Blades for Daggerdale
These are Ed’s comments:
Your reasoning about the location of Irythkeep is correct; it is only a very short ride north along the Dagger Ride (better known as the Tethyamar Trail) from the North Ride, on the east side of the Trail (and increasingly overgrown). About a third of a mile (“just over one hill” from the North Ride), no more.
Centuries ago, it was built by a trading company headed by Garskran Iryth, a trader from Turmish who established a small hold here (a keep surrounded by a subsistence farm) from which he could trade with the dwarves of Tethyamar (cloth, leather, clothing and leather goods, drinkables, and medicines brought from the Vilhon, in return for smelted metal and forged tools). Here he intended to make his home, far from enemies back home and the taxes and laws of rulers he disagreed with.
Iryth’s small band of warriors held the keep well enough, but took heavy losses trying to get caravans to and from the keep, until they were just too few to defend the keep in a harsh winter. In the end, Iryth and his folk perished to the last hungry, chilled, and terrified goodwife fighting orc raiders and hungry monsters, notably persistent packs of wolves.
The keep then passed through a succession of owners, mainly knights who set themselves up as local lordlings. Most of them perished in monster raids or at the hands of underlings who turned on them, with the keep and its attached stables standing empty until the next would-be lord came along. Few of them did much to the keep beyond replacing its roofs and doors when necessary, and it started to crumble.
It was little more than a ramshackle barracks-fortress guarding the southern approach to Daggerdale by the time Zhentarim started backing orc bands in an all-out attempt to conquer Daggerdale and scour out all inhabitants who wouldn’t bow to them – - and one such band blasted the keep to get at a small band of dale defenders taking refuge in it.
This is what Ed wrote in Cloak of Shadows:
The sun was descending in the west when Elminster turned in his saddle. His pipe floated obediently out of his mouth. “We’ll spend the night up ahead, in what’s left of Irythkeep.”
His companions nodded in silent acceptance and they rode on, as they had all day, through the ravaged wilderlands that had once been a proud and prosperous dale.
Rent by war for ten summers and more, Daggerdale was fast vanishing as the woodlands spread swiftly across untilled fields and deserted steads alike, reclaiming the land from the rule and hand of men who no longer lived to hold it at bay. In swampy places the trail they followed, once an important trade road, was almost gone.
Elminster, however, rode with the easy manner of a bored tour guide, never slowing to choose his way or change direction but proceeding as if strolling around his own garden, pointing out once-prominent landmarks as they went. Earlier, a gargoyle had risen heavily from the crumbling rampart of a small keep as they passed, but it had only circled once, high above them, and then descended again to the ruin, thinking better of attacking so purposeful a band.
The shadows were beginning to grow long when Elminster pointed at a pair of fingerlike stone pillars ahead. “Unless a dragon, lich, or something similarly energetic has decided to dwell there, that’s our camp for the night.”
“That’s Irythkeep?” Itharr asked, peering through the trees. “There’s not much left of it, is there?”
“A Harper needs no roof nor servants,” Elminster told the sky overhead innocently, “but is happy to sleep under the stars, where the air is fresh, the living earth is closer, and the body has no chance to become pampered and weak.”
Belkrarn and ltharr chuckled together. “Trust you to know that passage from the Code of the Harpers,” said the taller of the two rangers, his eyes on the ruins ahead.
“Know it? Who d’ye think wrote it? Elminster replied in aggrieved tones. Behind him, Sharantyr sighed theatrically, but when the Old Mage shot her a coldly meaningful glance, he found her staring skyward with a look of innocence surpassed only by his own recent performance. Elminster snorted and spurred his mount on, ignoring the cautious, weapons-out advances of the Harpers.
In the dust raised by the old wizard’s hurrying horse, Belkram, Itharr, and Sharantyr exchanged glances, shrugged, and urged their own mounts on toward the ruins.
Irythkeep may once have been grand, but the winds and winters of passing time had not been kind to it since a besieging orc band had battered its walls from without, and the Zhentarim mage with them had summoned and let loose a fire-spitting hydra within.
