“An errand for you, Altraam.”
Devon calls you to his little retreat at the back of the chapel. There is a spray of white flowers on the table, bound by a red ribbon. You know what it means: Cathorna will soon welcome another child.
“Another…another blessing upon Cathorna, Altraam,” he says distractedly. “Beckett’s girl, Ella. She will give him a child come winter. You know what to do, lad. She should return home tonight to find them on her table.”
He seems troubled, and speaks before Altraam can leave. “Altraam, there is…something troubles me about this. I hold to my principles, I believe there is greater good in Cathornans joining each other for love than Cillieners joining us for politics, but…”
He turns away, paces the floor restlessly. “I seek Orome’s guidance in this, but where once there was absolute clarity, now there is confusion. With every Borrett child, every Breghaus, every Nedley and Harfoot and Hender, I saw a new shoot, new growth. But when I see this Beckett child, I see nothing!”
“This is no simple question,” he continues. “Elesse opposed their union, and begged me to prevent it. I refused; I believe she has designs beyond our walls in her schemes, and sees us only as pawns in a greater game. I would protect Cathornans first, because that is Orome’s way: community is strength. But this uncertainty…am I seeing Orome’s disapproval? Or am I seeing some elven chicanery?”
He smiles a smile you know he doesn’t feel. “I will remain true to my principles, Altraam. Beckett’s union shall have my blessing. Our strength and our faith spring from our loyalty to each other, and to turn from it would be to turn from all I am. Tell Beckett his child, and his future with Ella, shall have Orome’s blessing.”
Altraam does as he is bid, but leaves a single dried petal in her home, as a warning of dangers ahead.
The morning you woke from terrifying dreams of crows, everyone seemed subdued. The rest of the clan seemed distant, reserved; you caught some of them looking at you, whispering quietly. They seem uncertain; even Bran gives you no more than a curt nod as you breakfast on boiled cabbage and bacon.
Not everyone is the same. Slaine emerges into the morning mist, grins hugely when he sees you. “Hah!” He strides to you, crushes you to his chest in a bruising one-armed embrace. “Our time now, Cian! Our time!” He turns away and heads for the dock, singing a song about Colgar women doing something bareback, only stopping at a sharp rebuke from his mother Blathnat at the fire.
Galen is different too. He’s usually moody, but this morning he looks angry, resentful. He shoulders past you when you go to fetch your share of fruit from the table. You hear him mutter something as he withdraws, catching only “…folly to forget the places…” before he too heads for the boats
When you assemble for Bran’s customary pre-departure word at the big fire pit, he calls you up. “Some days my stale old words are just words. Some days we need reminding we’re part of something when we get in our boats, when we head into the trees and out to do our business amongst the Cathorna heathens. Cian! Tell us a story. Something…something that would’ve made your Nan smile.”
Everyone is expectant, almost nervous. You tell a tale, an old familiar one, subtly changing the tone as you watch their response. By the time you bring it to its end, they are nodding, smiling their earlier unease gone. Talk returns to the matters of the day as they rise, and other things besides. “Tadgh,” calls Faolan,” Still thinking of heading for Defiance Hill?”
“More now than before,” says Tadgh. “Our spirit isn’t here,” he says, stamping a foot. “It’s here!” He looks to Cian, nods and smiles. “And it’ll live on, as long as our stories.” You share a few words with him, offering your own encouragement for a move to the Hill.
You sit upon a dais, in a chair hewn from pale oak, polished ‘til it glows with a deep, translucent shine. The gathered nobles look to you expectantly; you nod, slightly self-consciously, and as one they take their seats. Your foster parents are a heartbeat behind them; they look flustered and uncertain as they sit on the very front benches, the ones closest to the altar.
