Summary: Khalid has a Harper's adventure before the events of the game, and unknowing meets a future enemy.
Notes: This story uses a form of racebending (dark-agenda. dreamwidth 7371. html) to reinterpret a character's origins. I can't see why characters should have to stick to just one backstory when there are so many possibilities. ;)
"A few tendays, Khalid; a few months at most. Perhaps it will be best. We chose the duties of Harpers. Nature heals all in time..."
He polished the stone on a corner of his billowing sleeves. By a fountain, by the waters of a garden in the city's wealthy quarters, by ripe plant growth; the stone was smooth, and streaked with mossy green in complicated natural patterns, a hundred different shades of brown twining across the shape of a small egg. Of such she saw the most beauty. He dropped the simple stone deep into the pouch and straightened, with one last look at the still haven in the midst of a giant thronged city. Khalid travelled on.
The Durparan bazaar was bright with afternoon sun. He smelt smoke, dye, tumeric, cows, mules, cooked lamb, sweat, peppers. He heard bartering and names and phrases in the tongues he knew and words mysterious to him in tongues he did not; Durpar was a land of many peoples and many gifted in speech. The people were mostly humans, a few halflings, one or two with elven blood like his own, some dark and some fair in hair and complexion. A small black-haired girl dressed in a bright red pheran had her hand grasped by a blue-clad woman with golden bracelets clinking upon both of her wrists, a large pottery bowl tucked under her other arm. He looked at others in the markets.
He could remember his wife's face only as if hidden behind a rippling stream of water, brushing over the lines of her features and blurring her from sight. When they saw each other once more all would clear. All must clear; he would be a husband more worthy of her, able to find the words ringing from his throat to say the right things at last.
There were many gifted in speech here, he thought wryly again. Crowds were well with him as long as he could tell himself none paid attention to him within them; the joy of many people was what he fought for as a Harper. Still he preferred to go unseen, and with Jaheira by his side visiting her stony glare upon an unnatural city and all of its works, drawing eyes away from him... He did not look native-born to this land, but he wore a hood to shade himself above the undyed kurta tunic and plain churidar breeches of a working man. He came armed with his longsword across his back, in part disguised in a scabbard he had purchased at such a bazaar, and a leather surcoat rolled in the bundle he carried.
"Khalid, have a care when you fight; I have blessed this material by prayer to Silvanus."
The colours of the open street were bright, reds and blues and golds and dazzling whites in the buildings, and the hangings of market stalls were thick with lavish embroidery and art. Srinavath was a prosperous city by the Golden River, where the King kept a rich palace and maintained vaziers and priests and scholars to advise him. But the King was old; and so the Harpers and others sought a favourable transfer of power. Khalid remembered the briefings given him; remembered his first travel through Durpar, being tutored in the principal tongues of it with Jaheira. He stuttered but his memory was quick to grasp new languages.
Ask at the second potter's stall with the grey labyrinth symbol for Master Yashke; and he will tell you of our headquarters...
Khalid stared up at the brilliant banners flying by the King's gold-tiled roof of the palace, the pure white domes of the temple to the Auspicious Judge rising into the sky. Soldiers in polished armour stood against gates to oversee the markets, glinting brightly and attentively. It was a time of unrest, for Jayadevii the eldest princess and Lalla the middle son and the young reckless Pravarsena all sought the throne; and sought other powers as well.
Off on the street of the Yellow Aubergine, friend; knock four times and ask for Sharadaa Silversword. The pots were finely made and Khalid considered a small oil jar carved with lines of a leaf design that seemed almost to flutter in the still air; but it would do no good to be heavy laden so early in his journey. He thought of the stone with a dry smile as he replaced the man-crafted jar. His sandalled feet were so dusty as to shame him here.
'Tis a shame sometimes that we Harpers make so much mystery of our dealings; but yet it keeps us safe.
