Filfaeril didn't have to hurry far.
The Purple Dragon of Cormyr had stopped at a stone door that rose up into the darkness over his head, though its small stone knob was set at about his waist-level. Dwarf-work, clearly, old and solid and impressive, set into a smooth stone wall that seemed all of one massive piece rather than block-work. It, too, stretched up into the darkness beyond where their feeble weapon-glows reached, and continued on either side of the door unbroken into the darkness.
The door itself was about eight Filfaerils wide, and graven deeply with dwarf-runes: bold lines that crisscrossed each other as intricately as any nobles' monogram rather than standing stark and separate, as both Obarskyrs were used to seeing them. Not a one of them was familiar to Filfaeril.
Azoun had stopped peering at the runes long ago. His sword raised like a torch to help him see better, he was staring at something that had been recently painted across the dwarf-carving.
A circle half as tall as a man enclosed the hookbeaked head of an eagle. That head faced endlessly off to the left, side-on, but stared out at the two Obarskyrs: Gaps in the thick pale paint outlined a neat row of three eyes.
Filfaeril felt Azoun stiffen; whatever this sigil meant, he'd recognized it -- and not favorably.
"Where are we?" she murmured, into his ear.
"Maerantide," Azoun hissed, hefting his sword as if awaiting battle.
"Use Vangey's toy," Filfaeril told him calmly. "Now."
For years, Harpers and sages have speculated as to who might next try to found a kingdom between Cormyr and Amn, on the busy caravan route between the Sword Coast and the Sea of Fallen Stars.
Trolls, hungry raiding dragons, and the fierce Tunlanders have shattered previous attempts, but that doesn't stop the greedy from trying -- usually by occupying and rebuilding one of the score or so ancient, crumbling ruined keeps in the region, proclaiming himself lord of this or king of that, and trying to enforce his will by means of hard-riding, lance-wielding knights.
When those knights eventually perish, turn on them, or flee, the would-be rulers usually melt away, not to be heard from again, and caravan merchants smile in both resignation and relief, mutter about marauding monsters or Zhent villainies or "the gods not wanting such a realm to be," and continue to gird their caravans to defend themselves on the long east-west run through what is once more lawless, open country.
The latest power to arise along the trade-route is Azadarr Darkyn, self-styled Baron of Maerantede, a Calishite mercenary of ruthless reputation who led his company of hireswords to occupy long-abandoned Luhklyn Keep in the spring of 1372 DR, and rebuilt it into a simple, frowning stone fortress he's now calling Maerantede ("May-urr-an-TEED").
From his ridge-top castle, the Baron of Maerantede now controls the best natural campground west of the Giant's Run Mountains and east of Iriaebor, a meadow sheltered by Luhklyn Ridge (to the west) and Ahmaer Tor (to the south), that has a small, drinkable lake at the base of the ridge. Three days' ride southwest of Priapurl, on the eastern edge of the Greenfields about halfway between Easting and the Troll Mountains, it's only a little south of the swiftest route between Iriaebor and Priapurl, and ideally situated to dominate all wayfaring from Priapurl through the Snakewood to Eshpurta (and thence, the rest of Amn and points south).
Darkyn commands over a hundred well-armored veteran warriors and a handful of wizards experienced in battlefield castings. He also has the assistance of a few priests of Tempus and Waukeen, and he is spreading word that his "Knights of Maerantede" will protect all merchants who camp nigh his castle or pass through his barony (though just where the boundaries of his barony lie is a matter of some dispute). Further, he'll grant free land and protection to all smiths, horsebreeders, horse-trainers, and sheep ranchers who settle in Maerantede, so that "this peaceful new land can welcome and aid brave and hard-working caravan merchants who so enrich us all by carrying goods overland between the two Great Seas."
All of this would be well and good (assuming Maerantede survives the inevitable covert Zhent and Thayan attempts to dominate it, and troll raids from the nearby mountains) were it not for a nasty truth Harpers and Elminster have just uncovered. Whispered rumors are true: Far from fighting hard against the brigands and outlaws who've mounted a sharp and sudden increase in attacks on overland wayfaring during 1373 DR, the Baron of Maerantede is both collecting high protection fees from those who camp under his protection -- and sponsoring the "brigands" and "outlaws," who are really his own warriors, shorn of their knights' armor but armed with precise knowledge of approaching prey.
In short, the Vigilant Baron (as his written proclamations style him) is a murderous fraud, that black-hearted creature of so many tavern-tales: the robber baron.
More about the villainous Vigilant Baron in our next column. Faerûn never seems to lack blackhearted villains -- but then, the demand for them seldom slackens.
About the Author
Ed Greenwood is the man who unleashed the Forgotten Realms on an unsuspecting world. He works in libraries, writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and even romance stories (sometimes all in the same novel), but he is still happiest churning out Realmslore, Realmslore, and more Realmslore. There are still a few rooms in his house with space left to pile up papers in . . .