Chapter 7: The Making and Breaking of a Harper

Disclaimer: The world of the forgotten Realms is not owned by me.

NSFW Warning: None.

Guiding their mounts at a plodding pace, Lystra and her companions traveled in silence northward along the Coastway. All three were sullen and miserable, the constant rain sapping them of any cheer or drive.

About them, the rolling hill country was somber, grey, and mist-laden. Depleted of any color by the dreary weather. Even the trees that stood intermittent on either side did little to break the monotony.

Some miles to the west the crashing of distant waves on rocky cliffs could be heard, contesting weakly with the rolling thunder overhead to better voice nature’s frustrations.

As they crested a small rise, Lystra pulled back her sodden hood to better spy the path ahead. Perhaps a half-mile distant the road forked, the larger path continuing its meandering way northward, whilst the second curved westward. The westward path rose steadily through a slightly more densely forested country before crossing a rather narrow defile leading to the fortress library of Candlekeep that stood steadfastly on an outcropping of stone high above the Sea of Swords. Though the mists obscured all but the faintest outline of the ancient keep, Lystra couldn’t help but feel a certain uplifting of spirit just knowing that it was there. Like The Friendly Arm Inn, Candlekeep was a staple of the Sword Coast, defiant of any force that sought its destruction and gazing upon it now the half-elven ranger couldn’t help but feel reassured that this storm too would pass.

Guiding his mount up beside her, Kivan tore her attentions from the monastery and back to the fork before them. 

“Someone awaits us,” the Harper murmured.

Looking back to the large waystone that marked the road to Candlekeep’s divergence from the Coastway, Lystra saw that he was indeed correct. A lone figure stood beside the stone alongside a saddle-less black steed. Though the figure’s hood was drawn there was little question as to who it was.

“It’s Jaryn,” Lystra replied, before urging Shadowflight onward at a quick canter, Kivan and Huvertrov following close behind.

As they rode, Lystra couldn’t help her gaze moving to the lands north of the Candlekeep road where the open forests quickly closed ranks to mark the southern eaves of Cloakwood. Looking skyward from those eaves, she noted that the storm clouds thinned quickly over the woods, so much so that strips of blue sky could be discerned further to the north. Her breath caught slightly in her throat at the sight, and the words of the High Druid Blacktree rang once more in her mind.

“If ever you seek shelter, go to where the rain does not fall,” he had said and here was his vindication, the storm receding above the treetops of the very wood he’d claimed as his domain. Prying her sight from the evidence of truth in the druid’s words, Lystra focused once more on the waystone before her, and the man who stood at its base.

“Greetings, Lystra,” Jaryn spoke in even tones at her approach, tilting back his head so that his features might be spied beneath his cowl. “And hail Kivan and Huvertrov, it has been too long since our paths have crossed.”

The Harpers both dipped their heads in honored greeting, Kivan murmuring agreement to the master ranger’s words.

Lystra, for her part, merely lifted a hand in response, her eyes ever drawn back to the sky above the canopy of Cloakwood.

“So you’ve marked it also,” Jaryn said, perceiving the focus of her gaze. “I take it then that Criven indeed brought my message of haste northward to you, though perhaps not in the manner I meant.”

“He came to me personally by the druid’s wardstone near the Wood of Sharp Teeth’s southwestern eave,” Lystra replied. “He spoke of a sinister power in this weather, one perhaps countered by Silvanus’ domain. He also spoke of the decline of the guardianship of the Wood of Sharp Teeth.”

Jaryn nodded as if unsurprised by her words.

“Criven has been unsatisfied for some time now with Allurust’s wardenship of The Wood,” he replied. “As far as his warnings of the weather, I can speak only to the accuracy of his claims. This storm has all the trappings of the conjurings of fell, clerical sorcery. I have my suspicions as to whom but lack evidence in the matter. All we can do now is safeguard potential targets and hope to counteract their moves effectively.”

“Which is why you ride south,” Lystra surmised. “Rather than meet me, as we planned, nearer to Baldur’s Gate. Am I to accompany you then?”

“Nay,” Jaryn shook his head. “You will make for the city, delivering the Harpers hence as their Grandmaster has returned, then report to Eltan for further instruction.”

“Hold!” Kivan barked before Lystra could offer the seething reply she had locked and loaded to unleash on her mentor.