All that was left now, amid fast-growing duskwood, pine, and shadowtop saplings, was a ragged stone ring outlining the outer walls, a few overgrown outbuildings and stables still clinging here and there to their roofs, and those fingerlike remnants of towers. Birds roosted on the stony pillars, and the crows that took wing as the four riders approached cried their anger at the intrusion loudly enough to alert ears anywhere near. Belkram cursed and then shrugged. What point stealth now? Several small furry brown shapes darted away from rocks where they’d been catching the last of the sun, and hurried off into the woods. Elminster watched them go, then rounded on ltharr.
“Well? Ye got that grand blade out and waved it about, lad. Aren’t ye going to chase yonder scuttlers and do some carving to show thy manhood and deadly prowess?”
“No,” Itharr replied brightly, and urged his mount ahead into the ruins. He tossed his grand blade into the air as he went, let it flash end over end up into the sunset, and then deftly caught it and sheathed it without slowing in his saddle or looking back.
Elminster’s sniff was both loud and eloquent. Sharantyr hid a smile behind her own raised blade as Belkram and ltharr dismounted, tossed their reins over branches to serve as tethers for a few breaths, and jogged ahead into the shadows amid the stones.
The Old Mage watched them scramble and peer alertly about for a breath or two, then he turned in his saddle to fix Sharantyr with one clear blue eye. “Well, lass?”
Sharantyr raised an eyebrow. “As pouting maidens are wont to say,” she replied, “Well, what?’”
The wizard’s stare became more forbidding. “What foolishness are ye going to favor us all with?”
Sharantyr smiled broadly. “Ah. Yes. Guarding you, actually.” She waggled her drawn sword so the sun glimmered on one edge and then the other.
Elminster snorted. “Unnecessary folly, indeed. Why not put that steel away before ye hurt thyself with it?”
Sharantyr shrugged, more laughter in her eyes than in her face. “When Belk and lth say the keep’s safe, perhaps. We can talk about it again then . after I’ve told you how to cast a few spells.”
“All right, all right, lass,” Elminster said gruffly. “Point taken. Lash me with that pretty tongue o’ thine later, eh? And put the sword away for now. Just do it.”
Sharantyr gave him a puzzled frown as he vaulted from his saddle with sudden speed, sending his old dapple gray into a startled, snorting little dance. As she leaned forward to catch at its reins, the Old Mage dodged quickly past its head, snatched at her boot, and expertly pitched her backward off her horse.
Astonished, Sharantyr joined him on the ground, hooves flashing in front of her nose as both mounts decided that the shadows and stones ahead offered quieter grazing than the company of falling humans. She clutched at her sword to keep hold of it and opened her mouth to protest, but Elminster had taken two long strides to one side, away from her.
“Well, mageling?” he bellowed, staring back along their trail with blue fire in his eyes. He raised his hands in a deliberately flippant, showy gesture, and spoke a grand word.
Rolling up and staring hard, Sharantyr had a brief glimpse of a black-robed wizard standing on air amid the trees, excitement and fear on his face as his hands flicked and flashed in intricate spellcasting. She couldn’t escape the impression that his fast-speaking mouth was sliding down into shapelessness. Suddenly, eight balls of bright flame erupted out of empty air and roared toward her and Elminster, drawing apart slightly as they came.
Sharantyr stared at the flaming death she knew she could not escape, heard the two young Harpers shout in alarm from the ruined castle behind her, and swallowed. Is this how swiftly and easily death reaches out to take us all?
Sharantyr watched helplessly as flaming death roared down upon the Old Mage. Long ago the spell had been dubbed a ‘meteor swarm,’ castle-rending magic only the mightiest mages could wield. And the wizard who’d hurled it looked so young.
A Zhentarim? But all time for thinking was gone. She was going to die. Sharantyr looked at Elminster as the roar of the rolling flames grew louder around them.
The Old Mage was standing calmly, watching the racing fireballs. As Sharantyr looked at him, his eyes narrowed for a moment and he made the briefest of gestures with two fingers. Little wheels of lightning were suddenly spinning in midair, in the path of the howling swarm of fast-growing fireballs.