Devon speaks. “Orome is the master of this place, as he is the master of the forest, of the hunt. He is the master of us all, but as much a servant to destiny as the humblest among us. He is here with us now, he has come to bless this prophetic union, and to see destiny fulfilled. Erfiren, hunter of Cathorna, loved of men and elves and dwarves and hobbits. Rise, look upon me, the voice of Orome in this place.” He is wearing his wedding garb. “Erfiren. Your life has led you here, to this moment. Do you seek to follow your destiny?
Uncertain, you inquire as to what that destiny might be.
Devon looks a little miffed. “Destiny brooks no curiosity, Erfiren. To question it is to change it. Do you seek to follow your destiny?”
After more equivocating, Devon gets a tad snippy. “Look, Erfiren. Orome’s generally not the smitey type. But…he’s been pretty cranky since we got the apple orchard burned down and…well, I’ve been blaming Beckett for a lot of stuff lately, and he’s starting to get suspicious. Now throw him a bone here. Dooo you seek to follow your destiny?”
When you still can’t offer a black and white reply, Devon glowers. “Erfiren, you’re really getting on Orome’s tits right about now. Now, do you seek to follow your destiny or do I have to get all Vengeance of Orome on you?”
Bemused, you look to your right. Vflynn is standing there. While everyone else is dressed in their finery, she’s wearing her hunting gear. And she’s holding a spray of white flowers, bound by a red ribbon: Devon’s usual gift to an expectant mother.
She looks at you, then down at the flowers and rolls her eyes. “Erfiren, it’s NOT going to happen! Now stop it, alright? Or I’ll give you dreams about lying in warm water after drinking too many ales.” She tosses the flowers over her shoulder. Altraam catches them, but looks horrified and throws them at Cian, who seems to be wearing a cow suit. Cian starts contentedly munching on them, his expression utterly unchanged.
“Right, I’m off,” says Vflynn. “And I mean it; you keep having these dreams, and you’ll never wake up dry again.”
You wake up.
“Many people’s fate will be decided this day, young Tomas.”
Your uncle Tamas is tall, taller even than your father. He looks old, his hands spotted, his neck and eyes wrinkled and worn by the sun, but he’s always looked old, as long as you can remember. And there’s no lack of strength in his limbs; he’s as able to throw a saddle on his horse now as the first time you saw him do it. He kneels beside you now, patiently shows you how to tie the knot in the black silk sash that cinches your heavy linen surcoat
“More people than you realise wait to hear your decision,” your uncle continues, pulling the sash tight. “Your father’s opinion carries weight here. Many of them petitioned him to be your equerry today, hoping to gain his favour. And the king’s. But he called upon me to present you.” He catches your eye; there is some weight of meaning behind his words. “The implications of calling upon an outsider, a leader from beyond the reach of his mounted…soldiers, will not be lost on the king.”
He steps back and inspects you. The surcoat is new, a gift from your mother, the belt and baldric presented by Metriath’s farrier. The longsword at your hip is your father’s. You have your own, you hoped to wear it. He said you could decide for yourself, but to understand that every Volento man had worn that sword to his declaration for near two hundred years, and would you like to be the one to break that tradition? It’s too big for you: the tip drags on the floor, and you are forced to keep a hand on the hilt to keep it up.
Your uncle nods. “You are ready, Tomas.” He sighs. “Now. You have gone through this with your father a dozen times, but I remember my own declaration: the moment those doors opened and the trumpets sounded, every word my own father said vanished.”
“So. Here is what will happen. You will assemble in the hall. The king will greet the nobles. Such as they are. You will hear Seer Varda call upon the pledges. Doors, trumpets, you will march forth, led by the oldest boy, Wil Aerghin. Next will be the Volker lad. Then you last. When Seer Velda calls your name, you march smartly to the bottom of the steps, look your king in the eye and say ‘My liege, I am of age. Today I choose.’ He will simply say, ‘Tomas Volento, how do you choose?’”