“Jherek has returned to Baldur’s Gate?” The Harper ranger continued. “Myrna’s message was only that we were to return with all haste to the city. While we are happy to hear that Jherek yet lives,” he indicated Huvertrov and himself, “ I can only imagine in what condition he returns. Him having been absent, and believed dead I may add, for some time now.”

“That is for him to speak to,” Jaryn replied. “I only know that in some combination these cogs all turn as one, though cannot imagine in what sequence how. Perhaps stay in touch with Lystra whilst you are in the city to inform her more fully of your Grandmaster’s aims.”

“Ok!” Lystra spoke in raised tones, emphatically moving her hand between the two. “I am sorry to interrupt but what the fuck, Jaryn!” She said. “I have ridden north earlier than we had planned on the words of a druid who may or may not be completely insane, only to learn that I am to be a go between between you, Eltan and some, potentially, undead Harper master within a city to whom I claim no loyalty?”

“You are my apprentice, Lystra,” Jaryn reminded her stoically, unphased by her outburst. “ Your allegiances are mine own and, as such, you will act as my ears in situations in which I cannot take part.”

“I am your apprentice, Jaryn,” Lystra tried to keep her tone even. “But that doesn’t mean I serve those with whom you’ve bartered friendship. You know that I have no love of the Dukes, and even less so for Eltan’s ilk, or the Harpers.”

“I know this, Lystra…”

“Then why bandy me in this way!?” She demanded. “Without request or recompense you demand this of me. To serve masters not my own in the name of a cause you yourself have professed ignorance to.”

“Because you are my apprentice,” he spoke with firm finality. “And you will conduct yourself as such. I cannot be everywhere, Lystra, and so you must, at times, do things beyond your comfort zone to represent me, and accurately inform me, so that a clear picture might be drawn of what it is we are dealing with.”

Lystra lapsed into brooding silence at his words, during which Kivan cleared his throat uncomfortably.

“Perhaps we should wait for our entrance to the city to more fully discern what manifestations our roles might take,” he offered.

Lystra glared at him darkly but could help but soften her features at the sight of huvertrov’s determined nod at his partner’s words.

“I go south,” Jaryn said, lifting himself swiftly onto Sundril’s back and guiding his horse forward. When he came flush with Lystra and Shadowflight, he paused and extended a hand to rest it on her shoulder. When she did not immediately look up, he squeezed, encouraging her gaze to meet his. 

“I know you,” he said earnestly. “I ask only of you now what is necessary.”

She held his gaze for a long moment and, perceiving the truthfulness of his words, she broke it, looking forward along the road and nodding her ascent. As she did so the pressure of his grasp left her and in a gust of air he was gone, Sundril taking him on fast hooves on down the Coastway.

Looking over to Kivan and Hovertrov, Lystra saw that they both looked at her expectantly and so, with a nod, she replaced her hood upon her head and led them on, northward towards Baldur’s Gate.

*                                  *                          *                                      * 

Trotter rode alone among low misted vales between hills in the rolling country north of Beregost, having tired quickly of the meandering pace of the caravan. Spear in hand, he rode at a slow canter, his gaze ever shifting over the terrain about him. His hope was to perceive of threats before they could act upon the caravan and so had ridden east, to the countryside between the Coastway and The Wood of Sharp Teeth, for he believed that if any menace were to approach it would use the forested eaves as cover for its movements.

So far he had discovered nothing amiss. The most certain sign of trouble coming was the disappearance of wildlife from an area. Soon after parting ways with the caravan he had come across a small herd of deer grazing near a swollen creek. In the tall grasses he had also spied a fox searching for small animals. With a sigh, he led South-Eye to the crest of the nearest hill and looked westward. Though some miles off and hazy through the mists, he could discern the caravan making its plodding way north.

“They travel much too slow,” he murmured to his horse, stroking the beast’s neck as he did.

South-Eye, for his part, held his own counsel stoically, though his ears twitched somewhat irritably in the rain.

“Fine then keep your secrets,” the ranger sighed, straightening in the saddle and scanning the landscape. 

Tugging gently on his mount’s reins, he turned halfway to give the western lands one last sweep with his sharp eyes, before urging South-Eye forward, down the hillside and back towards the caravan.

“Any evil afoot?” Keira asked him, her tone more tired than mocking, as she met the ranger a little ways ahead of the caravan along the road.

“We are moving much too slow,” was Trotter’s only reply. “I had hoped to reach the Friendly Arm Inn by nightfall.”

