Chapter 1: Meetings

Author's Note: This story is set in the 'Forgotten Realms' game setting, or at least one that is fairly similar to it. I tweaked the setting fairly severely but kept most of the names and characters the same. They are used without permission. Secondly, this work is an experiment in style (that of a quasi-Victorian 1st person memoir) and was never really meant for publication. I shamelessly stole from all over the place and if you see something that seems familiar, it probably is. Also, this features two characters from another work of mine 'Silence is Golden' and is set in the same continuum but is not a sequel to that work. Finally, just to warn you in advance, this work is incomplete and will remain that way. I give my reasons at the tale end of this, if anyone is interested in them. Thanks for reading my work and enjoy.

I have always dreamed of being known in song and story, yet it has not been until this last year that anything I have done could be considered even the slightest bit heroic. I cannot help but laugh at the idea: me, heroic. I am ... well I do not know what I am but I know that I am not what I have always desired to be: a swashbuckler and rogue.

I heard the same tales we all did as children: Aladdin the thief, Sinbad the Pirate, Robin Hood the dashing outlaw and like all children I dreamed of taking part in those adventures. Unlike most young ones, however, my dreams never died. I never put them aside as age and responsibility were forced upon me. Instead, I threw those things aside and ran off to find the life of adventure I craved. I was twelve years old, and a fool.

You would think that you would know the next chapter of this story: a too pretty young girl alone in the big, terrifying city, but you would be wrong. While never physically imposing, I have always been possessed of great nimbleness, daring and guile, and alone in Arabel I made good use of those talents avoiding the usual traps and woes that would befall young girls like myself.

Yet, though I became a thief and daring scamp I remained a fool. Yes, I fabricated a dashing name: Belladonna the Red. Some of the local guards and other thieves knew of me, but I was stealing silvers from pockets and food from market stalls. It was hardly the stuff of stories and legend.

It was then that I met Quinlan Truesilver the knight and Anarion his squire; the two men who would change my life forever. Yes, it was that Quinlan, better known as Quinlan the Fearless or the Mercy Knight. Stories and tales of knightly honour and heroics had never been to my taste, but I still knew of the man and his legend, even if I did not believe it to be true. I have since discovered that if anything, his legend falls short of the mark.

Contrary to what you might hear, not every city in Faerûn is secretly ruled by a shadowy guild of thieves and assassins. There are some places where that myth holds true (I can, and will tell you of them if time permits) but in Arabel it did not. Too many kings and thrones in Cormyr's long history have fallen prey to the machinations of secret organizations for the crown to permit them to exist. Instead thieves in her cities can only gather in small, insignificant gangs with no real power. They are insects small enough to scuttle away from the mighty hammer of the Purple Dragon, and for me it was just as well. I do not do well in groups and hate being told what to do; I always have, even as a child.

Since I was a thief and could not tolerate being subordinate, my only alternative was to lead a group of my own. Even as far as thieves went we were harmless. We stole enough coppers and food to live on, but were considered dangerous by no one. I have always had a soft heart for strays and enjoyed having an audience for my daring, and so it was that I led an army of the pathetic and unwanted.

We were not totally helpless and if backed into a corner we could and did fight, but it was not for combat and the defence of our turf that we lived. For us, it was fun and revelry. Who could climb to the top of the flagpole the fastest, or lead the watch on the merriest chase? We lived for taunting and tormenting our rivals, pelting them with fruit, sand or dung before disappearing into the cracks like the insects we were.

I was the fastest, most nimble and daring of us, and my gum-toothed army followed me, but there was little love between us. I ensured that the others never starved or froze and they followed me because I was the most entertaining, but I could not consider them my friends. We rats in a cellar during winter, huddling to share warmth.

At the time this narrative begins, while it may have been cold within my heart, it was far from so in the world around me. I was nineteen years old, answered to no master and it was an idyllic day, for Midsummer festival was upon us and my followers and I basked in the warm sun. I was content even if I was not happy and it was then that I first saw the handsome, blonde squire whose life would soon completely change mine.

Second in my gang was Alex. He was older, larger and stronger than I but slower and with less wit. He had bounced from gang to gang throughout the city until only mine would not turn him down. He did not like me and chafed under my leadership, but I was too canny and swift for him to depose and so he tolerated me. Perhaps he was more cunning than I believed him to be for it was he who pointed out the squire to me on that fateful day and intimated that I would not be able to steal his sword. My audience began chanting my name, and my pride forced me to accept the challenge. In truth I needed little encouragement.

I snaked down the wall that we were perching upon and, bolstered by the taunts and cheers of my fellows, crept towards my unsuspecting quarry. He was tall, broad shouldered and handsome, if you go for that sort of thing, but he was no match for me. One simple knife cut and his belt in my hands. I was five paces away before he even knew he had been robbed and as I ran and he pursued he came no closer.

As I said before, I am nimble, swift and daring and I knew this neighbourhood as intimately as anything on this world. The squire had no chance of catching me, and so for me it became sport. Six times could I have lost him, but at each opportunity I would stop and catch his attention or let him close before vanishing once more into the crowd or down an alley.

