By Brian Flood
Chapter 14 - Hills Edge
The Sword Coast Backlands
Early Afternoon, 12th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Two days after routing the orcish raiders, the small band of travelers arrives outside the walls of Hill’s Edge. Rashid notices that the city lies on the western edge of a band of foothills that gradually rises into the eastern horizon. Between the travelers and the walled city, however, runs a wide river that flows from the north-northeast and runs of toward the southwest. A stone bridge spans the river and allows the road to continue to a gate set into the northwestern wall of the city. Clearing her throat, Aris prepares to give the Bedine warrior a brief history and geography lesson.
“This is Hill’s Edge,” she begins. “It is sometimes known as the Forgotten City of the Sunset Vale. The vale stretches to the south of here, bordered on the east by the Sunset Mountains and Far Hills and on the west by the Reaching Woods. The vale is a very fertile land, and produces much of the foodstuffs consumed in this region.
“The city has become a major stop on the trade route from the northern regions to the Sunset Vale and further south. I will tell you that there is some presence here of your enemy, the Zhentarim. Their fortress of Darkhold lies within the protection of the Sunset Mountains some thirty or so leagues to the southeast of here. Fortunately, their presence is confined to sponsored merchant caravans and the occasional agent or priest. They have been warned that any strong-arm tactics will quickly bring the wrath of their combined foes.
“You will find that the citizens here are rather suspicious and independent. There are more than a few retired adventures, guides, and caravan guards that now make their living in less dangerous trades. Still, monster hunting remains a popular pastime and expeditions make almost daily excursions into the Sunset Mountains, the Skull Gorge, and the Yellow Snake Pass.
“I will also tell you that because of this background and occupational tendencies, almost all of the citizens here are skilled in the use of martial weapons. As well, the city makes a substantial profit from the sales of low quality, mass production weaponry and armor.
“But, I am sure that this lecture has bored you,” the elven minstrel says in apology. “And I am sure you have your own questions about this place.”
“You have not managed to bore me yet,” the warrior replies, examining as much of the city as is currently visible. “I enjoy the sound of your voice and am interested in the knowledge that you seek to pass on.”
Allowing his gaze to take in the surrounding areas, he comments, “The city is called Hill’s Edge. The hills seem somewhat distant to give their name to it.”
“Indeed,” replies Aris. “The name does not refer to the hills but rather to a deceased adventurer by the name of Uldobris Downhill. A halfling warrior, he made a fortune when he discovered a healthy deposit of iron in the eastern bank of that river there, known here as the River Reaching. He named his mine the Edge, because it was always under the threat of flooding from the ebb and flow of the river’s waters. Thus the evolution into the title Hill’s Edge.
“Seven years after he started the mine, the efforts of his gnomish employees failed. The river waters flooded the mine and it was abandoned. The flooded passages and tunnels still lie beneath the city; more than one expedition of gnomish pump workers has ventured into the ancient tunnels, never to be heard from again.
“The city itself began as a fortified outpost meant to protect the mine and the smelting ovens,” Aris then explains. “Over time, it has grown into a city that supports smithies and outfitters and serves as a base for hunters, prospectors, and adventurers. It also hosts a variety of merchant companies and costers”
“And it is here that I am to finally discover what is wanted of me?” Rashid asks, turning from the city and looking to the two elves.
Aris nods. “That is what I believe. We were instructed to bring you here. I would imagine that someone here will have more information for you. For now, I suggest we proceed to get ourselves lodging. Tonight or on the morrow, Aranor and I can visit some people we know, here. They should be able to help us.”
Nodding thoughtfully, Rashid looks again at the city, adding simply, “Lead on.”
* * * * *
The four traveling companions cross the stone bridge and approach the large gate set into the high stone walls. Rashid glances upward and studies the stern looks of the guards that man the fifty-foot high flanking watchtowers. Their demeanor suggests a calm, cool professionalism – as does the well-oiled look of the crossbows that several of them cradle comfortably in their arms. After a brief and guardedly vague introduction to the guards that includes a passage fee of one silver coin per mount or pack animal, Aranor dismounts and leads the small procession through the gate and into the city proper.
Inside, Rashid sees that a variety of merchant stalls are set against the inside face of the protective wall. To his front, the dirt road that led to the gate becomes a wide, cobble stoned avenue running southeast through the city toward a gate set into the distant wall opposite of that by which the travelers entered. Five score or so paces to his front, Rashid sees that a similarly-paved boulevard crosses this one at a right angle. A spear’s throw beyond the intersection, a stone bridge spans a canal that neatly bisects the city from northeast to southwest.
The town’s buildings are of sturdy stone construction with roofs of slate and tile. In addition to the expected assortment of shops, taverns, and inns, the most prominent of buildings are large, hulking warehouses. Shuttered windows on the upper stories suggest that the owners make their dwelling above the storage areas. A short distance beyond the bridge, and set off to the left of the main road, a sturdy stone tower – greater in height than the watchtowers – rises up to watch over the city.