“The Inn is a day and a half’s ride at best from Beregost in decent weather, ranger,” the mercenary captain retorted curtly. “With the amount of wagon wheels we have had to loose from this accursed mud already we will be fortunate to make half that distance today.” 

Looking down at her mud-caked attire, Trotter decided not to press the issue further.

“Very well, Captain,” he said instead. “I will scout ahead for a suitable location.”

“As you will, Ranger, though you may be better served helping us unstick the next wheel,” she drawled.

Rendrick didn’t reply but rather urged South-Eye forward and rode on ahead of the caravan.

*                                      *                                     *                        *

Dusk was falling quickly as Jaryn Moorstrider approached the gates of the Friendly Arm Inn. He was met at the gateway arch by a torch-bearing Corbin Bigwig, who raised a hand in greeting at his advance. Jaryn lifted his own hand to return the gnome’s hello, lowering his hood as he did.

“Welcome, Lord Moorstrider,” the gnome chimed. “Seems our Inn is twice honored in as many days by the Rangers of the Coast. Lady Silverdragon left us just this morning with Lords Kivan and Huvertrov.”

“Yes, I met them on the road,” the ranger replied. “How fares the Inn? Anything amiss in the area?”

“Nay, save the dreary weather. Will you be staying the night?”

“Not fully,” Jaryn admitted. “But Sundril and myself do require some rest if you can accommodate?”

“Never need you ask, Lord Moorstrider,” Corbin bowed deeply. “Head on in, the Friendly Arm Inn is, as ever, at your disposal.”

Jaryn dipped his head in thanks and proceeded into the Inn’s courtyard, Sundril’s hooves splashing in the ankle-deep water pooled therein. Crossing the courtyard slowly, Jaryn spied a figure awaiting him near the entrance to the keep. A gnomish woman clad in vibrant purple robes festooned with silver and gold embroidery, an ornate silver scepter clasped in one of her small hands.

Dismounting near to the lone woman, Jaryn bid Sundril rest, the horse sloshing towards the stables, before proceeding himself to the keep’s threshold.

“Greetings, Jaryn Moortrider,” Tyma Mirrorshade said, smiling up at the ranger who, towering above her, moved to stand beside her, turning to also survey the fast-darkening courtyard before them.

“Greetings, Priestess,” he replied. “Is it I for whom you wait?”

“It is,” she replied. “The Watchful Protector has graced me with a vision of your coming. Though perhaps, given what rode with you in my vision, I should not welcome you too warmly.”

Turning swiftly, the ranger knelt beside, bringing his gaze to almost equal height as hers.

“What have you seen?” He asked, an urgency creeping into his tone.

Smiling sadly sidelong at him, the priestess said nothing immediately, her gaze flowing over the courtyard and battlements before and around them.

“It comes not with you now, Jaryn,” she said at long last. “But soon will come a time that you will cross our threshold and following you will be death and destruction. You will not bring it willingly, but it will follow you nonetheless and I fear for the survival of the Friendly Arm Inn.”

The ranger pondered her words silently, his gaze upon the flagstones at her feet.

“Did this darkness take any shape?” He asked.

“It was naught but waves,” she whispered. “And they crashed upon our walls like the surf at high storm.”

“But they did not drown the battlements?”

“Nay.”

Jaryn was silent again for a time before reaching out and clasping her tiny hand in his, bidding her to meet his gaze.

“Keep heart,” he bade her. “Darkness will not win out and if Garl Glittergold has graced you with such visions then they are to alert rather than dismay. I will do all that is within my power to keep what you have been shown from coming to pass.”

“And we would expect nothing more from the great Jaryn Moorstrider!”

The words were spoken with a booming voice from slightly above them in the keep’s doorway. Looking back, they both beheld Bentley beaming down at them.

“Welcome, old friend,” the gnome spoke to Jaryn, striding forward even as the ranger rose to meet him, and clasping his wrist in a heartfelt greeting.

“You come too infrequent to our door,” the gnome admonished gently. “Will you come hither to share news of your exploits? Or does the road draw you hence?”

“It does,” Jaryn admitted. “But I will sit and speak with you both for a time. It has indeed been too long.”

Bentley looked to his wife, she nodded her agreement and the three of them proceeded into the keep to speak of better times.

