The work contained on this page is the property of Ed Greenwood. Candlekeep claims no right to ownership of the text included below.
One Comes, Unheralded, to Zirta
By Ed Greenwood
Now in all the lands 'twixt bustling Waterdeep and the sparkling waves of the Sea of Fallen Stars, no men were more loved -- and feared -- than the stoic swordsman Durnan, the blustering old rogue Mirt, and the all-wise, ancient wizard Elminster.
Wherefore all conversation in the Banshee Laid Bare came to a sudden, startled halt when the puffing man lurching down the steps into the flickering, none-too-well candlelit gloom of the taproom snarled back over his shoulder, "Write it down yourself, man! Mirt the Moneylender is no man's lackey!"
More than one head turned oh-so-casually to look at the gasping, pendulous-bellied arrival in his flopping, battered old swash boots -- and more than one eyebrow lifted as its owner quelled a sneer. This was the Old Wolf of Waterdeep? The man even that coldly gliding, sinister elf men called the Serpent feared to cross?
Mirt the Merciless, if it truly was he, drew himself up like the prow of a weary ship sliding into dock -- a stout old cog splitting its seams, by the look of him -- and peered around.
Espying an empty table with a little sigh of satisfaction, he made for it, and had scarce settled himself with a groan of contentment onto a bench whose answering groan was rather more heartfelt when a bald-headed, beak-nosed man at the next table wheeled around in his seat.
"That," he announced with soft menace, "is my table, see? I likes it always empty, to give standing room for m'empty tankards. So move thy lard, hog head!"
Mirt gave no sign of having heard the man, and with a grunt of effort levered one of his muddy-booted feet up onto the tabletop with a crash. "Ho, wench!" he called. "I thirst!"
The bald man blinked, glared at the fat man who was now studying the toe of his raised boot with a critical air, and growled, "I'm speaking at ye, boar-belly!"
Mirt studied his nails, let his gaze wander casually in the bald man's direction, nodded an affable wordless greeting, and looked down the room at the other drinkers -- most of whom were now hunched forward in glitter-eyed anticipation.
Mirt gave them all that vague, easy-going smile of greeting, and called, "Ho! Ale, by Tempus Stormhelm! A keg at least!"
With a rising growl of anger the bald man rose to stand over the fat merchant, revealing shoulders as broad as a small wagon, and bared arms bulging with muscles a-crawl with green veins. Hands like shovels reached forward -- as Mirt watched with what seemed like mild interest -- and closed with cruel force on the merchant's leg, at ankle and knee.
"Ye seem hard of hearing, lardpot," their owner snarled, the rough humor gone from his eyes now, despite the snickers and snorts rising in chorus from the bravos around the table where he'd been sitting. "I wonder if that'll continue when ye make a close acquaintance with pain, swift and soon!"
Mirt blinked at the man, let his gaze drop to the hand on his knee and then down his leg to the hairy grasp on his ankle, lifted his head to almost brush noses with the angry face thrust close to his -- and belched, long and thunderously, in the man's face.
With a roar of rage the man hauled hard on the merchant's leg, pulling the merchant into the air, table and all (thanks to Mirt's other arm and leg, which maintained their holds thereon). As the table creaked upright onto its end, the merchant drove one fat fist hard into his newfound foe's throat -- and the bald head whipped around with a sickening gurgling sound.
Mirt planted his other hand on that face and sprang free as the man slid to the floor in a boneless wobble -- and the table crashed over atop him.
The Old Wolf's vault ended atop the next table with a tankard-rattling crash, hurling spatterings of drink and spitting, swearing men -- the bald man's drinking-brothers -- in all directions.
With a general roar of startled or delighted oaths and a flashing and ringing of dozens of blades leaping out of their scabbards, the taproom erupted. Mirt kicked out, hard, at the one man at that table who had a pillar behind him, heard that unfortunate's skull thump off it, deep and damp, and then sprang the other way, atop another man whom he bore to the floor, stabbing viciously with a foot-long dagger that had somehow appeared in his hand. They bounced, and then the man under the fat merchant lay still.
Swords clanged on swords, men shouted challenges and snarled intentions to rekindle old or imagined grudges, and someone threw a chair.
On the stairs a hastening serving wench screamed and dropped her wineskin -- only to have it deftly plucked from the air inches from where it would have split on the rough, sand-strewn floor by a long, tanned arm whose owner said, from somewhere behind her ankles, "My thanks, lass. Now take thy wailing up to the sun again, there's a good maid, and give me room!"
Wild-eyed and as swiftly as a startled falcon a-wing, she complied, leaving the man with the wineskin to unstopper the skin and sample appreciatively of what sloshed therein. Then he made a face, put the stopper back, and set the skin down on the steps beside him.
In the tumult of battle, with chairs crashing over and the corners of tables being shoved into the bellies of enthusiastically-cursing men, no one had heard his cheerful utterance -- but when the newcomer plucked up the nearest table and hurled it the length of the taproom, to crash in splintered ruin against a pillar and the shrieking bodies of a dozen frantically struggling men, general notice was taken of this second arrival.