I will give the squire his due; he was not without courage or wit. He followed me with a dogged persistence far beyond what anyone else would have given. I was confident and quite enjoying the chase, and perhaps that is why I was captured.

No, I do Quinlan a disservice. As I said before, his legend does not adequately describe him, so I can say with confidence that there is nothing I could have done to elude him once his will was set upon me. He was not the feeble pursuer whom I had eluded for the seventh and final time, of course, but rather that man's master and as I travelled unsuspecting hands huge and strong clamped down upon my shoulders like the claws of a dragon and I found myself immobilized.

My captor was an imposing man, as large and broad as I was slender but though he towered over me I did not feel over threatened. He was not classically handsome, but striking nonetheless with long brown hair lined with grey and a full, flowing beard. He looked as you would expect a kindly uncle to, if that uncle wore a broadsword thicker than your wrist and imprisoned you with huge, spade-like hands.

I possess no few tricks in the art of evasion, but against that man they were useless. My attempts to strike him (as well as a mouse could hope to strike a dragon) resulted only in my being disarmed and held even tighter. I tried to wriggle free but his hands were adamantine and I knew I was going nowhere. I possess other talents—as I said I am rich with guile—but even as I looked to his face I knew that words would not avail me. I tried nonetheless—a watchman's axe awaited my hand if I could not wrest myself free—and I had my reputation among my fellows to think of as well, but my words were overridden easily.

"You're situation is dire enough, girl. Do not make it worse with lies."

Oh, his voice! No other person have I met that could achieve so much just by speaking. It was deep, soothing, and sonorous, and so much more was communicated than those few words. He radiated strength, warmth, humour and finally, disapproval when he spoke and that last part especially affected me the most deeply. I felt more shame for my actions under his stern gaze than I had in all of my life.

Against his voice, more than his grip, I was powerless. I had but one weapon left in my arsenal, but I knew instinctively that a man such as he would not succumb to my questionable charms. I could only stand there, silent, shaking in fear and shame as I heard the squire I had stolen from come running up behind me.

"Master, I—" he began breathlessly, but my captor overrode him.

"Anarion, I believe this is yours." Eyes still locked with mine, he passed the sword and scabbard to the man behind me. "What do you have to say for yourself, girl?"

Somehow I found my voice. "Belladonna," I muttered.

He merely raised an eyebrow.

I straightened my shoulders as much as I could and did my best to look imposing. "I am known as Belladonna, the Red."

He was far from impressed by my declaration. "That is not your birth name," was his quiet reply.

I could not help but flush. "Myrtle," my mouth said of its own free will. "My real name is Myrtle." My face was now burning with shame.

"Myrtle," he addressed me, immune to my embarrassment. "I am Quinlan Truesilver, son of Arendur, knight Errant of Cormyr, and Grand Master of the Order of Paladins." He seemed to grow taller as he spoke. "By stealing from Anarion, son of Galnor, and my Padawan learner, you have stolen from me. It is no different than stealing from the King himself, and it is within my authority to deliver the King's justice.

Long before he had finished all of my life's blood had drained from my body until by the end only his unbreakable grip prevented me from falling. It was not my wrist that would be the target of the watchman's axe for this crime, but my neck. I attempted feebly to pull free but was easily kept in check.

A long moment followed in which his blue eyes bored into mine and I felt as if he was examining my very soul. Finally, after an eternity, his expression softened and a slight smile tugged at his lips.

His voice had gentled. "But I shall not judge you until I have learned why you have done this. Speak, but know that I will be aware if your words are false."

It took me three attempts to find my voice, and even then what emerged was a croaking whisper. "What do you want to know?"

"Do you have a family here in Arabel?"

I shook my head. "No. I have no one." It did not even occur to me to mention my not-so-faithful companions.

He refined his question. "You have no kin in this city, or you are orphaned?"

"I hail from Tuttlesdown." I hated revealing this, but against his gaze made not the slightest attempt at concealment. "My family lives, I believe, but I do not know. I left there seven years ago."

"You are not being wholly truthful with me, Myrtle."

"I spoke no lies!" Indeed, I had revealed more to this man than ever I had before.

"I have learned or guessed more than your words say. You did not live tranquilly with your family, and did not part in amity. You must have had some grievance with them." My eyes widened at the accuracy of his insight, but this was but the first of several arrows to hit so elusive a target. "Judging by your age, you left just as you were entering womanhood, and the demands of maturity can seem harsh. You are of common descent and the choices for young women of your lineage are few and modest."

Another of his arrows struck home.

"You do not have the air of a harlot or a slattern," he continued, "but instead one of daring and invention. You obey no law other than your own."

I could only nod.

"You have become a keen thief, quick and bold, and though a sword is less worth than a bag of coin, its merit is ten times this in renown among your peers." He shook his head. "Alas, pride is your downfall, for if you had ended the chase with Anarion instead of extending it, you would never have been captured.

"I'm sorry," I said in a whisper.