*                                          *                                       *                           *

Lystra, Kivan, and Huvertrov bedded down for the night in a small grove of ash trees just off of the Coastway a day’s ride out from Baldur’s Gate. Though the Harper ranger had initially insisted on them pressing on through the night to reach Baldur’s Gate by morning, he hadn’t given a very strong resistance when Lystra had argued against it. She suspected this had something to do with Jherek’s reemergence and him not knowing in what state they would find their former leader upon entering the city.

They set up camp in relative silence, each of them setting their bedrolls ‘round the small fire they had kindled for the early evening hours. None had any intention of keeping the flames lit through the night, despite the moist chill and it was more so to aid in the drying of their cloaks, rather than the cooking of their supper.

As they dined on cold sausage and dried fruits, Lystra declared her intention of taking the first watch. Something neither Harper argued against and so as the sun’s meager light departed and the world was plunged into darkness, Huvertrov curled into his bedroll, turning his back to the others as he sought his night’s rest. 

Lystra moved to the grove’s far edge and sat facing east, her back against a sturdy trunk, its canopy protecting her from the insistant rainfall, her arms hugging her shortbow and quiver against her chest, her pack resting at her side.

Not long after she had settled soft footfalls alerted her to someone’s approach and she looked back sharply to behold Kivan making his way towards her, he and the grove highlighted in hughes of grey, white and black thanks to the acute night vision given to her by her mother’s elven blood.

“In need of a lullaby?” She asked as he sat himself across from her. His own back rested against the truck of the tree opposite. 

“Nay, merely finding sleep elusive,” was his reply, as he gazed out from their sheltered grove.

“Guarding a different side might be more beneficial then, if you find rest so repulsive,” Lystra murmured sharply. “I have this way well guarded.”

He did not reply to her, merely continued staring out at the lightly wooded flatlands east of them.

Lystra glared at him, preparing another cutting remark, but the slight frown of his features gave her pause. With a resigned sigh, she reached into her bag at her side and produced the jug of cider gifted to her by the elven twins, Lothir and Kothir. Popping the cork, she took a deep swig of what contents remained in the jug before begrudgingly offering it to the Harper. With a half-smile, Kivan accepted the jug and took a long draw from it, lowering it with a slight hiss at the taste of its contents.

“You do not like cider?” She asked, amused, accepting the jug back from him.

“I like it fine,” was his reply. “Though a sweeter taste would not be ill met.”

Lystra chucked at his reply before taking another swig herself.

An agreeable silence reigned between them for a long moment before Kivan spoke once more.

“I asked you recently what it was that you hated so much about my guild…” He started.

“To which I gave an adequate response,” she countered.

“You said that you did not hate me personally.’

“Which should suffice on the topic.”

“It doesn’t,” he accepted the jug back from her. “And so I would ask anew,” he took a draw from the jug, grimacing anew at its sour taste. “What is it that you hate so much about us Harpers?”

Lystra was thoughtful for a time before accepting the jug back from him.

“It’s none of your business,” she said simply and dispassionately.

“I’d disagree given that we may soon be working closely.”

“We won’t be.”

“You seem very sure.”

“I am.”

“Tell me how?”

Lystra gave him a rueful smile whilst passing the jug back to him.

“Because Jherek is a bastard,” she said simply. “You and Huvertrov will arrive in Baldur’s Gate, meet with your master, and he will send you out into the wilderness to scan for some threat apparent only to himself. Whilst I will be stuck within the stinking city running errands for an equally paranoid Duke who believes the shadows cast by his privy candle are assassins seeking his head.”

“By your words I doubt that you have ever met Duke Eltan.”

“And by your words I’d suspect you to be a slack-jawed fool.”

Her words were harshly spoken and she noticed him visibly wince at their utterance.

“I didn’t mean that,” she said, reaching for the jug. “It’s just that…”

“My wife and I came to the sword coast some years past,” he said, interrupting her and keeping the jug close, forcing her to sit back and listen.

“We were settlers of a kind. Elven refugees, unaccepted by our peoples due to the child she bore within her. Before you ask, no, the child was not the result of any dalliance with another. She was Teu’Tel’Quessir, Moon Elven, and her clan had been raided by Drow during their midsummer revels. Most of her people were slaughtered in the assault but the raiders sought only to have their way with her. I was a ranger then already, bereft of a home, and of Sy’Tel’Quessir stock, who happened upon the remnants of her clan shortly after the attack. Those other survivors of her people were not present at the time of the attack and so took umbrage upon her for her surviving it.”