"B'yr Lady of the Moon!" one man gasped, into the second sudden silence to befall in the taproom that evening, as men stared -- and gaped -- and froze.
Standing on the bottom step smiling a little, catlike smile and looking around the room with the promise of death awake and eager in his eyes was a man who wore leather breeches, boots, and a vest that left his chest and arms bare. An outlander, for sure. His flesh was tanned the hue of honeyed wood, and the muscles rippling beneath it made him look like a great hunting cat as he stared around the room, broad gilded bracers gleaming back the candle-flames on both of his hairy forearms, not bothering to draw either the stout sword or the axe from his belt, and twisted his lips into something that was part sneer and part eager smile.
"Ye might have waited until I was through wenching my way through our room-taking, Old Wolf!" he said in mock-complaint. "I've been so deprived on our journey thus far!"
"Six necks wrung and four men slit open from vitals to throat?" Mirt replied, puffing his way forward with someone else's blood all over his hands. "That's deprived? Well, now. Aye, I suppose 'tis, for ye." He frowned, and looked back over his shoulder, brightening in an instant.
"Well, look ye!" he said, jerking his head hard enough to make his brustling moustaches quiver. "I've saved ye some, Durn -- most of 'em, now, strike me!"
"Durnan!" a man gasped, somewhere down the room. "Durnan of Waterdeep!"
"Durnan!" another man took up the cry, his voice almost a sob of fear.
"Well, so ye have," Durnan observed delightedly, as if no one had gasped his name -- and those long, corded arms stabbed out like speeding arrows, snatched up another massive table as if it was a lady's cap-feather -- and hurled it down the room, too.
The crash that heralded the end of its brief flight was almost drowned out by the screams and terrified yells of men seeking to flee, almost claw-climbing over each other in their scrabbling haste to reach the unlit, narrow servants' stair in the farthest back corner of the taproom.
For the space of a breath or two, the room was a-stream with wailing men . . . and then it was empty and quiet again, save for a pair of large and softly-chuckling men.
"Well, well," Durnan said, striding forward as smoothly as any panther, "it seems ye still can't do something as simple as order a little throatslake without starting a bloodletting brawl!"
"My reputation," Mirt replied with simple dignity, drawing himself up, "precedes me."
He looked around as a sudden thought struck him. "I wonder if someone else left drink behind that didn't get spilled, hey?"
Durnan looked up at the rafters. "O watching gods," he said fervently, "'twould be overly kind of thee, I grant, if . . ."
"Hey!" Mirt rumbled in sudden delight. "Look ye!"
Three forms were huddled at a table in one of the darkest corners of the room, without benefit of candle or lamp, and there were decanters among them, and tall glasses, and slender, elegant hands wrapped around fluted glass . . .
"Ho!" Mirt roared happily. "Wenches! And all for us!"
Three long-tressed heads turned to regard him, their expressions impossible to discern in the gloom -- but the testy male voice that came from their midst was flatly unmistakable in its sentiments: "I think not."
Mirt's eyes narrowed as he stalked forward. "I've heard yon tongue before . . . who are ye?"
The wench in the middle -- the one with smoky eyes and the frankly incredible bosom emblazoned with a bright tattoo of a dragon snaking its lucky way down out of sight -- seemed to melt and waver for a moment, before the Old Wolf's eyes . . . and when its shimmer was done, he was looking at a gaunt, white-bearded old man in a battered pointed hat and tattered robes.
"Men generally call me Elminster," the wizard said sourly, over the rim of his raised glass, "if they dare to call me anything at all."
He made a gesture with the glass, as if toasting the two warriors, and Durnan let his hands fall away from the hilts of the two daggers strapped to the insides of his bracers, and breathed once more.
Mirt chuckled uneasily. "And the wenches? Are they with thee?"
"So it seems," one of the women pressed against the Old Mage of Shadowdale purred, in the instant before her overpainted face whirled and spun -- and became a darkly-smiling thing of beauty framed by long silver hair that stirred lazily around her shoulders like the tentacles of a restless octopus. "But why don't you see if you can win us free, valiant Moneylender?"
"Storm!" Mirt gasped roughly. "Storm Silverhand!"
Durnan looked at the lass pressed against Elminster's other shoulder, and asked lightly, "And you are -- ?"
The whirl was momentary this time, and the eyes that looked back at him were a trifle more demure -- but the hair was silver, again, and stirring as if dancing in a breeze that was not there.
"Men generally call me Alustriel," she said, teasing Elminster with a look, "when they find their lips free long enough to call me anything at all."
"Gods above!" Mirt swore, as three glasses were raised in his direction. "What're the three of ye doing down here?"
"Well, we were listening to some very interesting converse," Storm said severely, "before your, ah, valiant arrival. A little slaving, a little fell magic, plots of a regicide or two; this is a slightly better tavern than most for the sort of entertainment we crave."
