Three Days Ago....
Atarah didn’t jerk from sleep into wakefulness, ready to fight. She dragged, crawled, heavy and slow from terrible dreams into gradual awareness. She lay still for long moments in her narrow bed, blinking away the lingering upset until she felt sure the visions wouldn’t pull her under again.
Bad one again. Atarah glanced at the shuttered window to one side; it was still black outside, but the air was starting to feel damp and cool with the approaching dawn. She’d get no more sleep tonight. She yanked the tie from her hair, its braid mussed from restless tossings, and combed it smooth again with short sharp gestures of her fingers.
There was no answer, no comforting presence at the foot of her cot. Of course not, you’re not six anymore. Stop being afraid of the dark. She could still remember the dream - not the specifics, but snatches of scene and feeling. It had been dim, past sunset, with the last light red on her hands and armor. She’d been standing over a man, leaning on her sword - on her sword in the man, sunk through his side, killing him by inches. She’d been grinning, he’d been sobbing - and there was something looming behind her, laughing and encouraging her cruelty.
“Come on, time to get up, shake the night out,” Atarah muttered to herself. “Work to do.”
Mama found Atarah outside in the yard after dawn, doing sword work exercises against a battered wood post in lieu of a proper pells. Once there had been a real training yard here, she’d said once, but that had been before. Most of Atarah’s life was divided by what was before, and what was now.
“‘Morning, Mama. Where’s the horde?” Atarah set aside her blade with a smile, wiping her sweaty face on a sleeve. It was edging into autumn but still hot enough to make full armor uncomfortable by afternoon. Even in just her padded arming coat this morning it was getting too warm.
“Eating breakfast with Kastris, or they should be. Give me a hug, darling.” Mama was always so elegant - even this early, in what amounted as casual working clothes for someone of her station. Atarah embraced her, not wanting her grubbiness to rub off, but Mama held her tightly anyways. “I didn’t hear you come in last night. Good graduation party?”
“Yes, it was... We had a good send-off.” Atarah doesn’t mention she climbed the beech tree and came in through the window in her room to avoid waking the rest of her family with the squeaky door and old groaning floorboards in the hall.
"A messenger came from Natalia; you remember Natalia don't you?" Mama turned to go into the house and Atarah followed behind, loose-limbed and alert, hanging her sword and belt over her shoulder. “I have a feeling you’ll be leaving soon.”
“Why would I -- oof!”
Three tumbling forms leapt at her from the open door into the house, hitting her at the waist and the knees. A fourth hung back, shrieking giggles.
“Augh, oh no, the horde, they’ve got me---!” Atarah dropped to her knees - careful not to squish any of them - and mimed a dramatic death, one hand outflung as she collapsed onto her side.
The eldest of her younger siblings crowed in triumph, at least until Atarah snuck up and started tickling her. Ravik, the next one, tried to rescue his sister by pulling on Atarah’s arms, but was thwarted by the third who joined in on the tickling.
When Kiska, the youngest, waded in, it became a general melee until all five were winded and gasping laughter on the grass under the beech. Corona rolled to her feet and tugged on Atarah’s hands. “C’mon, get up, open your message silly!”
“Are you hungry, Tari? You can have my eggs. Blech!” Ravik stuck his tongue out but didn’t move from his sprawl over her knees until Kalani toed him in the side.
Mama took Kiska by the hand and led them back into the house. Kastris was still at the breakfast table, his chair rocked back and a thick gilt-edged book open in his lap. He waved a hand as Atarah came in and a table setting materialized with blue arcane sparkles at her usual place, complete with a plate of breakfast and cup of steaming tea. “Good morning, Atarah.”
“Open it open it open it!” Ravik was at her elbow with a wax-sealed folded note stamped with her childhood friend’s House crest. “What’s it say?”
“Hold on, hold on--” Atarah dropped into her seat, hanging the sword belt off the back of the chair for an easy draw. It wasn’t that she anticipated trouble more than Paladin training had instilled in her the second nature of having her sword nearby and ready. She missed Mama’s frown at the action as she broke the seal on the note and unfolded it.