The lightnings blazed into sudden blinding brightness as the flames flashed through them, but sliced apart the blazing balls, drawing out their fury. The rush of stolen spell energy made the spinning lightnings moan and turn all the faster. Beyond them, eight failing, flickering tongues of flame reached for the unmoving, watching Old Mage … and fell away into nothingness, spent.
Elminster raised another finger imperiously, and the whirling lightnings raced away from him, heading for the mage in the trees.
The young mage cast another spell with desperate speed, hissing and stammering words in clumsy haste. A brief rain of green lances appeared in the air, slicing down at Elminster’s crackling pinwheels of captive fire and lightning, but were shattered and absorbed without pause. The lightnings flashed on. The wizard shouted something desperately but hadn’t time to do more before the lightnings struck him.
Elminster leaned forward to watch with mild, academic interest.
Sharantyr had time to shiver at that as she turned to watch what befell their foe.
Trees cracked in the heat, hissed out all their stored moisture, and fell, smoking, as the writhing mage spun in their midst, small snarling bolts of lightning leaping around his body and scattering bright sparks where they touched.
He howled in agony, arching his torso, limbs splayed. Sharantyr stared, fascinated, as his arms grew, darkening and broadening into batlike wings.
Elminster uttered a satisfied hum and followed it with four quick, sliding words. The struggling figure of their foe spun end over end as the lightnings faded and fell away from it. The young inage seemed frozen, half-in and half-out of bat shape, bright eyes staring at them and brighter fangs gaping, as Elminster’s magic whirled the attacker’s body around and around. “Aye, I like thee better in half-shape,” Elminster told the creature serenely, making a plucking motion with one hand.
The bat-thing abruptly broke out of its tumbling and seemed to leap across the air between them, directly at the Old Mage.
Sharantyr swallowed and rose up into its path, face set and blade extended. The bat-thing rushed forward as she held out her bright sword firmly in both hands. With a helpless, howling whimper, it impaled itself on her steel.
Shar staggered at the impact, icy blood drenching her hands, and stared in sudden alarm as the darkness and weight faded away from around her blade, taken to some other place by magic that flickered and tore at her, leaving her with a confused impression of shadows, watching malevolence, and a cold, dark somewhere filled with strange monstrous beings.
Someone said coldly, “Now do you see, Taernil?” but the reply, if there was one, was whirled away in a rising whistling, the noise of mournful, misty shadows streaming around and past her.
Sharantyr felt the magic that had taken the bat-thing trembling through her. She stared at her bare blade and unmarked hands for a dazed moment before a firm hand encircled her arm above the elbow and an all-too-familiar voice rasped, “Did ye or did ye not hear me to tell thee to put thy blade away, lass?”
Sharantyr shook her head to clear the whirling shadows from it and gasped, “Who .. . what was that?”
“‘What’ is right, Shar. A Malaugrym mage, young and careless with his power.” Then the voice sharpened. “A fine useful pair the two of ye are! Puffing up here just a breath or six too late, as usual.”
Belkram and Itharr plunged to a halt, breathing hard, and exchanged an exasperated look. “That’s .. . our job,” Itharr gasped. “Rushing in . . . we’re Harpers, remember?”
Elminster snorted once more. “So am I, young and brainless one,” he reminded them all none too gently. “And d’ye see me running about the landscape like a scared hare, trampling the crops and looking generally ridiculous?”
“No,” BeIkram replied bravely, “but I’m sure if we were a thousand years or so older than we are, we’d have seen you doing just that. . probably with a maid or two fleeing in front of you and an angry father or two in hot pursuit at your heels.”
The snorts of suppressed laughter that answered this sally didn’t come from Elminster, who looked dangerously around at them all but spoke not a word.
None of them saw a figure watching from atop one of the ruined towers, a crooked smile on its face. “Laugh while you can,” Issaran told the four standing far below him, and faded away.
A moment later, an oak leaf spun lazily down from that height, which was odd, for there were no oak trees near.