He pauses. “What is expected, is that you will say ‘I choose fealty. I stand for my king.’ The king will say ‘I accept your fealty. Metriath thanks you. ‘Everyone stands, trumpets, the king leaves and we all assemble in the hall for tea and scones. If you do this, you will remain in the castle for the next six months. Apprenticed to Seer Karmin if I am not mistaken, and destined for a life of comfort and influence and leisurely learning.”
“But there is another choice. When the king asks the question, you may say ‘I choose freedom. I shall seek my fate.’”
“If you do this,” he says. “The king should reply, ‘I grant your freedom. Return when fate wills it.’ If you do this, you will receive two gifts from the king: a gold coin and a warrant, written in his own hand, declaring that you are a man of Metriath, and walk free by the king’s will. But…” he turns away, studies a tapestry on the wall. “No boy has chosen freedom for almost seventy years. The last, a troubled lad, son of a landless prince of Tharbad, was lucky to be called before the king; many said he should have gone with the commoners to the choosing before the guild council. The last king accepted his choice with grace, gave him the gifts and sent him forth. But nobody has dared choose freedom since Dorn Mendarcil.”
“And if you choose it now, the king will NOT be pleased. He wants you close, Tomas; he wants you inside these walls.”
“It is not my place to influence you, Tomas. If you choose fealty to a king who cannot keep orcs from your father’s walls, so be it. If you choose fealty to a king who eats fowl when his people eat turnips, so be it. If you choose to swear an oath to a king whose ‘cavalry’ is a bare thirty riders, some of whom are criminals given freedom in return for service, so be it. And if you choose freedom, and perhaps one day the road to a peaceful home by a river, a place where food is shared and doors are never locked, I shall welcome you at the gate as my own blood.”
You feel your stomach drop at a fanfare in the distance. Your uncle stands, tugs at the shoulders of your surcoat. “Time, Master Tomas. With me.”
You assemble in the ante room. The rug beneath your boots is threadbare. One of the high windows is broken, letting in the cold morning air. Your uncle had to put his shoulder to the door to close it behind you. Wil Aerghin looks nervous, Dorn Volker bored, but you see him flinch at each sound.
The trumpets blare. The doors swing open.
The throne room is big; fifty metres long, with a vaulted roof twenty metres above. Stone benches along the sides are sparsely occupied, with room for a hundred, but a scant twenty present. You see your parents; your mother smiles and waves. Your father simply nods.
Seer Varda stands two steps below the dais. You recognise the castellan, baron Volker, father of one of the boys with you, standing at the king’s right. You don’t recognise the other man: it should be his adviser and guard, captain Liandri, but instead it is a taller, slightly darker-skinned man you don’t know. The king sits awkwardly on his throne. He looks old, tired, his rich garments misshapen by the fleshy sagging of the body beneath. The king looks to the dark-skinned stranger as the doors open. They confer, their gaze upon you and your fellows.
Wil Aerghin marches in, Dornas Volker and you flanking. You stop after eight steps. There is a smell in the room, like clothes left out in the rain. You look about, see dark patches on the worn red carpet. Above them, the slate roof gapes, water dripping in through several holes. A mudlark perches in one, looking in, a crow in another.
The first two boys approach. Wil Aerghin looks nervous, keeps glancing back at you, at his parents in the stands. They gesture him forward impatiently. You hear the king’s voice: “Wil Aerghin, how do you choose?” He is looking away, toying with a crystal glass as he says it. The boy replies in a breaking voice “I choose fealty. I stand for the king.” The king answers, the boy turns and marches to stand by Seer Varda. Seer Karmin watches all of this with a look of evident sorrow. Volker is more confident, marching up without hesitation and declaring for the king, then joining Wil at Seer Varda’s side.
You approach the king. He watches you; there is warmth in his gaze, but there is something more. You saw it last in the eyes of the traders, the ones you saw in the square earlier in the year. The king wants something you may not be willing to give. And he expects to get it.
