By Brian Flood
Chapter 54 - Hluthvar
Along the Dusk Road
Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Early Afternoon, 8th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The remainder of the caravan's journey to Hluthvar proves to be uneventful. The next three days of travel are all characterized by cooling temperatures and brief afternoon showers. True to Elmont's prediction, no brigands or raiders harass the party during the time they are under escort of the Hluthvar soldiers. Whether this is cause and effect or merely coincidence is undetermined.
Lucas' companion owl now seems to stay in much closer proximity to the conjurer - perhaps as an aftereffect of the mage's imprisonment in the amber field. The bird spends the day dozing on the pommel of Lucas' conjured horse or on the back of Dolak's cart. At night, it awakes to hunt.
It is just past midday on the third day of travel - the eighth day since the party's departure from Asbravn - when the walls of Hluthvar loom into view. The town of Hluthvar stands as a fortified outpost against the encroachment of the Zhentarim from their own stronghold in the hills to the east. Elmont provides a dry but informative description of the town as the party rides closer.
Hluthvar is built like a wheel. The outer rim of wheel is a high, crenellated wall. Three fortified gatehouses, located to the northwest, southeast, and west, allow - or prevent - access to the town. The inner hub of the wheel provides space for the open town market. From this central point, six radial streets - arrayed from the town's center to the outer wall - cut the town into "slices", as a baker would slice a pie. There are streets heading west to east, southwest to northeast, and southeast to northeast; there is no north-south street. The arrangement of the streets creates a pie with six slices, with the larger slices being to the north and south.
The northern quarter of the town houses the major government buildings. This includes the militia armory, livery stables for the militia's horses, and the House of the Guardian - the fortress that serves both as the temple to Helm and as the central strongpoint of the town's defenses.
The southern slice contains an inn (the Watchful Eye) and a wagon repair shop. The remainder of the southern section - as well as the remaining four slices - is comprised of rental warehouses and dwellings for the town's seventy or so families.
The town is well designed to survive a prolonged siege. The roof of every private dwelling is planted for growing crops. Seven wells, housed within stone towers topped by catapults, are spaced evenly throughout the pie slices. The entire settlement can obviously be strongly defended by relatively few soldiers against a fairly substantial foe.
Elmont announces himself to the guards atop the southeast gatehouse and the caravan passes into the town under the watchful eye of the armed militia above. Following Elmont's lead, the travelers cross the open town center that is sprinkled with a variety of small stalls and booths. As they do, they take note of the buildings and arrangements that Elmont had so accurately described. So too, do they note the well-armed and armored priests and militia that stroll through the streets, an air of absolute loyalty and discipline permeating the entire place.
The companions and their employer come to a halt in front of the fortress-like House of the Guardian. The temple sports a round tower at each of its four corners and is further protected by a moat. The moat, in turn, is ringed by a tall iron gate. At the giff's bellowed order, the drawbridge is lowered across the moat. Directing his men to watch the wagon and the pack animals, Elmont leads the small band across the bridge and into the central fortress.
The giff's huge armored footsteps echo in the stone corridors as he makes his way to the central audience chamber. The companions follow close on his heels and glance left and right at the extremely austere furnishings and decoration evident in the halls of the Helmites.
After a brief but brisk walk, the band arrives in a forty-foot square chamber. At the far end of the room, directly across from the door, are three figures; one figure sits in a simple stone chair while the two others stand to either flank. The sunlight from the arrow slots shines off the brightly polished plate armor that all three of the figures wear.
Elmont stops and brings his heels together with a sharp ringing of steel on steel.
"Lieutenant Elmont Stryker reporting in, sir!" the giff barks. He remains at a rigid position of attention as the echoes of his bellow ricochet from wall to wall within the stone chamber.
"Welcome back lieutenant," says the middle-aged man seated on the stone chair, "and a welcome to our guests, as well." With little effort, and despite his bulky metal armor, the man rises to his feet. As he does so, the party can see that he cuts an impressive figure. His red hair is kept in place by a circlet made of plain steel. A steel-gray tabard emblazoned with the eye-and-gauntlet of Helm and a red cloak add even more grandness to the suit of unblemished full plate armor that protects his tall and powerful frame. A hand-and-a-half sword rests comfortably in a baldric scabbard at his hip and he carries an open-faced plumed helm under his left arm.
The battle-priest strides confidently forward toward the group. The remaining figures, a man and woman both clad similarly to the armed and armored speaker, remain standing near the chair.