Perhaps the potter had given imperfect directions; perhaps he led himself on a detour. The street he walked through was darker than he had expected, though a cool welcome change from heavy sunlight. The clay houses were painted in peeling paint, the stones under his feet worn, and for a street so close to the markets it was oddly derelict. Laundry was hung out of doors and the angles of the walls seemed to lean over him. The temple still rose above and Khalid took it for a guide to his navigation. An old man sat on the ground with a begging bowl in front of him, drums and pots strapped to his body; Khalid stooped to place down one of the silver coins of the region. There were sounds ahead as of playing children. The games were the same near everywhere, chasing and throwing and running and playing with sticks and wooden swords...
Such a baby and a crybaby, more eunuch than son—!
Then a pitiful cry sounded in the air as if someone was harmed. Khalid stepped swiftly around a dirty corner. He saw a group of urchins, ill-clad at best, none like his elder brothers and his father; a smaller figure in their middle in green, weeping bitterly.
The children's calls came in a dialect of Dehlavi he didn't know well. Witch-child, coward, Khalid thought he heard in the high-pitched jeering. Then one of the older children grabbed at the long dirtied sleeve of the boy's large overtunic and whipped around the child to land in the streets. The child's head landed near an ankle; and then he bit and the older boy shrieked.
"Witch—" A booted foot struck toward the small figure in the centre of them, and Khalid went further into the narrow street. He shook back his hood; raised a fist; and the children scattered for a few words from him. He saw the young victim left behind, spitting out blood and weeping from fear and pain, curled around himself.
"They have gone. You are safe now," Khalid said carefully, using the trade dialect of Dehlavi he knew the best. The child's chin bled; the palms of his hands were black and bloodied from scraping along the ground. Khalid drew his handkerchief, wet it with the contents of a potion in his belt, and began treating the simple wounds.
The boy opened flashing green eyes and spoke a tide of Skrtavak: the tongue of the educated. And foolish though it was Khalid drew back for a moment—
"There are fires between the teeth and a mouth that draws insects to fly into it," the boy's high-pitched voice said. "They burn in their own destruction as he licks his flaming lips and dreadful teeth and many stomachs and his wide white ivory tusks sharp as steel and strong as flood!"
The words were utterly wrong for a child; then Khalid recognised it as only a recitation. I am a fool.
"I will clean you up," he answered haltingly in the same tongue; it must be shocking to have bullies and then a stranger taunt in unfamiliar words. "You are lucky you are not b-badly hurt. You must be far from your family. Where do you live?"
By clothes and speech he could not be a street child; he had more than the tall urchins who had tormented him. The boy was light-haired and light-brown-skinned in the way of the valleyfolk of Durpar, a common enough sight in Srinavath. A black seal as a small dot was tattooed between his eyebrows, a sign of the Durparan gods. He was human and could scarcely be above six years of age. He watched Khalid and cried out again when the potion gave a first shock:
"It will help you, little one," Khalid said, talking even if it were meaningless babble. "Only the first of it hurts and only a little. My wife...my wife could heal you in an instant were she here, but this is fine. I will make sure you safely return home. There, perhaps now you can stand."
The child shook his head, his gaze now cloudy and unclear. He thrust half of a cleaned fist into his mouth and did not get up.
"Could you tell me your name? Your mother and your father? Your home?" Khalid said. The boy's green clothing had red and yellow decorations stitched to it, forming shapes; but none Khalid recognised as lettering or sigils. The child said nothing and could not stand. He shook his head as if it had all exhausted him.
I will be brought to the guards for kidnapping!
Khalid hoisted the human boy over his shoulder, speaking gently to him as he could. For all the child's recent experience he relaxed limply as if he gave complete trust to the arms holding him, and rested his curly head against Khalid's neck. A line of drool ran down Khalid's back; and his unexpected passenger had closed his eyes to fall immediately asleep.
"I b-bow to your soul," Khalid said, the greeting here, "I seek Sharadaa Silversword."
