Disclaimer: I do not own Forgotten Realms or any canonical characters or locations that may be mentioned. They are the property of Wizards of the Coast. All OCs are mine.

Author's notes: This story is mostly the result of playing around with making D&D character sheets, and then having the characters take off and start on their own adventures in my head. Therefore it is OC-driven, and I apologise to anyone expecting otherwise. However, I don't intend for my characters to go around outdoing all the canonical characters; I'm just looking to create a tale of my own, that shows something of what ordinary people can be caught up in while the heroes are elsewhere.

Many, many thanks to my friend Rilwen, who is always a source of encouragement when I'm struggling with my writing and whose help and advice I couldn't manage without; and also to Lycaenion, whose enjoyment of the story helped persuade me to begin sharing it with others.


Prologue

It was a long autumn, seeming almost to flow on from summer quietly without the usual seasonal tempests. The High Forest was rather beautiful at this time of year; leaves of every shade of red, yellow and green were in abundance, making up for the flowers that had provided colour throughout the spring and summer. As the seasons began winding down towards the quiet repose of winter, it seemed as though everyone and everything in the forest was exerting one last burst of activity to be ready for the cold season.

Tarl Felfaer woke to the sound of a familiar chittering outside his cave. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and sat up, blinking at the early morning sunshine coming through the window. The chittering came again, more insistently, and he chuckled. "All right, I'm coming," he said, climbing out of the bed in his nightshirt carefully so as not to disturb its other occupant, or the occupant of the little crib that stood beside it. He picked up a small pail of mixed nuts and seeds from the kitchen area and slipped outside, where a couple of squirrels and some small birds were waiting in the fenced-in dooryard.

They pounced rather greedily upon the first handful he strewed from the pail, causing him to laugh again. "You lot should start finding your own food of a morning," he chided fondly. One of the squirrels looked up at him with a bright eye, then went back to nibbling its hazelnut. Amused, Tarl scattered a few more handfuls and ducked back inside, leaving them to it.

As he put the pail back, he felt someone's arms slip around his waist from behind, and he turned round with a broad, almost silly grin. Mianna smiled up at him, her face surrounded by a halo of vivid red hair tousled from sleep. "They were here early today," she observed with a nod towards the door.

"I think they're just getting greedy," he chuckled, dipping his head for a kiss. She returned it happily and relaxed against him as he wrapped his arms around her. Tarl rested his cheek against her hair and closed his eyes contentedly, basking in her presence.

A wail from the crib broke their embrace. "I think Rydel's hungry," Mianna murmured, and she stole another kiss before heading over to pick up the fussing baby boy. Tarl smiled and left them to it as he went to wash and dress.

It was an uneventful morning tending to the kitchen garden and generally maintaining the little homestead; preparing for the winter was just as important for them as for everyone else in the forest. The only thing they hadn't yet managed to lay in was a good stock of firewood. Given the general opinion in the High Forest about cutting down living trees, such an endeavour wasn't as easy as it sounded.

Tarl intended to remedy their lack as soon as possible, and after a quick meal at midday he went rummaging for his axe, which had somehow secreted itself in the little outhouse.

"You're not going to be too long, are you?" Mianna asked with a little concern, as he emerged triumphantly.

"I'll be back before sundown." He leaned the axe against the fence and buckled on his swordbelt. "If I can't find what I'm after today, I'll just have to look tomorrow."

"Just be careful." She rested her hand on his for a moment, and then went back to weeding.

"I'm always careful." With that, he picked up the axe and rested it over his shoulder as he set out.

With such a riot of colourful life around him, it was hard to rush; everywhere he looked there were signs of creatures preparing for the cold season. Squirrels scampered about collecting nuts, rabbits nibbled at the grass in clearings, birds flitted overhead, and once or twice he spotted deer feeding without a care in the world.

He had set out south, but ended up heading towards the east after a while, having had no luck in his search. As he examined the area, the ranger frowned a little. It seemed quieter here, a little foreboding, for some reason he couldn't put his finger on. Still, with no overt threat that he could perceive, he felt secure enough to keep searching.

Finally, as the shadows started to lengthen a little, he found what he was looking for. An old tree, somewhat shorter than the others, seemed to have given up struggling with the sheer weight of ivy that had grown over it. He checked it over carefully, but was quickly satisfied that he had made the right choice. Deciding it was too late today to begin felling it, Tarl marked the tree and set off back, intending to return the next day.

His path home was considerably straighter than the meandering he had done earlier, although he wasn't in any particular hurry. He'd make it back well before sundown, as he had promised.

As he reached more familiar areas, however, he began to feel a twinge of concern. The unusual quiet seemed to have spread here as well; all the creatures he'd seen happily going about their business earlier were absent, despite the hours of daylight left. Tarl glanced around warily. Other than the silence, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, he stepped up his pace. Whatever was going on, he was not in the mood to be away from home if it turned out something really was wrong.

At one particular spot, however, he had reason to pause.

The little game trail itself was well-used and easy to follow, and the stream it crossed was the same one that ran by his home. It was the spoor left on the soft earth of the bank that made him stop short. Nothing with those marks should have been anywhere near this area…

He crouched down for a closer look, and within an instant of confirming his guess was up and running as hard as he possibly could for home, fear lending speed to his feet as he prayed he'd get there fast enough.