"I am High Ward Maurandyr," the man announces when he has closed the distance to the group, "loyal and vigilant servant of Helm and leader of this town. You must be the travelers that Sergeant Alexi reported to us. We received your message, lieutenant," the high priest says, nodding toward Elmont, "and we took note. However, you will recall that we have no mages available to us here."
Looking pointedly at both the robed Lucas and Kjira, Maurandyr bows his head slightly in recognition. "Most followers of Mystra are still upset with the events that transpired between the Vigilant One and the Lady of Mysteries during the Time of Troubles. But I suppose now is not the time for history lessons." His gaze sweeps over the party as he addresses them as a whole.
Lucas ever so slightly nods his head in recognition back in the direction of Maurandyr. The red robed mage listens and watches as the High Ward continues.
"I see that you have made it here without any further incident," Maurandyr declares. "That is good; Helm has surely watched and protected you. Now tell me, were you able to discover anything as to the identity or purpose of this sorceress that apparently attacked you?"
Stepping forward, Alani performs a low curtsey before speaking. "On behalf of my employer and myself I would like to thank you, High Ward Maurandyr, for your hospitality," Alani says politely. Motioning to the large giff that is standing next to her, the elven scout continues.
"I would also like to commend Lieutenant Stryker and his men for their assistance in the travel to your fine city. They were both courteous and very professional in their duties." Alani pauses for a moment to stifle a giggle as she sees Elmont standing stiff and staring forward. She mentally notes how unnatural the giff appears in such a posture.
Looking back to the High Ward, Alani reports what little they know about the assassin. "As for the witch we battled, all we really know is that her name was Zephra and that she was hired by the Black Network to do away with our present employer and if we interfered with her duties we were to be killed also." Pausing for a moment to remember what was written on the contract, Alani continues. "It seems the Zhentarim didn't like some of the inquiries made by Master Tomar and they believe he may have ties with Harpers. Outside of that, sir, we have no other information on the would-be killer." Finishing, Alani awaits the High Ward's comments.
Darius stands and waits for the conversation to end. He sighs as he thinks 'a city again'. The druid reaches down and scratches Soft Fang behind the ears while listening intently.
Maurandyr has listened patiently to Alani's explanation. When she has finished, he thinks for a few moments and then asks, "May I ask how you came by this information - the ties to the Harpers and the Zhentarim, for instance?"
"We found the death contract on the witch," Alani replies, "and though the contract doesn't implicate the Zhentarim, a necklace wore by the witch had her sigil along with the sigil of Darkhold."
Turning towards Cy and Corax, the young elf asks, "Cy, could you and Corax please show the High Ward the document and necklace?"
Cyzicus approaches. "Oh, there is no doubt of their involvement, Sir Maurandyr," says the halfling warrior-priest as he presents the pendant with the witch's sigil and the symbol for Darkhold. "As well, I would like to praise Brother Stryker's timely intervention and escort to these well guarded halls and walls." He then bows and backs away and waits for Maurandyr's response, as well as waiting to see if Elmont will broach the subject of Simon, as he promised.
"And here is the contract," Corax announces, as the rogue produces the parchment and hands it over to the high priest. With a quick bow, the rogue steps back into his place in the group.
Maurandyr studies the pendant first. "Yes, you are correct," he declares, "this is the symbol of Darkhold, here. And this other sigil must be that of the witch." Wrapping the pendant around his wrist, he next unrolls the scroll and reads it. His eyes narrow as they move across the scribed lines of instructions. When he gets to the end of the parchment, his eyebrows arch sharply.
"This is matter is even more serious than it appears. This sigil here at the bottom, do any of you recognize it?" At the party's negative replies, the high priest explains. "It is the personal sigil of Sememmon - the dark wizard that rules Darkhold. If he is personally involved in this, there may be dire consequences, indeed," the priest states with a grim tone creeping into his voice.
Blanching as the words come out of High Ward Maurandyr's mouth, Alani head turns to look at Tomar. Her eyes narrow as she contemplates the reason Tomar gave for why he was contracted for death.
'Something just isn't right here,' the young elf thinks to herself. 'He isn't telling us everything, I know it.'
Deciding not to voice her concerns at this moment Alan turns her eyes back to Maurandyr. "Master Tomar said all he was doing was inquiring about some caravan taking farming equipment through the Anauroch. But I don't see how this Sememmon would be concerned with someone being nosey about that. That is, unless the farming equipment is just a cover," Alani says, speaking to no one in particular.