You stop at the stairs. But before you can speak, the king moves forward in the throne, gestures you closer. You come to the steps, ascend to stand just below the throne.
Your king smells. There is perfume over the top, but beneath there is unwashed body, stale meat, the smell of something rotting. He grasps your ear. His touch is cold, damp.
“Tomas. My boy.” His voice is smooth, comforting, rich; it would make you relax, but the breath that brings it to you is sickly sweet with decay. His eyes are bright, intense; they seem to look through you, as if you are not there. “I have hopes for you, my son.” He glances back. “Seer Karmin is old, tired. Failing.” He spits the last word; it takes an effort not to flinch. “I would see you apprenticed to him. You learn quickly: his gifts could be yours before you are a man. A tower, a library, a trove of powerful magics. And…” he chuckles softly, “A magic sword. Better than that tired old butcher’s blade your father forced on you. All these things, and your parents’ safety, will be yours. When you give me your oath.”
Seer Karmin catches your eye. He looks despondent.
The king sits back; you descend the steps to stand on the floor before him. “My liege,” you say, as clearly as you can. “I am of age. Today I choose.”
The king nods, smiles beatifically. “Tomas Volento, how do you choose?”
“I choose freedom,” you say with utter conviction. “I shall seek my fate.”
The king’s smile vanishes. He leans forward, pudgy spotted hands on the arms of the throne.
“Insect!” he snarls. “You would defy my…”
The tall dark-skinned stranger places a hand on his shoulder, whispers something. The king eyes him angrily, but sits. The adviser speaks quietly, there is angry gesturing, you hear a few words, something like “…in my tower as a hostage if not an apprentice!” The adviser replies: you hear“…MUST hold to tradition! Or too many will leave!”
“Very well,” snarls the king quietly. “Tell me what I must do to see this whelp gone!”
A parchment is quickly brought. The king takes up a quill, scrawls on it and casts it aside. One of the attendants takes it up, rolls it and gives it to you. The adviser whispers again, then passes the king something. There are more stern words; by now the nobles are whispering, and people are edging toward the door. Your father and uncle are standing together, hands on swords, watching the guards; your mother is suddenly by the door, inspecting a rack of spears.
The king stands and hurls a gold coin at you. “There! THERE is the last thing you will see from me! That coin will cost you dear, boy! Now get out! GET OUT!” He advances down the stairs, eyes wild and spit flecking his beard. Seer Velda comes forward, grasps your sleeve and pulls you away. Wil is already gone, Dorn looks uncertain. Seer Karmin looks deeply worried; he mouths ‘Go!’
Your father and uncle flank you as you hurry from the chamber. Behind you, you hear the king shout, “Where is the captain of my guard? Bring him here!”
“We should go, now,” your father says.
“No.” Your mother’s reply is firm. “Our friends, Gel. Our neighbours. If we flee, it will start a rout. We keep to the plan.”
Your father pauses. “As you say, Lausanne. It’s just…I’ve never seen the king like that. I never thought he could be so far gone!”
“And your oath, Gel.” Your uncle sounds worried. “Such a thing cannot be discarded in haste.”
“But discarded it must be! My son has the courage to defy the king to his face,” your father says. “All that is left to me now is to decide the manner in which I break my oath.” He looks to you as you cut across the parade ground to the stables. Six armed men hold horses steady at one side; they cease talking and watch you as you cross.
“I have cursed you, son,” he says. “The name you bear shall mean ‘Oath breaker’ to all. Forgive me for this.”
The stable master eyes you strangely as you enter. “In hurry, sir?”
“Ready our horses, Cadell. We wish to leave.”
“I…could do that sir. But a little silver would show you respect my position.”
Your mother whips out a blade. “A little steel will teach you to respect ours. Ready the horses.”
The hostlers seem hesitant; they move quickly only when you press them. Nonetheless your mounts are ready within minutes. As you mount, you notice Cadell has palmed his big work knife and is standing by your uncle’s horse. You draw steel, and he backs away.
