“Friend merchant, you promised us the next chapter of your little myth when next we made camp,” the mercenary said, while the rest of the caravan busied itself with raising tents and unsaddling horses in the purple twilight.
Vincente eased himself down onto his camp stool at the edge of the still-young fire, reached into his coat with a spottled hand and withdrew his pipe. In his twilight years, these winding pilgrimages up the coast towards Neverwinter filled him with a profound nostalgia—weeks ago, he’d started telling the story of his first adventure with Arrivae Highnoon and Sir Falsebottom and all the rest, the retelling of which was as familiar to him as the exchange rates posted outside the banks every morning. Some of those names had now, of course, passed into something resembling legend, along with their faces, and their stories. This one, though, was one few bothered remembering—a story from before their history had been written.
“I am a man of my word, commander. Please—sit. Your friends out beyond the wagon line will keep us safe tonight, I’m sure.”
The mercenary sat—the child of one of Vincente’s wagoneers scuttled towards the fire to listen, followed by the robed priest of Mystra who tended to find an excuse to sit in every night—and insisted on calling Vincente ‘Brother Fox’ with that fawning, sycophantic gaze that brought Vincente back to the absolute worst days of his old friend’s popular apotheosis. Several others joined the circle as they were able, bringing their nightly rations with them, sitting cross-legged on the crisp, low tundra grass or setting out low plywood benches. One thing had remained constant over Vincente’s long career: He could still manage to attract an audience.
He cleared his throat, packed tobacco into the pipe. “You’ll recall, of course, that we had just returned to Coldwell—”
“And you had stayed behind to watch the horses while the real heroes did the actual—”
“This is my story, commander, I’ll be telling it how I please. I had remained at a safe distance from the city keeping watch—prudent watch, I might add—on our newly acquired horses, while the rest of my friends reentered the city—a city under siege! But I told you all about that last night.” He lit the pipe, puffed, wheezed. “What’s important, for those of you who missed the retelling, is that Stefon Morningstar escaped, Coldwell burned, the guard captain died, and Arrivae had him resurrected.” He chuckled. “Arrivae had him in other ways, too, but there are children in the crowd, and I am if anything the soul of discretion.”
“Arrivae? With the guard captain?” The priest frowned, the one-toothed gear in his head struggling to process the information. “But . . . Arrivae Highnoon was a man.”
“The Weave loves all,” Vincente murmured. Before the conversation could devolve into an examination of the outer bounds of heresy, he plunged forward. “But no matter. The sun rose over a ruined village, and the Captain sent us onward, out of ruined Coldwell and north, North along the old roads that skirt Neverwinter Forest, towards that fractured gem in the Spine’s crown. We pursued the son of Francis Morningstar, who we thought slain, and who had—by all accounts—absconded with the Mayor’s daughter, Annemarie. Fast we rode, and hard—the horses which I had so astutely preserved from harm served as able mounts, and we made up for much lost time in the early hours of the day.”
“But then,” he said, rocking up to his feet in a surprisingly fluid movement for one so apparently aged, gesturing towards the road their camp now skirted, pointing south towards the gathering dark, “not far from here—less than a league, in fact, where the road forks—we came across a band of refugees. These weren’t the sort of wanderers you read about in your histories, all clean and well-supplied, noble in their poveryu, in their pursuit of comfort, no—these were hunted men. Women. Children. Their village, now lost, had been ravaged by demons in the night, had fallen as Coldwell had fallen.”
He paused, searched their faces. “These were the early days of that great struggle, a struggle which I needn’t opine on. You’ve all lived the end of it. But suffice it to say that, at the time, none of us quite appreciated the signs. Not even Piska, closest though he was to the infernal.”
“Sir Falsebottom, filled with that selflessness which would in time earn him his titles and honors, volunteered us as protection for this sad band of penniless exiles. I’ll admit—” he chuckled— “I was not, at the time, thrilled at the prospect. You may have noticed, all of you, that I enjoy the sound of gold coins in my hand.”
The polite laughter of employees at an employer’s bad joke. They’d all worked for Vincente long enough to know how true his statement rang.
“Regardless, we settled in for the night’s watch—I took the first watch, alongside Falsebottom, who spent most of it trying to convince me we would be paid. It was a perfectly reasonable argument to make, though he was a terrible negotiator—history plays that out, of course.”
“We did not have a boring evening. As the last of the sun fled the sky, from the eastern woods—movement! I sighted it before Falsebottom, raised the alarm, sent Dahved and Clippin forward to meet our enemy. Yes, I see the question in your eyes: The same demons that had destroyed these peasants’ homes had returned to finish their work. Six dretches, pitiful and wailing, met us on this very road.”
He paused, gathering breath. “I, of course, hid at once, fired arrows from the safety of the campsite where I could best pick out the dretch’s joints, their tender undersides. Others of our party, as they were wont to do, waded in—Dahved in the form of whatever wild animal took his fancy at the time, I honestly forget, dear Falsebottom with his sword held high, Klippin Swiftfoot with his lack-of-sword at its most obvious. They fought! We fought! And the dretches burped.”
A dull stare from the mercenary captain. “Dretches have gas, commander. The gas is also poisonous. It’s a whole…” Vincente waved his right hand, dismissed it. “Nevermind. Unimportant.”
“And then Arrivae Highnoon—” Vincente ignored the reverent handsign from the priest— “Reared back his hands, called on that deeper magic within him, and summoned gouts of flame such that I’d never seen. Three of the dretches—three!—vanished, disappeared into a cloud of charred smog with that single stroke.”
“Praise be the Weave, and She the Seamstress,” the priest breathed,
“It was quick work,” Vincente shrugged, “For dretches are, as we all know, low things, small things. They hadn’t even the presence of mind to try and flee. Before long, the night quieted itself again.”
“A boring story, friend merchant.”
Vincente smiled. “I’m not done.”
“Moments later—seconds, really—two demons of a truly terrible nature revealed themselves right in our midst—they had been observing, invisible, while their lessers softened us up. I’ll admit it, dear friends, when I saw their cloaks shimmer away and those baleful eyes burn, I almost thought it time to find myself a religion. We hammered at them, and they hammered back—it was almost as though each of them could attack you three times in the time it took you to attack it once! Deeply unfair. I resented it. As did the bodies of my fellows, slowly beaten down by the infernals’ superior offense. It was close, my friends. Desperately close.”
The priest raised that damned diary over his head, exclaimed, “But it is Written—the servant of the Weave knew not the taste of defeat!”
“So it is written, my friend. So it is written.”
The Book of Arrivae had been heavily edited.
“And that was the end of the beasts—the end of the threat that had destroyed our wards’ homes. Their gratitude was…touching. And we carried on towards Neverwinter.”
The mercenary captain grunted. “Demons. Demons in the North. I feel like every story up here starts with some monster bubbling out of the depths.”
“It is the way of stories to have antagonists, commander.”
“Hrmph. So? What about the rest of the journey? Surely something else happened between the battlefield and the gates of Neverwinter.”
“I honestly don’t recall, commander. It’s almost like I fell off the face of the earth after that battle—for a time, anyway. It was many years ago—on an older road.” He took a long draw from the pipe. “Besides, I don’t think we have the time for more stories.”
The mercenary’s blank stare was met by the sound of hurried footsteps, and one of the younger bladesmen in Vincente’s employ burst into the firelight.
“Commander—movement at the perimeter! It’s—”
A three-octave scream drowned out the rest of the report, joined by the cries of the merchantmen and travellers, the shaking of steel from scabbard as the mercenary and his companion fled to join their party beyond the wagon line. The story—like most—was forgotten.
Vincente smiled, and reached for his bow.