A smile had been playing about the corners of Durnan's mouth for some little time now, and it widened as he asked smoothly, "If I share the cost of that wine, may I also share a glass or two?"
"Ye may," Elminster grunted. "Our work here in Zirta is done for now."
Mirt frowned, lifting one bristling brow in bewilderment. "'Tis?"
"Aye, so." The Old Mage pointed across the taproom. His long forefinger was indicating a corpse lying half-crushed under the splintered ruin of a table. "Look ye."
The outflung arm of the body ended in a hand that glistened with scales. Two of its fingers had lengthened into cruel, hooked talons; the blood running out across the floor from between them was a vivid blue.
"Ye might think on this," Elminster said pointedly, pushing a decanter across the table to Mirt, "when next ye bluster and swagger into a tavern or a town. How much evil -- or daring gallantry, or tight-fisted dealing -- could be done by one who comes unheralded into Zirta, hmm?"
Storm whirled and spun and became a lushly-painted tavern-dancer again, her bosom clad only in a sparkling sheen of false gems, and earrings like fist-sized black stars dangling beside her black, blossoming lips. "Or two?" she asked.
Alustriel's whirlwind was almost too fleeting to see, but left her long, bared flank displaying lurid tattoos as she let her cloak fall away to display an almost burly body, with quite a different pert face, eyes that challenged -- one encircled with a painted-on glow-ring -- and an old sword-scar puckering lips and chin permanently. "Or three?" she asked, eyes on Mirt's.
Mirt shook his head as if to clear it, with what might have been a wince, and -- somewhat reluctantly -- looked down from the show to peer at the dead taloned hand.
"How many of these d'ye think're walking around Zirta right now?"
Elminster shrugged. "Why don't ye come with us and see?"
Mirt looked at Durnan, who looked at the old Mage as he made a shrug of his own. "Why don't we?" the tanned swordsman replied, reaching for a decanter.
It was halfway to his lips when a slight sound from the stairs behind him made the warrior whirl around, tensed.
A woman was standing alone on the steps, a cloak drawn tight around her, eyes gleaming almost merrily down at them all through a full mask. Durnan's hand stole toward his sword hilt.
"That won't be necessary," Elminster said gravely, lifting a finger. As some sort of spell went singing up the stairs in a cloud that sought out every corner of the taproom, he added gently, "Be welcome, your Majesty."
"Why, thank you, Old Mage," the masked figure replied, throwing open her cloak and doffing her mask to let golden tresses spill forth amid Mirt's rumbled oath of amazement.
"May I present Queen Filfaeril of Cormyr?" the wizard added, gesturing grandly, as Mirt and Durnan stared at the Purple Dragon glistening in amethysts on a breast softly draped in cloth-of-gold.
"Gods strike me!" Mirt roared. "What're ye doing here?"
The Queen of Cormyr shrugged as she deftly took the decanter from his hand and lifted it to peer at the contents within. "It seemed the right thing to do," she told it lightly, turning it in her grasp critically. "If one desires guidance, or forewarning of plots against a throne, or intelligent converse on the whys and morrows of the world, well . . . one comes, unheralded, to Zirta. . . ."
Mirt shook his head. "When I was younger," he complained to the gods who once again had failed to strike him down, "the world was much simpler."
Elminster sighed. "I fear that's a common experience," he told the Old Wolf. "Ye seem to have lost thy decanter -- here, have another."
Beldrim Taruster worked long, hard days in the dust of the warehouse yard, staggering under the weight of sacks heavier than he was and casks no man should be asked to lift. One slip, and he'd have pain for the rest of his days and no more coins with which to fill his belly, as he'd sit sourly watching a younger man staggering under the casks.
Such dark thoughts rode his shoulders like a heavy cloak, and at the stumbling end of a weary shift he was wont to go to the Banshee, and down the dark stairs into the welcoming gloom of the taproom, and his favorite firewine.
It beckoned this day -- and if men gave him odd looks as he trudged up to the doors, well . . . he was used to that.
On the threshold Beldrim coughed, spat, and then slowly set his feet on the dark stair down. They were uneven in pacing and fall -- just the thing to make tired feet trip, and then he'd be --
Magic sang briefly around and within him, and his pace faltered. Things happened to men who strode into any embrace with magic.
Yet he was still alive and felt no pain. This might just be. . . .
Beldrim took another step, very slowly. The light around him changed, and the deafening silence gave way suddenly to voices. Amused folk -- not many -- talking together.
He stiffened, listening, and froze, taking firm hold of the rail.
Aye, so. He'd heard a-right.
And when the great and powerful laugh, sometimes castles tremble, and death reaches out to gather in many, many folk -- all too swiftly to flee from, too. 'Twould be best to be elsewhere, even more swiftly, and starting right now.
Quietly -- as quietly as he knew how -- Beldrim Taruster turned on the step and went back up the stair again, his going as unheralded as his coming.
Sometimes, in life, it's better that way.
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