One of the hostlers grasps your father’s mount’s bridle. “Take the west gate, mister Volento sir,” he says urgently. “Archers rode for the north just before you arrived.”
“Thank you Budych. There is room for you at my home should you choose.”
You ride out, wondering how many lives you have just changed with your words.
The peach orchard is a peaceful, friendly place. The hobbits come here most days, to tend the trees, clear the rat traps and cut back the encroaching forest as it tries to reclaim the ancient clearing. It’s years since the Huz have ventured so close, but since whatever happened after First Defiance, it’s left you worried enough to want to keep an eye on the Pinders.
You’re perched in your favourite tree in the southwest corner when you see the kobolds. They’re low, tails flat to the ground, making their way down the deep irrigation furrows towards where little Brogo, Dendy and tiny Neeshka Harfoot are playing, racing crickets on a frozen puddle. You swing silently from the tree, draw steel and stalk up behind the kobolds.
It has been a long time since a kobold posed more than a nuisance to you. The first one is dispatched with an effortless surprise strike. The second has barely time to turn and utter a barked challenge before you swipe its head loose. As its blood seeps into the frosty soil, some UNCANNY instinct causes you to turn. A third kobold looks you in the eye as its tiny bow twangs, and an arrow wobbles past you. There is a shout behind you, a sling stone snaps through the air, ricocheting off the kobold’s unprotected head with a satisfying hollow crack. It falls; Pinder is on it in moments and frees its head from its body.
“Well,” says Pinder with a grin. “That’s that then! Linnee, dear?” he calls. “Could you bring the shovels? We’ve a little more fertiliser to dig in.” He grins at you. “We’ve enough dried apple left to make a pie tonight. Bring some whisky?”
Hunt them Huz!
It’s a miserable cold night when Erfiren and Vflynn set out to scout for a site to ambush the orc searchers and their ‘priest’ leader. Cian comes along to mind their camp and provide a dour taciturn counterpoint to their flighty impetuous high spirits. Dour and taciturn wins out as constant misting rain leaves them soaked to the skin by the time they pitch a miserable bivouac beneath the bracken.
A quick scout of the obvious trail the orcs have left to the east identifies the perfect ambush spot: a two metre-deep gully, the bottom a foot-deep layer of ice. Rounded stones and steep muddy banks ensure the enemy’s crossing will be slow and hazardous. Satisfied, they return to the camp in time to prevent Cian’s snoring waking the orcs in Mordor. Nothing disturbs their night, but for Vflynn experiencing a vague sensation of being watch some time around 4am…
Back in the village, numbers are made up quickly, First Skirmish agreeing to come along to avenge their rough handling in the recent Huz attack on Cathorna. Ladis and several other archers, including a young, keen but very green Orsa Brin, are rallied to provide direct fire support. Dissatisfied with even this level of firepower, Cian decides to brew up some horror, making a quick trip to Beetle Island to fetch a reek beetle. He is successful, but pays the piper; Altraam is sitting on the dock when a wretched, vomit-flecked daen drags himself wearily back up the jetty, the gorilla having rescued him from abject failure.
A fighting force of extraordinary magnitude marches out the following night. Deciding to camp close, they pause for the evening at the kobold mine, marvelling at the warmth and cosiness the dwarves have brought to the once-chill mine. A dish of evil eel larvae is proffered by Stonefoot, but rejected in favour of grilled kratak mushrooms. Crowherd shares a tale and a puff of his pipe for those so inclined.
Midnight sees the FFoEM set out. A slow, cautious pace brings them to the ambush site well before dawn. Archers are arranged on the bank, skirmishers are sited to cut off any retreat, and to charge in and engage the foe once arrows have done their work. Orsa Brin’s nerves are apparent; Altraam offers a few quiet words, settling him with simple instructions: “Don’t panic, don’t run.” It helps, and he settles in, bow at the ready. Ladis does one last lap before choosing his own hide.
