1369 DR, Year of the Gauntlet
Dawn was just cresting over the graveyard as Iswen sang the Liturgy of Peace for no one except the dead. Most of them were beyond knowing the requiem was being said for them, but the words needed to be sung regardless; if nothing else, she needed the practice. Two years was enough time to memorize the words, the melody, even when the song had been newly penned with archaic words.
It was not enough time to become accustomed to staring down at the fresh grave, a hillock of dirt in the tawny brown grass of autumn, and feel a twisting pull on her heart as if she’d buried her own father - something she was never sure was entirely her own, or another gift from the Lord of the Dead.
He’d been someone’s son, though; she’d always known that part, even when she’d been a child rambling around old graveyards on the caravan roads, reading names on stones and wondering who they’d really been, the life that they’d lived that was so much more than the letters carved into a headstone.
There hadn’t been anything she could do for those old graves, just as this seemed such a small thing to do for this new one, and her voice nearly broke around the final ascending bars. How could ritual, mere words, help the departed spirit find their proper afterlife or protect the empty shell left behind from being ravaged by natural or unnatural means?
And if she, one of Kelemvor’s rare paladins, didn’t have the answers, what good was she to the living who needed the answers still more than the dead?
No mourners at this one, at least. She held the last note, reaching out with her voice and with the intent for what moved beyond the spirit, and then even the last note faded away; Iswen took a moment, gazing out over the tight cluster of headstones ringed by a low wall, the hills of the rich farmland rolling up around them, sprawled out from the double-square of the village. The trees were as amber as the grass, leaves brushed with orange and yellows and a streak or two of red. They rustled in the breeze, and she shivered at the nip to it. Autumn might have a few warm days left for them, but winter was rushing towards them on a few more of these chill winds.
Goodman Holgar had ended up right; he’d said he’d rather die than live through another Northern winter. It seemed somehow fitting for the irascible farmer that when she’d gone to check on him yesterday morning, the part of him that mattered had been gone. He’d been alone in the world, and so she’d been the one to lay the diminished body - bones and skin but heavy for what it lacked - in its grave, and now stand over it.
Two years a paladin of Kelemvor, and she’d never done a burial, not like this. It was hard to tell what the god demanded, when the god himself had only manifested out of the bones of Myrkul two years ago; she more than anyone knew that there was far more work to do cleaning up the mess of undead and cursed death artifacts that the two previous gods of death had left in their wake.
But this had to be important too, her heart insisted. They as a priesthood couldn’t simply run after the bad, but had to chase the good. Kelemvor’s purpose was not merely to oppose everything Myrkul had done in his tenure as god of death, but to aid and comfort the dying and grieving. A large task, she always thought, but even more now as she looked on the tangible evidence of that theology. She’d done as Kelemvor called her to do, and she certainly would not forget the once-adventurer with the owlbear skull over his hearth and five different stories for why he had it.
She was just damned if she knew if that - if she - was enough.
She turned at the sharp voice, grateful for the distraction right up until she recognized the man striding for her by nothing more than the set of his shoulders and the long, purposeful strides that carried him directly across the green towards the graveyard.
“Shit,” she muttered under her breath, and at least Vigilant Commander Arlen was too far to hear, far enough that she actually had a chance to straighten her shoulders and rub her sweating palms on her muddy black trousers and push down the scowl that he’d ignored her courtesy-rank. Again.
“Commander,” she said when he drew close enough for polite conversation. She inclined her head, but refused to salute even if old instincts itched up and down her arm.
Tall and handsome as a hero, possibly by the grace of Torm, Arlen wasn’t many years older than she was, but showed the same weathered-leather skin and grizzled gray hair that were nearly as much a uniform as battered armor and worn-smooth holy symbols for paladins who’d sworn their vows a decade ago. Like her, the amber tones to his skin were natural as well as tanned, though his eyes were sharp blue while hers….
For twenty-six years, when she looked in a mirror, brown eyes had stared back at her. Now, after accepting Kelemvor’s call, they were gray. It unnerved her more than it should; why should the color of her eyes matter, when her swordarm was strong and few were better on horseback? Or, as Kelemvor’s teaching ran, when the body would fail and die anyways - and for a paladin, usually sooner than most?