“It’s from Lady Cuvelia, not Natalia,” she said, scanning the first few lines. “Here--”
Greetings, dearest Atarah,
Congratulations on your recent accomplishment! The Auraest family must be pleased at the addition of another paladin to the line. I have heard nothing but praise of you from my acquaintances at the Halls of Justice, and I am pleased to hear you have found where you fit so well.
“Hollow flattery,” Mama observed as the house servant began clearing away the empty (or mostly empty in Ravik’s case) dishes from the table. “She wants something.”
“Why else would she send me a note?” Atarah grinned, going back to the missive.
It is in light of this approval which prompts me to write today. My daughter Natalia will be making a visit to friends in the hills east of Waterdeep, friends which need some assistance. You may have heard of the violence that infests that area.
It is my thought to engage some guards to escort her, and bring her home safely - and I desire your addition to the company. I know, as her friend, you will protect her far better than mere mercenaries, and I believe your new skills could find use in solving our friends’ predicament.
Natalia’s excursion leaves at the end of the tenday. Do send me your answer by then.
With warmest regards,
Lady Crystal Cuvelia,” Atarah finished.
“Are you gonna go fight bandits?” Ravik asked with wide eyes.
“Maybe, squirt,” she replied, tousling his hair. It was thick and white-blonde just like hers, starting to go dark gold at the ends. All of Summerheart’s children - except his first, Aelius - had turned out touched by the divine power he carried, turned golden and gifted. “But I have to eat breakfast first. Can’t fight bad guys with no breakfast!”
“Come find me in the attic when you’re done,” Mama said. “There’s something I think it is time I give you.”
“It was one of your father’s,” Mama said. Dust puffed from the lid of the trunk as she lifted it. There were mementos and books, bits and pieces of a former life that one by one Mama pulled out and set aside. At the bottom of the trunk lay a long object swaddled in red cloth. “Not his best; that was lost when-- when. But he carried it for a long time, and I’m sure he’d want one of his children to have it. Aelius ...”
“Aelius left us. But I’m gonna find him, Mama. I’ll find him, and I’ll bring him back.”
The narrow streamers of morning light filtering through the attic windows struck the long object, turning the fabric wrappings within from dull rose in the dim to brilliant scarlet. Atarah turned aside the cloth.
The greatsword inside, once unsheathed, was a handspan or so wider than most she’d seen and trained with, the metal a strange shade of oily blue-gray. The beveled edge, though, of folded dark and light steel, was polished mirror-bright. Though the blade had signs of wear, it was clear Pyrrhus had cleaned and honed it before storing.
Atarah lifted it up - the grip felt perfect in her hands, the wrapped leather molded by use and years but still sound around the tang, the weight balanced well between the point and pommel. “Thank you, mama -- It’s beautiful. ”
“Consider it your graduation gift.” Mama packed away the other things with deft motions, and both of them maintained the polite, genteel fiction what made their eyes water was merely the dust of the attic. Mama hugged her again and went down the ladder, sweeping her skirts out of the way.
Atarah spent a few more moments admiring the blade, imagining her father with it, fighting evil with it. She lifted it to slide it back into its scabbard and caught the impossible sparkle of water-reflected sunlight across the blue metal. “Thanks too, Papa.”
Mama’s estate was northeast of Waterdeep but only by a few hours of walking. Atarah didn’t mind walking, even in full gear, though it would have been nice to have a horse of her own. The paladin training included riding classes, including mounted combat, but had no mounts to sell to brand new knights.
Besides, walking gave her time to get used to the heavier weight of the new sword at her hip. It gave her time to think and to commune, which her visit home had been lacking - a house full of pre-teens and adolescents is not a quiet or peaceful one, no matter how well-adjusted.
“Thanks for the sword, Papa. Does it have a name?”
Nothing but the familiar sense of a hand on her shoulder answered her. This close to equinox, it was difficult for Summerheart to manifest more than parlor tricks, poised as it was between his two days of power.
“Well, you’ll have to tell me on the solstice. Otherwise I’m going to make something up. I’m going out on my first assignment today. Guarding Natalia. Not very glorious.”
The hand sensation squeezed gently, then vanished.
