Bard of the Realms; Pirate of Exquisite Mind
Surely you’ve heard of Bermejo, the pirate balladeer? Ask in any tavern from Calimport to Candlekeep. Here’s the first chapter from my upcoming memoir:
“The Author’s sudden Departure, as a child, from his home in the High Forest, and Arrival in Snowdown, in the Moonshae Isles. His Coming-of-Age voyage from the Sea of Swords through Asavir’s Channel and his arrival in the Chultan Peninsula, where he was Betray’d. His Rescue by the most-fear’d Buccaneers of the Shining Sea, Los Libertadores. His coasting in their company from Port Nyranzaru to Tashluta, to his separation from Captain Vasquez near the Isle of Tharsult. His return over land to Baldur’s Gate.”:
What causes a man turn to Piracy? To go upon the account? To hoist the Black Flag, to declare himself a Villain of All Nations, to sign his own death warrant should he ever be taken, to put himself at the mercy of the Bitch Queen? Is it — as Duke Abdel of the Flaming Fist (and others of his ilk) would have you believe — poor character? Rapacity? Indolence? Unslakable passions? Ungovernable recklessness?
For my part, dear Reader, ’twas none such thing. ’Twas, rather, zombies.
Zombies. Have you ever smelled one, up close? Few that have, live. Now imagine, Reader, that you’d been indentured to chop and haul log-wood in the tropical heat of the Chultan jungle, all under the deathlessly vigilant guard of an army of rotting, stinking corpses. Corpses that had once been your own companions — men who had labored with you, sang work songs with you, supped with you… but who had, over time, taken ill, made weak by the endless toil under the unforgiving sun, by the unceasing swarms of blood-sucking insects, by the creeping, incurable Chultan Fever, by the merciless whippings from the Flaming Fist overseers. But even in death, your poor comrades could find no release, for every fallen logwood cutter was but another corpse for the Calishite necromancers to reanimate as an undead sentry.
Under such conditions, Reader, what would you do? Would you swing your axe stoically, hoping to finish the term of your indenture before the Fever claimed you? Would you try to slip away in the dark of night, past the unsleeping zombie watchmen into the blackest Chultan jungle, to take your chances out there amongst the Batiri goblin tribes and the great, fearsome dinosaurs they worship? Would you whisper of revolution in your comrades’ ears, knowing that those suspected of such treachery are flayed alive by the Flaming Fist and fed to their undead pets? I saw my comrades attempt all of these, and more. None survived.
But one day, 10 months into my two-year indenture, while hacking away at yet another corrugated trunk, I heard a bolt fly across the clearing, and turned to see it pass clean through Sergeant Tarvark’s stout neck. Out of the jungle stepped a fierce, raven-haired warrior, clad in dark leathers, crossbow in hand. At her signal, a motley band of raiders emerged and bore down on the Flaming Fist mercenaries, screaming that no quarter would be given to slavers.
My dear Reader, if ever there was a sign of Tymora’s divine providence! I wheeled around on the Flaming Fist overseer closest to me and planted my logwood axe in his astonished face, screaming at my comrades that at last, our deliverance was at hand!
My exhilaration was fleeting as I was immediately set upon by a swarm of ravenous zombies. With what I was sure would be my last breath, I cursed them and swung my axe wildly, hoping to remove at least one zombie’s head before I fell under their overwhelming numbers. But suddenly, their deep moans turned to savage screams, and they limped away. I turned in astonishment to see a shrouded figure brandishing the holy symbol of Umberlee, driving the zombies away like drunks fleeing a press-gang.
Meanwhile, the Fist had regrouped and formed a protective cordon in front of the Calishite necromancer, shielding him as he prepared his magical counterassault. But before he could unleash his spell, the handsomest eclectus parrot I ever saw descended on him, a red-and-blue bolt from the skies, speaking words imbued with arcane power, and at once the necromancer fell to the ground in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
With their undead minions fled and their caster incapacitated, the Flaming Fist commander ordered his men to retreat to the barracks in search of reinforcements. Many of the log-cutters went with them, terrified of the pirates and preferring the devil they knew. Some fled into the jungle, hoping to make Port Nyranzaru before nightfall. But dearest Reader, I could see but one path before me. I ran straight to the nearest buccaneer — a tall, well-made, raw-boned man with ivory nose-piercings — and begged him to take me with him.