Focusing her eyes to the high priest, Alani inquires, "Sir, have you or your men uncovered any plans that would call for such an order? It sounds to me that Sememmon is worried about the Harpers discovering something that he does not want them to know. Surely one such as he wouldn't be much worried about farming equipment." Alani stands, arms crossed as she awaits an answer.
Maurandyr glances over his shoulder at the two armor-clad humans that have stood silent in the background. They both wordlessly shake their heads. The High Ward turns back to Tomar and his guards.
"No," he announces. "We have heard nothing of any caravan heading across Anauroch. The Zhentarim control the trade routes across the great desert."
"And you, I presume you are Master Tomar?" the warrior-priest asks the party's employer. "What interest have you in this caravan?"
Tomar clears his throat. "Indeed, I am Tomar of Iriaebor, a book dealer and lore seeker by trade," he declares. "I heard of this caravan among some other merchants. I have a long-standing interest in the fallen kingdom of Netheril. Anauroch is said to hold many ruins of that ancient civilization buried under its sands."
"Can you tell us more of this Sememmon, Sir Maurandyr?" Kjira asks as Tomar finishes. "And what could he possibly be up to that would be so important as to warrant assassinating a merchant for merely asking about a caravan?"
"Sememmon is an archmage and the ruler of Darkhold - the Zhentarim power center in the Western Heartlands," Maurandyr explains. "He is a former student of Manshoon - the dark mage that formed the Zhentarim. His forces hold the Sunset Vale in an iron grip. Although, his powerbase has decreased somewhat in the aftermath of the incidents at Zhentil Keep almost two years ago."
"As for what he intends with an assassination attempt such as this, I do not know," the High Ward continues. "I would think that he would not bother himself with such trivial matters - he has many lieutenants that would surely be more than pleased to order or carry out such an action."
"Sounds like this Sememmon is up to more than farming," Alani says when Maurandyr finishes his explanation.
Looking towards Master Tomar the young woman smiles as she continues. "Maybe he and our illustrious employer here have the same interest in things long lost in the desert's sands." Chuckling as she turns back to the High Ward, Alani shakes her head.
"Whatever this wizard is up to, it is very apparent the he doesn't want the Harpers to know. And now he has probably convinced himself that a simple bookseller and his hired guards are part of that secret group."
Sighing, Alani looks up to the warrior-priest. "You wouldn't know how I can get in touch with these Harpers?" she asks as if she already knows the answer.
"Indeed I do," Maurandyr says carefully. "They finance some of our hiring of adventurers to patrol these lands. Their agents visit on occasion. What is it you would like me to pass on to them?" he asks.
Surprised at the High Warden's answer, Alani stammers slightly as she speaks. "Hmmm, good question," the elven woman says nonchalantly.
Looking back at the party, Alani wonders what each is thinking. Shrugging her shoulders, the scout turns back towards the Maurandyr.
"I don't know about the others," she says, waving her hand towards the group, "but personally I would like to speak with them. Perhaps they can me tell me why Sememmon has us dead over something so trivial," she answers, obviously frustrated by the situation.
The High Warden shakes his head. "I share your concern, but a meeting with them is simply not possible. Their agents keep their identities a close secret. They almost never reveal themselves to someone outside of their group or unproven as an ally or friend. Again, I will do what I can to pass on a message to Those That Harp on your behalf, if you so desire."
Seeing that the elf feels strongly on meeting the Harpers, Lucas removes his woodland cloak and places it over his left arm, revealing his bright red robes and a white sash. Continuing, he turns to addresses Alani, "I think we may not need to request a formal meeting Alani. By our actions in protecting Master Tomar and his interests, we may be already serving the goals of Those That Harp. I believe we may be contacted in the future if we continue to prove ourselves valuable guardsman for a mere scholar in search of books, but I may be wrong " he adds with a sly grin.
Shrugging her shoulder Alani replies, "If a price is on my head because some crazy Zhentarim mage thinks that I have ties with the Harpers, then so be it. Tell them what we have reported to you," the elven scout says to the High Ward. "If I cannot find any real reason this mage wants us dead save for the fact that it is because some merchant asked too many questions, the least I can do is give him a real reason that I can live with."
Turning back to the High Ward, the Lucas then says, "I am Lucas of Silverymoon, servant of Mystara. I do not hold such deeds of the past so tightly that they blind the present, but look to the future when we can again work together free of suspicion." Pausing for a moment before continuing, he says, "Can you direct us to a good inn where we may take rest of the road? I thank you in advance for the shelter and safety that your presence offers us here," Lucas concludes with a short bow.