"This matter is beyond apology, Myrtle," All softness had gone from his voice. "What punishment would you find fit for one who scorns the king's laws?"

I began to cry. "Please, I don't want to die."

He just looked at me, the spirit of Tyr made flesh, then looked to where his squire stood. I had forgotten the man still existed. "Anarion, since it was you who was wronged, what have you to say of this woman's punishment?"

The blonde squire looked down upon me with a thoughtful expression. "My property has been returned. My pride ... will heal." he said at last. His voice, while not of the timbre and power of his masters, was deep and pleasant sounding. "I would not see anyone so young or talented put to death or disfigured." Relief filled me but he had not yet finished speaking. "She did not steal my sword from wickedness or hate, but rather for the thrill of danger and excitement." He clutched his sword seemingly without his own knowledge. "However, she also did not steal it for need, but for pride, and I do not think she will repent if her punishment is not demanding."

His words, too, were uncomfortably accurate. What manner of company had I forced myself upon that could see past my lies and bravado with such keen accuracy?

"Then I will pronounce my judgement," Quinlan declared. His voice was as firm and unyielding as stone. "Myrtle of Tuttlesdown, also known as Belladonna the Red, I declare before Tyr the Even Handed that for the crime of thievery against Anarion, son of Galnor, that you should be bonded in servitude to him, and be submissive to his orders; tending to his possessions and needs so long as you are not subjected to cruel or unusual punishment." His words now reverberated with supernatural power. "This doom shall be yours for one year and one day and then cease unless you shall before that term submit yourself to the King's Justicar to receive His justice."

He released me and I felt something—an indescribable, ephemeral, yet unbreakable force—grip the very essence of my being. My face, I know, registered shock, dismay and surprise but it was not half as strong as the expression on Anarion's.

He looked as if he had been struck by a felling blow and had but one moment to contemplate all the matters of life and death. "Master..." his words trailed off into shocked silence.

"It is done," Quinlan stated, his words once again empowered with godly might. "Come, we must return to our rooms. Bring her."

And like that, I was bound into the service of Anarion, son of Galnor. My new master looked as unhappy with his pronouncement as I, but both of us were helpless in the face of Quinlan's will. I did not look back to my companions (former companions, now) for I knew that they would attempt no rescue nor shed any tears. Instead, I made a concerted effort to not think at all and merely followed both men.

Our destination was a very rich inn located in the Noble's Quarter. Seldom in my life had I felt so ashamed of my appearance. Yes, my clothes were somewhat worn (to be generous), but in the sections of town I inhabited that was common. Now, with my patched vest, ragged chemise and knee-worn hose I was distinctly out of place. People here wore fur-trimmed capes, silk, and embroidered wool. And, gold! Oh, I had never seen so much gold; in the threading, jewellery, buttons and more. It was wonderful to see, but also embarrassing.

I have since learned that the rich of this world have perfected the art of ignorance—of seeing only what they wish to—and so I am sure I was invisible to them, but I felt as if each and every person stared only at me.

We entered an inn more opulent than any I had ever seen and any objections by the staff as to my presence were squelched with a simple word from Quinlan.

I gawked openly at the wealth on casual display in the corridors, and again at the polished hardwood furnishings in their suite. Quinlan turned to examine my appearance and I tried not to squirm under the scrutiny of his gaze. It was not sexual —believe me, I know the difference—but still I felt more exposed than I would have if I been naked before him.

"Belladonna," he said to me. "Your punishment was witnessed by Tyr. You understand that He will be watching and will know if you break your bond." I nodded. I could still feel that supernatural grip upon my very being and knew it would remain for a year and a day more. "Then you also know that there is no need for anyone to keep watch on you. He will know if you shirk your duty to Anarion and will punish you accordingly." Again I could only nod solemnly.

He smiled gently and placed his hands upon my shoulders. "Do not despair but believe rather that it is so ordered that you were meant for this fate. You are more than a common thief." He stroked a gentle finger along my cheek. "Indeed, you have a great destiny ... and I can see in your face that the grace of the Valar is upon you. You have only to let go of your fear, and the uncertainty in your heart."

His voice was so gentle, his face so kind and his expression so earnest that I could not help but smile and nod, unashamed as tears ran down my cheeks ... but in my heart I did not believe him. Oh, how I wanted to, but the streets of Arabel had taught me the folly of hope.

He briefly wiped my tears before releasing me and turning to his squire. "She will need new clothes and travelling gear." He tossed a bag of coins at Anarion. "She is your responsibility, see to it. We leave at dawn; our mission remains unchanged. I will see you both this evening." He gave both of us a parting nod as opened the door to leave. "Oh, and Anarion, you may consider acquiring a new belt; your current one seems to have been damaged."

With the shutting of the door there was only silence. Anarion glanced at me, sizing up my clothing and appearance. He looked as if he had just gulped down sour milk. Any good will that may have been mustered by Quinlan's words vanished as I pictured a year and a day of servitude to this buffoon who obviously did not desire my presence.

I smiled at him quite insincerely and resolved to make his life a living hell.

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