It shouldn’t matter, but it did. Just as it shouldn’t matter that his eyes were as keen as his hawk-like nose, piercing through her as if she was one of his Unproven, a novice in unadorned armor. Hers might be Kelemvor’s dark gray and black, but damnit, two years ago she’d had the same sunrise orange tabard that he wore now over armor she knew would be sparkling. She pushed down the wistful tugs of memory of his callused hands smoothing the final polishing cloth as lovingly over his breastplate as he would a lover’s skin.
She knew that too intimately as well, just as she knew that one of his muscled shoulders bore a knotted scar from a crossbow, a devastating wound that had healed well, but still troubled him when the weather turned to winter.
Not that he would show it now, just as he would not show if he had any fleeting memories of his own. “If you are finished with your ritual, there are duties that require your attention,” he said.
“Yes, of course,” she said. What else was there to say? There were always duties for a paladin, Tomtar or Kelemvorite.
He turned on his heel as abruptly as he’d come up to her, and strode away, back towards the squat stone temple that served as home for the paladins in the area. Iswen followed in his wake, staring at the twitch of his cloak over his shoulders. How in the Nine Hells didn’t it trip him up? She wrapped a cloak around herself as much as the next warrior on the road, but she’d spent more time untangling it from around her legs than sweeping it back from her shoulders. She knew it wasn’t a Tormish thing; she hadn’t been able to, even when she’d been one of them at his side.
She was behind him now, trailing after even the hem of his cloak. But when he swept into his office, she forgot all about him. It was a pleasant room, south-facing and so sunny even in early dawn, the dark wood of his heavy desk glowing with the same care as his armor, the stone walls of the temple barely softened by a purple banner with Torm’s metal fist.
She saw none of it, and wouldn’t even if it hadn’t been familiar. “Mistress Belia,” Arlen began as he curved around his desk, but Iswen didn’t wait for introductions. She went directly to the elderly priestess sitting in the chair in front of it the desk, and knelt in front of her. Her short corkscrew curls were soft white against her dark skin; her green robe was faded to moss-shaded with age and washings, and hung loosely on her bowed shoulders, folding over fingers knotted in prayer.
And grief rimmed her, something more than the sorrow in her deep brown eyes when she looked up, more than the worry that dug deeper creases around her mouth and eyes and made her hands unsteady as they unhooked. “Are you…?”
“I am Sir Iswen, paladin of Kelemvor,” she said, her voice soft.
Mistress Belia reached for her hands, and if she had calluses that did not come from a sword, there was no less strength in her grip, something as much presence as physical. “Our lady the Great Mother bless you,” she murmured.
A greenpriest of Chauntea, Iswen filled in, and the titles droned in her ears down from the memory of her childhood tutor: Great Mother, Grain Goddess, Rose-maker, Farmer’s Friend, and more. In a book, they had been dry things, tasting of ink. She’d always found a greater honor to the goddess in the dirt beneath the nails of her faithful and the gentle strength of their hands.
But those who followed a goddess as richly tied to life as the Earthmother did not often seek out the martial arm of any faith, much less Kelemvor. “I was told you have need of me,” she said.
Mistress Belia nodded, closing her eyes and tightening her grip, drawing in strength with a slow breath. “Two of Brookhollow, my village, slipped away three nights ago, and we have not had word of them sense. They were not runaways,” she said, answering the question before it could be asked. “They were to be married in the spring; they merely wished privacy.”
Her voice had gone deep with sorrow, her dark eyes looking away from Iswen and towards the wall, as if she could see through it to the fields she tended. Iswen squeezed her hands, reminding her of where she was. “Where did they go?” she asked softly.
“A ruin, in the forest beyond the fields.” Belia seemed to fall still deeper into herself, small and tired. “When I was a girl, not even an acolyte, the evil men who lived there were driven out, and the walls of the tower torn down. But what they did there cursed the land itself, and not even Chauntea’s blessings could restore it, and so we’ve left it abandoned.”