Maurandyr nods at Lucas' ability to rise above the events of the past. "Your words encourage us, Lucas of Silverymoon," the priest declares. "As for an inn," he continues, "the Watchful Eye is the only such establishment here. You will also find that there is no tavern, I'm afraid. The 'Eye offers rooms at a reasonable rate. If you fear for your safety, however, we can also offer you rooms here in the House of the Guardian for a donation of ten gold pieces each."
Moving to Tomar, Alani inquires, "Will we be staying in town for the night?"
The merchant nods in response. "Yes, we will. I will also pay you for this past leg of the journey. We will leave tomorrow morning for Corm Orp."
In the aftermath of Tomar's announcement, Elmont clears his throat and says, "There is one more thing, High Ward. This boy here," he says, indicating Simon, "was taken in by these adventurers. They discovered him in a small homestead north of Asbravn. It would appear that his family was " the giff pauses as he chooses his words carefully in Simon's presence.
He continues cautiously, "Rather, it would appear that the boy is an orphan. It should be obvious that traveling with this group will most likely not be a safe option for the lad. I have told his present guardian - this halfling here - Cyzicus of Arvoreen - that the boy would be welcomed here in our care. Indeed, the boy has shown an aptitude for swordplay in the few days that Cyzicus has watched over him. What is your feeling on this?"
Maurandyr nods grimly at Elmont's recital of Simon's plight. Then he looks to the boy and his face lightens. "Of course. The boy is welcome here in Helm's ranks. If what you say about his natural abilities is correct, perhaps someday he will grow to be a Watcher or even a paladin of the God of Guardians! But it is really the young lad's decision."
The High Ward takes a knee and looks into Simon's eyes. "What say you, young Simon? Do wish to stay here with us and learn the ways of Helm?"
Simon's eyes grow as wide as platters as the priest addresses him directly. His eyes roam over the man's well-groomed protective plate mail armor and linger on the large sword that rides on the High Ward's hip. Mutely, he nods his assent at the offer.
Maurandyr beams back at the boy. "Excellent!" he declares as he stands. Then he looks back to the party. "Lieutentant Elmont, you are to be commended for your work in escorting this band here. The news they bring with them is dire indeed. Now then, it is getting on toward the evening meal. Is there anything else that any of you wish to bring to our attention?" he asks.
"M'Lord Maurandyr, the road has depleted our supplies somewhat," Lucas replies. "Would it be feasible to purchase foodstuffs and perhaps some limited weaponry here? I also have need to see your leatherworker before the evening meal," adds the conjurer.
"You may peruse the town market, of course," Maurandyr replies. "We have very limited weaponry in our armory to sell to travelers. Mostly just spare armor and weaponry of the type used by our militia. And I can see none of you are equipped as such."
Lucas turns to the others before heading off to do some shopping before the evening meal and suggests, "I propose that we pool together our loot to buy some items for the group as a whole. In particular, we need some pearls in order to identify the magical items we found earlier. I offer my services to be the group banker for such a fund or another can do it if you want. What do you all think?"
He pauses a second before continuing, "If anyone needs any funds for foodstuffs or something special, then they could borrow against the party fund with group approval."
"That sounds good to me, Lucas. I trust you," Alani says, smiling towards the mage. "I will give Master Tomar and Ori a hand in stowing away the wagon."
Looking towards Dolak as the dwarf stares back through the door wonder if his smithy is safe, Alani adds, "I imagine he will be joining us. Then I guess we can all meet here." Alani smiles as she watches the dwarf.
Dolak nods his head. "Aye, I'll be needin' to see to me cart. But why will we be meetin' back 'ere? Are we to stay 'ere instead of the inn?" he asks.
"That is acceptable to me as well, Lucas," Cy replies. "Also, I will accompany you as I need to look at the items myself," adds the halfling.
"Yes, Lucas, that is fine with also," chimes in Darius. Next to him, Corax nods his assent, as well.
"Kjira, would you do me the honour of escorting and assisting me in the purchases so we can identify our newfound magical items?" asks Lucas to Kjira with a smile.
"Certainly Lucas...as long as you promise not to open any unusual books along the way." Kjira smiles innocently as she speaks. "But I think we should make plans to spend the evening here at the temple. It may cost a little more than the local inn, but the safety offered is well worth it. I think we could all use a night of peaceful sleep without having to worry about watches or ambushes."