He gave me a long hard stare as his mates stacked carts with the logwood we’d cut — a single load of which could fetch more than a year’s worth of smuggling in Calimport’s black markets.
“And what makes you think you’re fit to sail with Los Libertadores, half-elf?”
“I’m from the Moonshae Isles — I know my way around a ship. I earned my passage to Port Nyranzaru working as a bosun. But when we docked, the captain betrayed us and sold us into indenture to a Calishite merchant consortium. That’s how I ended up here.”
“We’ve no shortage of able seamen. And you don’t look like much of a fighter.”
“I took that one down easily enough,” pointing to the Fist solider I’d felled with my axe.
“I saw it. You took him by surprise, is all. You won’t always be that lucky.”
“I know this jungle better than most. I was raised by druids, first in the High Forest, and then in Snowdown. So I’ve been making careful observations about the Chultan plants and wildlife. I know which plants make the best poultices and which the best poisons, which berries are safe to eat and which fatal. I’ve sketches of the local beasts and notes on their behavior back at the barracks, along with maps to all of the other logging camps. I’ll lead you to them.”
He let out a great thunderous laugh. “Oh, you think you know this jungle, do you? I was born here, half-elf. I am Ytepka, of the Tabaxi. My people have lived here since well before the Calim Empire was a twinkle in that accursed djinn’s eye. But you’ll lead us to the other logging camps?” Another deep laugh. “The other raiding parties are hitting them as we speak.”
“Please, Ytepka. I… I beg of you. Those zombies won’t stay away for long. If you won’t let me come with you, they’ll catch my scent for sure. They’re slow but they don’t tire, they don’t sleep, and they won’t give up until they have tasted my flesh. My mother, Liliwyn, is a renown hunter of the undead — just like her mother Gwendolyn before her. If the zombies catch me, they will turn me. In undeath, I will join their ranks. My mother and grandmother are attuned to such things — they will both sense it. I… I cannot bear to visit such a tragedy on my family. Please… any death but this.”
Ytepka’s gaze softened, but still he shook his head. “You’re half-dead from exhaustion already. The Fist will be back from the barracks with reinforcements soon and we can’t have you slowing us down as we haul all this wood back to the ship.”
Just then, the strange spell-casting parrot flew by and alighted on my shoulder. He turned to Ytepka and squawked at him: “Aw, why don’t you go blow a Bugbear, you son of a Succubus.”
Yteptka doubled over in peals of laughter, as if he’d never heard anything funnier in his life. When he finally recovered himself, he put his hand on my shoulder. “All right, friend. It seems the bird has taken a shine to you. And what Minto wants, he gets. Captain’s orders” he jerked a thumb back at the dark-haired woman with the crossbow, who had been observing this scene with wry amusement.
“Thank you, m’lady.”
“‘M’lady?’ It’s ‘Captain Vasquez,’ for the love of the Hells” she said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“Yes, of course, Captain Vasquez! Of course, of course. But… may I ask one… small request?”
Her icy blue eyes narrowed.
“Back at the barracks, there’s… a musical instrument. A vihuela. Made by the finest luthier in Amn. It belonged to my father. It’s… I didn’t know him, but he was a bard, like me. His name was Bartolomé Bêlit. It’s all I have of him. I brought it with me all the way from Snowdown. The Fist let me keep it because they liked hearing me play at night. I… I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but, it’s just… I would hate to leave without retrieving it.”
Yteptka broke into a big toothy grin.
“You’re a bard? Gods, why didn’t you say so, half-elf? We need a bard. Minto’s singing is terrible.” The parrot stuck out his tongue at Yteptka and flew off. “Come with me, we’ll sneak into those barracks and get your instrument back while the Fist are distracted organizing their counterattack. Nothing easier.”