Boding danger beat against her breastbone, but Iswen nodded, and kept her hands firm and steady on the priestess’s. “Are you sure that’s where they went? It seems there would be easier places for a couple seeking privacy,” she said.
“If you mean the place I think, it does have a palpable sense of malevolence,” Arlen said, reminding Iswen that he was still in the room - that this was his office, even.
Belia sighed. “We had suspected, but I sent my acolyte to be sure. And last night I saw him in my dreams.” It was hard, with her skin tone, but Iswen thought she paled, and her fingers trembled. “He said he was dead, and trapped.”
Iswen nodded. Whether or not the ruin had been where the lovers had gone, it had caused his death, and that demanded investigation. “Did he say anything else?” she asked. “How he was killed, or trapped, or…”
“No,” she said, a rasp in her voice. “Only that he was tormented. He is dead,” she added fiercely. “Isn’t that enough?”
It would have to be, Iswen thought with an inward sigh. Perhaps she knew more, had seen one nugget of information in her dream that would help, but prying it out would leave her bleeding and angry. And, in the end, she’d see soon enough anyways. “Alright,” she said, bracing a hand on her knee as she got to her feet. “Then tell me where this ruin is.”
“Brookhollow is an hour’s ride away, along the Trade Road,” Arlen said. He turned, and his hand hovered over the large scroll cases, carelessly stacked in the corner, until he plucked the correct one from the tumble. He uncapped it, and the curled parchment slithered out, unfurling as he swept it onto his deck, briskly finding knives and mugs to hold the corners.
“Here,” he said, tapping somewhere in the center, and Iswen stood to look down at the detailed map. Her father had a larger one tacked up in his office in his home in Waterdeep, showing the broad sweep of the Sword Coast from Waterdeep down to Calimshan, so many hundreds of miles that only the major trade road and cities were shown. This one was more intimate, showing only the lands around Red Larch, Triboar, and Yartar, but that scale could include each little village and the web of roads and trails between them, and especially the ones that cut through the fringes of Kryptgarden forest.
Brookhollow, Iswen saw, was one of those; midway between Red Larch and Triboar, the village’s roads forked to that southern and northern village, meeting up with the Trade Way to take advantage of the larger, better-traveled roads.
It left their back to the forest, and when she glanced at the greenpriest, she nodded, and gestured to the map. “There is a third trail, running from behind the village, that leads into the forest,” Belia said quietly. “The first mile it is well-kept enough, but after that, we have allowed it to become overgrown; we thought that would keep us all safe, if it was not easy to travel.”
Perhaps it had, for a time. Perhaps it had kept bandits from trying to dwell within the tainted ruins, and certainly animals would have made their own paths anyways. It would mean a hard ride now, though that couldn’t be helped. “If they’ve managed it, a destrier should,” she said as she turned away from the map. “Is there anything else you can tell me?” she asked.
“Only that the evil must have grown stronger over the years, to have slain three,” Mistress Belia said softly.
Or it wasn’t the same evil, and didn’t that bode well for her day. Iswen nodded, and a glance at Arlen showed the same thoughts in his eyes. “Then best I’d go and fight it before it can kill more,” she said, and with that, turned out of the office.
Her mind was full of what she needed to take with her and what she might find; she didn’t realize that Arlen had followed her out until he was at her shoulder, striding down the hallway. Then with a neat pivot, he was in front of her, holding up a hand to stop her in her tracks. “Hold one moment more,” he said.
Drawn up short, Iswen felt the annoyance that was less worthy than the longing sparking around her mouth and eyes; she’d gotten her father’s complexion, the sands of Calimshan, but her mother’s Waterdhavian strong jaw and ferocity. “I am of your command by courtesy and convenience,” she said. “I have been given orders, and mean to fulfil them to the best of my abilities.” Only paladins and Waterdhavian elite could make courtesy an insult.
“There is more to this than Mistress Belia knows,” Arlen said.
The back of her neck prickled, and her own stance shifted, her hand settling on her hip, where her sword usually hung. “What is it you don’t want them to know?”