Gnolls. There were gods-damned gnolls in his forest. He had only come across them once before, and luckily in plenty of company, but he still had strong memories of the devastation that marauding band had caused. With only Mianna and Rydel there -

He pushed that thought away and kept running. No. I'll catch up to them, I'll stop them, they're not that far ahead, they shouldn't even be out in the damn daytime…

Howls broke out ahead, and a moment later Tarl's sword and dagger were in his hands, axe abandoned on the trail. He knew this area like he knew Mianna's face, and rushed headlong without concern for stumbling or hindrance. He counted the voices he could hear howling - no more than three. That was better than he'd hoped; he could probably handle three if he took them by surprise.

Was that a flicker of movement up ahead? Had he caught up to them? Yes, there was one of them, standing right by his garden fence, oh gods, no, please -

And then a shrill scream rang through the forest, tearing a cry from him in response.

"MIANNA!"


The city of Everlund was a bustling place, full of merchants, adventurers and tradesmen of all descriptions. It was a good place for someone to blend in, and right now that was what Tarl wanted. Even unshaven, red-eyed, and drawn from several nights of uneasy and cut-short sleep, he was not particularly remarkable in this crowd. He moved through the streets a little cautiously, unused to cities after six years in the wild, and ever conscious of the precious little bundle held to his chest.

After some confusion, and getting a little lost at one point, he finally found his way to the central market. This place was, if it were possible, even busier than the rest of the city. Luckily, it wasn't too hard to make out the large shrine opening onto the square, and he made his way over to it hastily.

A pale-haired, young-looking female cleric approached him with a smile as he entered. "Welcome to this place of worship." She looked him over, her smile fading a little at his obvious unhappiness, and added, "May I be of any assistance?"

"That would be… very kind," he said slowly. Now it came to it, this would be harder than he'd thought. "Is there somewhere we can talk in private?"

"Of course. This way." She led him to a little curtained alcove that held a table and a few chairs. "My name is Gerine, servant of the Moonmaiden."

"Tarl Felfaer," he replied, sinking into the nearest seat.

Gerine settled in a chair facing him. "What is it you need help with?" As if on cue, Rydel woke, and whimpered fretfully in his carrier. Tarl lifted the little boy out gently, cradling him close and soothing him with a few soft words before he mustered the ability to meet the priestess's eyes again.

"This is Rydel," the ranger began, as steadily as he could. "His mother is no longer here to take care of him, and I can't do it alone. I came to ask if a better home could be found for him here."

"I'm certain it can be done," Gerine murmured, her expression softening as she gazed at the baby, now gazing around in contented interest. "But do you really think it's wise to separate a child from his father?"

"I can't look after him." Tarl swallowed hard, fighting to keep his voice steady. "I c-couldn't protect my - his mother when she needed me most, and I won't risk him as well. Please, find him a home where he can grow up safe."

In the face of his request - and his clear attempts to keep from breaking down as he made it - the Selunite bowed her head a little. "As you wish it. May I…?" She held her arms out, and he hesitated just long enough to bestow one kiss on Rydel's forehead.

"Goodbye," he murmured, blinking back tears as he settled his son into Gerine's arms. She smiled a little as the baby made a few burbling noises, and smoothed down his fluff of bright red hair.

"I will find a good home for him," she said gently. "My word on it."

"Thank you." He even managed a weak smile as he rummaged in his belt pouch. "Oh - I thought this might be of help." The little bag he set down clinked with the unmistakable sound of coins. "It's not much, but I think it should cover the things he'll need for a while."

"It should be a great help," she assured him. "I'll ensure good use is made of it."

"Thank you," he said again, quietly. "I'll be going, then. My gratitude to you, Gerine."

With an abrupt movement, he was out of his chair and striding away, out of the shrine.

Leave now; don't look back, don't hesitate. You've done everything you can for him.

Clamping down on the rising urge to turn and snatch his little boy back, to keep him close no matter what, Tarl quickened his pace out of the shrine, across the market and out towards the southernmost gate of the city. He'd made his decision, he knew it was the best thing he could have done… but leaving his only child like this still tore at his heart.

Once he had finally got far enough away from Everlund and had made certain that he was alone, he sank down amongst the roots of an old tree and finally allowed himself to break down. Unaware of the few curious woodland creatures attracted by the sound, the young ranger buried his face in his arms and wept bitterly for everything he'd lost.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed when the storm of his grief was over. The sun was descending into the west, and the shadows were long and deep, but given he wasn't even sure what time he'd left the city that didn't help much. Drained from the outpouring of emotion, he leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, letting the evening breeze cool his face a little.

After a little while, he pushed himself up and began walking again, looking for a decent place to spend the night. The walking itself seemed to clear his head, now that he had no other concerns hanging over him.

He had nothing left to lose now; all that was left was to return home and begin a new life alone. Once the winter was over, he could begin his defence of the forest's peace in earnest. This time, he would not fail those he promised to guard. And the gods help any gnoll he came across.