He paused, taking a deep drought of cider, before continuing.

“I stayed with them for a time. A time in which I cared for her because they would not. When it became apparent that she had been impregnated by her attackers, her clan demanded she leave, on pain of death. We stole away under cover of night and traveled here, to the Sword Coast, to seek a new life.”

He grimaced and looked skyward and Lystra saw tears running down his cheeks.

“The peace we sought wasn’t to be,” he said. “Soon after our arrival on The Coast we were set upon by ogres, not far from where we now sit. In the northern eaves of The Wood of Sharp Teeth. They held us captive, deciding to eat us at a later date. I managed to escape one eve but whilst I tried to free Deheriana our efforts were discovered by the leader of their troop, a half-ogre by the name of Tazok. She bid me flee and so I fled. I left her, my love, who had already endured so much, in the hands of a sadist.”

“Knowing not what I would find in Baldur’s Gate, I fled south and arrived at the Friendly Arm Inn a day later. It was there that I found Jherek, not a Harper Master yet and still working solely with Kormak. Without hesitation they came with me, back to Tazok’s lair. What we found there…” 

His voice trailed off, his gaze distant. Lystra was about to speak but he continued before she could utter a word.

“My wife dead, we hunted Tazok, the three of us, and when we found him…”

Kivan again broke off, his gaze now on the ground at his feet. Lystra again opened her mouth to speak but again he spoke before she could utter a syllable.

“They aided me in my assault. We took them by surprise and whilst they overpowered the ogres, I focused on Tazok. I tell myself now that it wasn’t a drawn out affair, that I didn’t overstep the lines of decency. At least not those shown to my wife….I can see her now. Her body strung up at the mouth of their lair. And so I did what I felt was necessary with his body, I took my time, and Jherek and kormak did not interfere…”

He trailed off, his gaze vacant.

Clearing his throat, he passed the jug back to Lystra, who received it with numbed hands.

“I have never told anyone that tale,” he said after a long pause. “But that is why I joined the Harpers. Perhaps your reason for hating them is equal, but I thought you should know the measure of Jhrerek’s character.”

At that, the harper ranger rose and, stumbling somewhat, returned to their camp. Lystra watched him go, before returning her gaze to the rainswept countryside. 

As she watched, lightning lanced overhead, sending said countryside into shock relief, and, in turn, sent the ranger’s apprentice back, many years hence, to the small hamlet of Shadowdale.

Thunder crashed, chasing lightning as it split the heavens. Heralding a storm-head yet to break over the township of Shadowdale.

It was late, perhaps near midnight, and Lystra was alone in her family’s cottage. The thunder had awoken her, alerting her to another sound that it had masked at its crescendo, a loud knocking at the door.

The then fifteen-year old half-elf lept from her bed, not knowing what to expect but filled with dread regardless.

Lifting the latch at her cottage door, the young woman pulled the portal inward. Immediately she was buffeted by wind and squinted against the gale, up at the figure that stood before her. 

She was a lithe and beauteous creature, she who had knocked, a woman whom for years Lystra had desired to be but whom now the sight of would cause naught but nausea. Storm Silverhand, one of the leaders of the Harpers and her presence could only mean one thing.

Storm had entered her cottage, had sat at her table, and had told her her parents were dead. Lystra could recall the tears on the older woman’s cheeks as she had spoken the words, tears she knew to be genuine for Lystra’s mother, Myseria, and Storm had been close friends. Her parents had fallen in an excursion to the ruins of Myth Drannor, on orders from the Harpers of whom her mother was a member. Her father, a Knight of Shadowdale pledged to protect the Dales from any foe, had been assisting in their efforts. They had been overwhelmed by the devils who called the ruin home.

Upon telling Lystra this, Storm had produced from beneath her cloak Skysinger, her mother’s sword. Storm had given the blade to Lystra with the promise that she would want for nothing and that Storm would return in the morning to take care of her.

After the Harper Master had left, Lystra had made up her mind quickly. Before the breaking of dawn she set out with tear-stained cheeks, ill fitting clothes, as she had dressed in her mother’s adventuring gear, and a hastily filled pack for the road.

She could remember now the kiss of the wind on her damp face as she looked over her home one last time before setting her back to it, never to return. 

She felt that same kiss now, seated in the grove along the Coastway, her gaze to the west.

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