“There is…” he frowned, and unbent enough to run a hand through his hair, his eyes distant from her, a gesture that made her heart ache. When his dark hair was ruffled like that, he looked as young as she still sometimes felt. “The place that they wish you to go contains more than one evil,” he finally said. “Whatever killed her acolyte, and likely the lovers, may be of the place itself, or only dwell in it. But we know that there is also an artifact that we - the Tormtar,” he corrected, “wish recovered, one that has long been rumored.”
“If you’ve known it’s there, why haven’t you sent Tormtar to retrieve it before?” she asked.
His shoulders squared, and his eyes went cold and hard again. “As you should know,” he said, clipped as if she really was a novice, “the Tormtar do not go where they are not invited, or at least permitted.” His shoulders drooped, for a moment showing her the large heart of compassion she knew he possessed, one only hedged with rules because he knew too well the value of honor, especially when it was hard. “No matter what we wish, we cannot trample others in our haste to do good for them.”
It was perhaps the one thing they could agree on; or, more accurately, that he would think they could agree on. Iswen pushed the cynicism down as another thing unworthy of a paladin, even if she was probably right. “What is this artifact, then?” He hesitated, and her mouth twitched before she could control herself. “If you want me to look for it, a description would be useful.”
“Of course,” he said, the tension around his eyes easing, as if he’d thought she’d meant something else. “It’s a bronze palm-sized orb, crowned with spikes that appear as fangs.”
“And it will have a palpable sense of malevolence, I expect,” Iswen said, already resigned to the inevitable. Unsentient artifacts with fangs were rarely created by paragons of virtue for noble purposes.
Commander Arlen’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t actually smile. He’d always been a better paladin in that regard. “If you do find it, or any other artifacts you judge dangerous, bring it back to us. We’ll contain it until we discover a way to destroy it.”
“And if I don’t, I’ll still have killed whatever has taken up lodgings wherever it is,” Iswen said, and it might be duty, but that made her nearly cheerful. “Presuming I don’t die.”
“Try not to,” Arlen said wryly. “A paladin of your experience is hard to replace.”
It was nearly a joke, one only they would understand as humor. Perhaps they could at least work together, even if she would never be in his confidence again. She told herself it didn’t hurt, or if it did, that it would heal. “And I’ll try to bring back anyone you send with me in one piece,” she said.
There was silence, and her easy humor faded as his eyes hardened, his face closing off as firmly as a shut door. “You are fucking shitting me,” she snapped. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting; not much, of course, but something.
“You never could mind your tongue,” Arlen said with equal anger and disgust. “A paladin does not-”
“A paladin doesn’t get sent into a ruin hunting two pieces of evil without allies,” she said. That was a very good way to get killed; she was nearly positive that there had been several lectures given to them both when they were young paladins about why going into danger alone sounded glorious and ended poorly.
“A paladin fights evil,” Arlen countered, all dignity from the cloak sweeping over his shoulders to the top of his shiny boots. “That is often a lonely path.”
“Not when in the middle of a fucking chapter house,” she snapped. “I saw Valdis just last night. She would have told me if she had been —” called by Torm. This was a chapterhouse of Tormtar: she was surrounded by paladins, and specifically Tormtar. She realized why he’d given his answer at the same instant that she met his hard eyes.
“Perhaps not,” he said, terribly cold to chain the fury. “You have no command here anymore. And I have no paladins to spare,” he said, nearly as lofty as the principles he claimed, but with that deep anger that darkened.
Valdis had been her friend, a partner in a dark time. But no, she might not have mentioned a calling to someone outside the Tormtar; Arlen wouldn’t be lying about that. But nor was he telling the entire truth; she didn’t have truthsense as strongly as a Tyrran but she could feel the shadows of part-truths in the corridor around her. Or perhaps that was just knowing all that she did.
There just wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. Not to the commander of the chapter house she was currently attached to.
Iswen’s jaw was too tight to speak - and that was probably for the best, given she wasn’t entirely sure what would come out of her mouth if she did - and so she only nodded, and just once. She stepped around him, and felt his eyes on her back as she lengthened her stride towards the stables.
At least her destrier was on her side. Possibly because Iswen regularly bribed her mare with sugar cubes, but right now, she would take what she could get.