“We will find rooms for ourselves and then see about quenching our thirst,” Aranor says over his shoulder.
The quartet leads their horses over the stone bridge and past the tall stone tower that Rashid noticed earlier. “The Mayor’s Tower,” Aris explains, answering the Bedine’s unvoiced question.
Beyond the Mayor’s residence, and nearly halfway between the bridge and the southeastern gate of the city, a thirty-foot high chiseled sculpture of a rampant creature with an eagle’s head, wings and a lion’s body graces the front of a three story stone building. Rashid’s mouth drops in wonder as a brief flicker of electricity passes over the statue.
A brief chuckle sounds from his side. “The lightning is only illusion,” Aris says with a gentle smile. “It is said that the statue once served as the figurehead of a merchant vessel belonging to the proprietor of this place. This is our destination – the Storm Griffon Inn.”
The elven minstrel then follows Rashid’s gaze to two nearby structures that oppose one another across the expanse of wide boulevard less than a stone’s throw further down the main thoroughfare. Both are built as forty-foot high citadels. The stronghold to the north of the road is adorned with vivid banners that display a triangle of six-pointed stars shaded yellow, orange, and red. The fortress to the south of the road is as dark and foreboding as its opposite is bright and cheerful. The black banners flying from its turrets are emblazoned with a white skull superimposed on a blood-red starburst.
“The Cry of Joy and the Fist of the Future,” explains Aris. “Hey are home to the Rose-Red Lady – Joybringer Caseldown, priestess of Lliira, and the Black Lady – High Dark Priestess Emana Gortho, priestess of Cyric. Those two religious factions vie continuously for the hearts and minds of the city’s residents.”
Rashid continues to gaze at the two citadels. “The city allows the followers of Cyric to have such a stronghold within their walls?” he asks.
“I believe tolerate would be a better word than allow,” Aris replies. “Those here know well the danger that the followers of the Dark Sun represent. But they know also the fate of Zhentil Keep – which was razed for straying from Cyric’s worship. And they know that the Dark Sun still holds sway with those of Darkhold.
“It is much the same as their relationship with Darkhold and the Black Network. Those here know that the Zhentarim bring caravan trade to the area, and that the Darkhold patrols help to contain threats from marauding humanoids. On the other hand, the Black Network knows that any attempt to overtly assume control of the town would invoke open warfare with those who harp and others – to include those of equal or even greater malevolence than the Zhentarim.
“Thus, it is an uneasy truce that exists,” the minstrel expounds. “Between the Black Network and its foes, and between the Cry of Joy and the Fist of the Future. And with nearly everyone here having no small skill in the way of the sword, any other option would bring untold bloodshed and mutual destruction. That outcome would profit none of the parties involved. So the tenuous balance continues to hold. But beware the shadows and back alleys – for it is there that intrigue and danger thrive.”
“Very much like the delicate balance in my homeland.” Rashid glances over at Aris, a twinkle in his eye and a barely perceptible grin. “Are you planning on taking us through these shadows?”
“That remains to be seen,” the elven woman replies. “First, we must discover why it is that you have been summoned here. Then, perhaps, we shall discover if our roads will continue to parallel one another.”
“Onward, then, to see where the winds blow.”
* * * * *
An hour or so later, with their horses boarded, their rooms procured, and hot baths taken, the four travelers convene in the dining room of the Storm Griffon. Over a meal of stuffed river fish and fresh fried bread, they discuss their next moves.
“Now that we are here,” Aranor begins, “Aris and I will send word to some of our… acquaintances… here in the city. Once it is spread that we are here, those who wish to contact you for further instructions will hopefully make themselves known. That is one of the reasons I chose this particular inn – they run a respectable messenger service. Not to mention, their fish is excellent!”
The Bedine glances briefly at Aranor. “I think that I can safely say that this is the best fish I recall having tasted.”
Aris smiles at her brother and then looks to Rashid. “Have you thought any more on why you would be summoned to Hill’s Edge?” she asks. “A bedine pathfinder is indeed a rare commodity in the Sunset Vale, but what would be so urgent as to require your services – and our escort to this place?”
“I have given the matter some thought,” Rashid answers. “I can only presume that your... acquaintances... need assistance to cross the sand sea.
“Why Hill’s Edge? That I do not know; I presume that someone is either here who cannot or will not travel, or there is someone else coming to meet here, also.
“As to why us,” he adds with a twitch at the corner of his mouth, “you may have a better idea than I.”
“In truth, we do not,” Aris replies. “But we will try tonight to locate some who might. If we can trust you to stay here and out of trouble, that is,” the elven minstrel replies with a twinkle in her eye. Beside her, Aranor simply rolls his eyes at his sibling.
“I will promise not to look for trouble, tempting as it is to seek a meeting with some of the Black Robes,” the ranger responds with a slight grin. “However, I cannot promise that trouble will not find me.”
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