"Besides," the lady mage adds, "these Zhents are sure to have agents lurking about the town who may be waiting for us to lower our guard..."
Nodding at Kjira, the red robed mage relents, "Very well then...it may cost more, but I guess you are right on the safer bit. At least until I start reading things," adds Lucas with a chuckle.
"Ahem." Maurandyr interrupts the group's internal discussions. The High Ward stands with an eyebrow raised and a disapproving look on his face. Apparently, he does not appreciate having to stand in audience to the party's internal debates.
"It would seem that you have told me all you can. If you have nothing further, you are dismissed. With your leave, we will retain possession of this necklace and this letter of mark. They most likely have strong connections to the mage-assassin and could be used to locate her - or whoever possesses them. May Helm's Watchful Eye guide the remainder of your journey," Maurandyr invokes, holding his gauntlet-clad left hand toward the party, palm facing the adventures.
Elmont takes Simon's hand in his own large paw. Stepping back to separate himself from the group, the giff nods a wordless farewell.
Turning back his attention to the High Ward, Lucas says, "M'Lord Maurandyr, again thanks for your information and offer of refuge for the evening. We shall take our leave to conduct some business before this evening's meal. Perhaps we shall see you later this eve." Lucas bows in respect and makes to leave.
"It seems is settled then High Ward," Alani adds as well. "That is, if Master Tomar approves with staying within these walls," Alani says as she bows graciously Maurandyr.
Rising back up, Alani continues, "As for the necklace and the letter, I don't believe any of us have a use for it. And if you are able to glean any information about our would-be assassin or her Master, could please you pass it down to us?" the young woman asks.
Maurandyr nods curtly in reply to Alani's question. After receiving the answer from the High Ward, Alani and the others all bow once more in farewell and leave the audience hall. Guards guide their way through the House of the Guardian and the small band soon finds itself back in the town circle where there wagon, cart, and animals are still guarded by alert militia soldiers.
Alani turns to Cyzicus once the group has gathered around their transport. "Cy while you are out, could you please pick me up a few good arrows and some rations for the road?" she asks the halfling, batting her eyebrows in mock innocence.
Cy replies in a lilting musical language with a bow. <I would be honored milady,> he says in Elvish.
Then in a mildly bemused Common, he adds, "How anyone can consider the dressing of a deer unladylike, while the killing is not, is beyond me."
As the adventurers gather their captured loot for bartering, Tomar goes into the back of his wagon. A few moments later, he emerges with a bulging purse. He hands each of the companions nine gold coins, "In payment for the trip from Asbravn to here," he explains.
With that, and with a plan to rendezvous at the nearby inn for supper once the shopping is complete, the group separates. Tomar and Ori set off with the wagon to find a warehouse to rent for the evening. Alani and Corax follow, leading the adventurers' the mules and mounts. Darius announces that he must forage for berries outside the town's walls - for what, he does not specify. The remaining four guards - Lucas, Kjira, Dolak, and Cyzicus - head into the market to shop for provisions and hopefully barter away some of their newly acquired loot for more needed items.
* * * * *
The Watchful Eye Inn
Hluthvar, The Sunset Vale
Late Afternoon, 8th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
A few hours later, the group reassembles in the Watchful Eye Inn - the town's only source of dinner for travelers. The inn is a rather cheerless place - it offers shelter from the elements but not much more. Over a meal of generally mundane food and watered-down beer, the party discusses its finds.
Lucas announces that in return for the silver items and a few gems, he managed to obtain two pearls from the merchants in the town market. The mage also is pleased to have found a sheaf of darts, some rations, and a few scraps of leather.
Cyzicus is looking rather formidable in the suit of chain mail that he obtained by bartering the suit of brigandine that he purchased in Asbravn as well as a few gems and some coinage. He hands Alani the rations and arrows that she requested. Lastly, the halfling also carries an item wrapped in cloth - it appears to measure about two feet long or so.
Kjira reports that she was able to restock on some rations as well as pick up about ten pounds of iron ingots for Dolak to use in his forge. Darius also appears pleased - apparently his foraging went well.
After finishing their unexciting meal, paid for by the newly established group fund, the party returns to the House of the Guardian to request lodging. After paying ten gold coins each - a sum that is covered by the gold ring and a few platinum pieces, the adventurers are led to stark, simply furnished rooms. Saying their goodnights, the adventurers close their doors and lay down to sleep on the stone pallets provided.
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