softly, his throat pained by the recent coughing fit. "I had a chance to kill her once. I should have, but I was far too clever for my own good.
"What is one more dead Paladin?" Etham continued. "A good start my superiors said afterwards, but death is so easy." He gripped the right arm of his chair tightly. "I wanted to break her. I wanted to defile and humiliate her and show her and everyone else what the true value of her belief was." Etham began to breathe heavily. "Killing her would have been a kindness to what I had planned for her.
"A full tenday I had her. A tenday." He stared into the fire. "I had broken better than her in half that time, and in the end she was only stronger for all I had done." He released his grip on the chair, the pain in his fingers a far off thing at that moment. Etham turned towards the not-Winsen. "I think she broke me."
"This is all very interesting, but I wish only to kill her."
Etham nodded. "I see." He looked over at one of the nearby shelves. "Those three black and gold books, those are what you want."
The not-Winsen left the threshold where he had stood and walked to the shelf. He pulled one of the books from the shelf and flipped through it. "This will do," he said.
"Your hands are shaking," Etham said.
The not-Winsen looked down at his hands, the tremor making the book shake. "I know," he said as he closed the book and took the other two. "Is this man important to you?"
"Not really. He's just a hired guard. Loyal in his simplicity. Why?"
"He will die. The strain of the possession is already too much for him."
"You are limited in the time you can spend in a borrowed body."
"Yes," the not-Winsen said tightly. "I thank you for these books Etham Lios. Take solace in the fact that Misara Dawntide will be dead soon." He walked from the room.
"I will believe that when her lifeless body is placed at my feet," Etham said quietly. He turned back to the fireplace and wondered what might happen. Lethargy settled on him. For a moment it had seemed that he might be part of things once more, but it had been a false hope. He was old, and the woman he hated was likely unchanged from the days he had held her as his prisoner.
He smiled slightly. As long as Misara lived, someone would remember him when he was at his best. Perhaps the dark memory of that time would grow, like a seed into a tree, and serve to turn her to a darker path.
Suddenly he hoped that she would survive whatever was coming at her, be hurt of course, but survive. She was the only possible legacy that he had left.
As was always the case, Cirtimin felt the weakness of his body more keenly when he gave up another. Somewhere, hundreds of miles away, the man Winsen would be dying, his body burnt out by the possession. A strong body that was unable to handle the stress Cirtimin's possession put on it.
One day, he thought as he got to his feet, leaning heavily on his staff, he would find a body strong enough to hold his soul. One day he would leave his weak body behind.
Shuffling over to the pedestal in the room, the only piece of furniture in the room other than the chair, he looked down at the three books that lay on it. He opened the top book and looked at the tight, cramped writing within: The history, as much as Etham had been able to find out, about Misara Dawntide. He ran his finger down the page, looking over the notes within.