“Oh is it glory you’re after, darling?” Three men - human and half-elf - stepped out of the trees by the side of the north road. They wore armor like men who lived in them, well-maintained but old and well-used, and their motley assortment of weapons were likewise. “You’ll not find it today. Hand over your shinies and you’ll keep your life, though.”
Atarah’s hand tightened on the hilt of her sword. “Really? You sure you want to do this today, boys?”
“Your call, girl - gold or blood.” The half-elf speaker had advanced to try and loom over her, out of what he apparently assumed was striking range.
Oh, he was so wrong.
Atarah lunged. She pulled the sword free at the same time, her glove closing around the first third of the blade as the pommel smashed into the half elven's nose with a crunch and a splatter of blood.
Once the blade was free of its sheath she switched to a standard two-handed grip, whipping the point around to smash the edge into the second man who tried to circle her. The hardened leather did nothing to deflect the blow and he went down hard, gasping. She couldn’t tell if she’d broken anything but it was likely. That was what a great sword was for, after all.
The third took advantage of her turn to take a swing at her side, his maul biting into the chainmail and leather beneath. She dropped, taking the maul with her and directing its force away from her ribs. Reversing her father’s sword, she came back up on one knee and rammed the pommel into the side of the last man’s knee. He too went down with a shriek.
Atarah stood, breathing hard, and surveyed the damage. “Judging by your face, friend, I chose blood.”
“Augh, dammit, girl.” The half elven clutched his face and peered out between two fingers.
“I suggest you find something more constructive to do with your life,” she said.
The half elven growled something she chose to ignore and tried grabbing at her again with one hand. She grabbed, twisted with another crunch, and flung him over her hip to land with her knee at his throat.
“Or maybe I should relieve you of it altogether.”
“No, no -- I-I get it.” He was gripping her knee, trying to force her off, but he didn’t have the leverage and his eyes were wild in a blood-spattered face.
“Are you sure?” She leaned a little harder. The echo of laughter from her dream drifted through her mind. Atarah recoiled and stood up, sheathing her sword. “Get out of here. Don’t let me catch you harassing travelers again.”
The Halls of Justice, former temple of Tyr and now of Torm, lay just off the Market to the south of the noble town houses and villas she would have to brave later that evening. There was no obligation to check in with her teachers and trainers, but she thought it best, in case something happened to her. Some of her yearmates spotted her as she was on her way out.
“Hey! Tari!” Tavelm waved her over to a seat with them in the mess hall, handing her a plate of sausage and cheese and a tankard of strong brown beer before she could protest. “You snuck out on us early at the party! Have a good visit home?”
“I would’ve, but I got called back too quick!” Atarah laughed and stole an apple from his plate. “And what have you been doing? Looks like the drinking hasn’t stopped.”
“Why not, when it’s free?” Oxheart sat down with a freshly filled cup of mead and leaned back against the wall. “Coming out with us tonight, Tiny? I hear the Singing Sword’s publican has forgiven us for last time.”
“No thanks, Ox,” Atarah said around a mouthful of food. “I’ve no wish to be relieved of that much gold tonight.”
“Aw, Tiny, but it’s so much fun to see you win.” Tavelm mimed a very surprised man falling over in an arm wrestling match and then what was evidently supposed to be Atarah fist-pumping her victory and then himself scooping up armfuls of coins.
“I,” and she paused to stress the word, “...have an assignment. And if you two sluggards keep on drinking like that you’re like to die of a poisoned liver before Hammer Lord gives you anything to do.” Atarah bit down into her apple with a final crunch and stood to go.
“Oh, an assignment! How important.” Oxheart set his mug down and gave her a fake little bow. “Good eve, Summerheart.”
“I’ll catch you up on that offer next time though, boys,” Atarah laughed as she left.
The sun was lowering, its light clinging in amber rivulets to stone and street alike when Atarah finally stood at the top step of the Cuvelia city house. She’d taken the time to make sure her braid was neat, her armor gleaming, and her pack well-stocked. In short she looked, she hoped, like a professional rather than a tenderfoot girl of eighteen.
The butler opened at her second knock. She bowed her head the appropriate fraction, gaze calm and steady. “Good afternoon, Master Garlin. Is the Lady at home? I am Paladin Atarah, by her command.”