The Harper cell was clean-bricked in a pale yellow stone, for the most part opened at the ceiling to allow air and light and the fragrances of a garden set above between the wide windows. There were few decorations or ornaments to it, all bare-walled and functional in furniture; Khalid saw a human woman in knee-length pheran and loose salwar trousers below it, wearing a curved sword at her waist, her face half hidden by jewellery in the shape of a mask covering left cheek to forehead. A halfling woman sat by her side, a short sword sheathed at her side and the signs of throwing daggers carried in her clothing; and a human man well-dressed in gold rings on his fingers and a feathered turban.
"The child is... He was lost in the streets and I thought you should be able to help," Khalid said. He sat down carefully; the boy slept on, a warm weight across him.
"Well, Khalid of Belgrade's cell, you believe the Harpers are nursemaids?" Sharadaa said. "Give him to a guard; or return him to where you found him; I care not. None but Harpers should tread on this ground."
"If the Harpers are not nursemaids when the circumstances call for it, then we should do n-nothing at all," Khalid replied. He should not be angry; he should not enter into a first meeting from a position like this; he should respect his fellows in the Harper order. "'Tis s-shameful to...to sit and allow!"
Sharadaa stared at him with her uncovered eye. "If you cannot understand simple priority then it is you who lack balance," she said. Balance—as Jaheira would— Khalid cursed his quarrelling tongue. She had raised her voice and the boy stirred in his sleep. She lowered it again. "I daresay an urchin shall not be listened to; and Subhash may take memory from him. Listen before he starts to wail or worse."
"Wonder what Jaheira Harper'd say that ten minutes after walking in town her Khalid comes to the Harper hold with a child pressed on him?" the halfling, Flores, said, a poor jest. Sharadaa gestured her to silence.
"Jayadevii is a foolish tyrant who would return her people to utter isolation—and like as not be overturned herself in short time. Pravarsena is reckless but has a gift to influence men and some sympathy for just cause. But Prince Lalla is our enemy: our reports show already that he would agree to trade with Zhentarim," Sharadaa said. "Almost a shame that they could spare only you, Khalid; you are foreign, and Jayadevii's people will hardly trust you. We support the Prince Pravarsena's claim to the kingship. Secondly the new ruler chosen will gain artefacts religious and magical in nature. Zhents of the foulest of necromantic magics have shown interest. Some of these are stored in the temples; some of these have already been brought to the king in the hopes they will improve his health. Particularly of importance is a stone called Waal-Baqi: the Everlasting by name, and bound in death magic in some way we have yet to discover. There are disturbing rumours that more than Zhents seek it out. It must not fall into Zhentish or other hands. This is where we may need an additional swordsman. Do you understand?"
"Quite well," Khalid said, trying as best he could to imitate her accent. The child stirred again, slowly waking. "Perhaps now...perhaps now he will tell us where he comes from."
The boy opened green eyes and rubbed at his face with small plump fists, cleaned; his hands had been coated by black dirt before and the knees of his robes were still as dark. He must have done a good deal of crawling and exploring from his family. He watched Khalid's face solemnly, and then broke out with a wide smile missing a pair of milk-teeth.
"I like you," he said in childish Skrtavak. "I like you! What is the pin? What is the funny scarf below your neck? Why do you have elf ears? Are you an elf mage? Can I play with your pin? Why is your nose that funny shape? Is that a sword? Why don't your walls have things on them? Why don't you have rings? Can I play with the little woman?" Flores scowled and swore under her breath. Khalid could not stem the flood of questions or begin their answering; even a child can speak better than you— He tried to gently pat the brown curls, nigh the colour of Jaheira's hair; if... "Is the big man your friend? Who is the lady with the mask like the moon? Do you have books? I can read books! How many books do you have?"
The child lost interest in Khalid's Harper pin and slid out of his lap like an eel, replacing Khalid's relief at saving his stars-and-moon too soon with another mission. "Additional De...Declensions In Astrology And Sibyllants Volume The Fifth," the child read fluently, and greedily grabbed up for the book in Sharadaa's small library; Khalid rescued it, hoping it would not cause tears, and gently held the boy's arm.
"What is thy n-name, young sir?" Khalid asked in edgewise, using close speech. "P-please...it is important. My name is Khalid." The child turned back alert green eyes to him, motions fast as if his heart beat a hundred times an instant.
"You! And Boy, and Son, when I've been good and done all my spelling. Those are my three names. What's a sibyllant? What's a declension? Why is your name Khalid? That's a funny name. I can read the sacred vidyas and the alchemy tantras, I like the tale of the Prince and all his arrayed army and the war and the pictures of green potions that make people's insides buzz—"
"It is C-Calishite," Khalid said, trying to answer all—as if that were possible. A child who does not even know he has a name? "—Your family, your m-mother..."
My father chose my name; my mother sung it to me by nights...
"We m-must know thy family so we may take thee back to them," Khalid said, returning to the close speech. Flores snickered behind him. "P-please?"
"Mother? You have to know my mother," the boy said. "You'd know her anywhere. She's the tallest and the kindest and the most beautiful mother and she knows all the magic spells there are and she has long swirly robes like this—" He tried to spin in his own long tunic. "And her hair, up like this, and her peacock ring and her lion ring and her flamesong ring and her djinnseye ring—"
Khalid looked up at Sharadaa, who nodded coldly.
"A mageborn noble's child," she said. "At any rate it narrows it down."
"—And there's Amah, and Pakana-the-cook, and Gardener, and Face-In-The-Glass-Bookshelf, and Walking-The-Walls, and the Bridle People. If you saw Face-In-The-Glass-Bookshelf he'd be different for you, because the people you can only see with the corner of your eyes are different for everyone."
The child twisted around to go back to Sharadaa's books, before Khalid could stop him.
"Arms Manual. History of the Timurid Line," the child read clearly, running plump fingers along the back covers and pausing when he came to one in Common. "What's this writing? It's the little round worm writing that Mother knows. I'm going to learn how to read it. What does this one say, Khalid? What does that one say? Why is this book so big and black?"
Our old friend Gorion—does he find his young one the same—?
Gorion had adopted a gnomish boy of an age or so; Khalid had seen the rosy-faced child as a helpless infant, rescued from... And from Gorion's writing of that one's youthful mischief it still could not have equalled the tempestuous activity of this child. He asked a tide of more questions; Khalid swung him up in his arms. A wild laugh; an odd child; some might say damaged, but that mattered not; stuttering or wild or strange, each person was valuable beyond measure—
"Swing me again?" the child babbled, grinning gaptoothed—
The Harper hold exploded.
There was no other word for it; grey smoke choked and blinded everywhere; dark-red-sick-crimson flares that brought everything down. Khalid's body jarred. In that first moment he'd hold of the child, shielding him with his own body, the small shape still wriggling under him by the shelter of the half-collapsed wall, the roar in his ears that deafened him. Another shock shuddered through the remains of the house. Past the sea in his ears he could hear Sharadaa shouting; the words made no sense to him; he held the living boy and prayed he could protect—
The buzzing in his ears began to clear. He hunched by the west wall, half destroyed, the bookcase splintered beside it and partly hiding them. The grey dust floated in the air and shapes walked through it. He saw Subhash's magic flare to life in a blue shield; he heard Flores' cry.
A woman too tall to be Sharadaa walked through the dust that remained from the explosion, a long hooded cloak changing her silhouette. Khalid raised his head. In her hands grew the same sickly dark red that had beaten into his brain a moment before; she seemed all black below the flour-like dust, all shadow, or all that threatened life.
"That's my mother!" said the small voice, and the boy wriggled out of his arms and ran to her.