Things become complicated when a FHOD floats through…
Erfiren sees Orsa rise at the sight of the floating apparition. Taking a chance, Erfiren waves him down; the boy sees his signal, and a crisis is averted. Everyone holds their breath as the FHOD floats across the creek…
…and continues down the path, seemingly unperturbed.
A massacre ensues. Orcs are felled in swathes as arrows rain upon them from both sides, the leaders scrambling across the slick stones to the ice-crusted bank. Erfiren rises, quickly puts an arrow through the priest’s leg, then another in his belly. Skirmishers spring from their hiding places and fall upon the orcs still on the bank. Cian dives into the gully, crashing down on the twice-shot priest and crushing any lingering traces of consciousness from him as the last few orcs are mercilessly dispatched. Black blood freezes dully on the ice as silence falls.
Erfiren crosses the creek. Orsa is gone, but returns down the path moments later, a deflated FHOD dangling from the end of an arrow. He looks pleased with himself, and holds the pathetic sack up for his comrades to see.
The priest is bound and hauled back to Cathorna, via the orcs’ overnight stop. It is simply a sandy pit, the only thing of interest a cluster of three fat spherical mushrooms with knobs on them. They are scooped up and carried back home by Cian.
Plundering the priest proves profitable. His pockets yield eight silver and eighty copper, immediately donated by Tomas to First Skirmish and the archers. The priest also bore a laen-headed spear with a gnarled wooden shaft, and a bag of human teeth, which are buried. A box containing a nasty-looking black paste is pocketed for later, and a chalk-marked map with the symbol of Belial is set aside.
Interrogation of the priest proves challenging. He laughs at their questions, and reveals he has no tongue. Nonetheless, he offers some information, seemingly freely, when questions are framed such that he can answer. He reveals:
• His master is north
• There are two groups searching for the temple
• He controls the FHODs. They grow from the mushrooms
• There is a delay in receiving information from the FHODs
Vflynn is briefly troubled by a vision when the priest looks to her. She sees a vision of a dark figure with a tall crown atop an ice-rimed tower. Deciding nothing more can be learned, Cian takes the stranger away, dropping him carelessly into a boat and rowing him downstream to a ritual fate…
The triple death
Mist sits heavy on the swamp as Cian drags the stranger naked into freezing waist-deep muck. The ritual begins.
“Nuada, Manawydan, Crom,” Cian intones, “This man has been tested in this world and found wanting. We have broken his body, broken his mind and crushed his spirit.” He raises a rock high, the symbol of the broc uppermost on its smooth surface. “We bless him three times. From the earth…”
The sound of the rock striking the stranger’s skull is swallowed by the heavy air. Life and tension drain from his body; Cian places the rock upon him and draws a wooden dagger, rendered into a likeness of an eagle’s claw.
“From the sky…”
The blade is blunt, but strength and will drive it through the stranger’s throat. Cian is expressionless as he places it upon the stranger’s feebly struggling form.
“And the water.”
Firm hands press him down, and the stranger’s last gasps fill his lungs. Cian pushes him away; he floats briefly, then settles down through the murk as the last words are spoken.
“Send him on to the next world. We stand where water and land are one, where the boundaries are weak. May his passage be arduous, and may the gods judge him harshly and forever torment him.”
The faintest thread of bubbles rises behind him as Cian turns and strides for shore, the mist closing in and obscuring the place where an enemy began his final journey.
After training one cold evening, Palanto calls everyone together. “Friends, we are all soldiers here. But you know, as I do, that it comes at a price to our livelihoods. Gord, you were on High Paddock when the beetles got into your cabbages. Cloppy, the wasps near-wiped out two of your hives while you were away on Long Patrol last year. Seela. Sitting in the bracken for three days, while your boat buyers ate and drank and spent on your coin, unable to take their boats until you returned. And I need not tell everyone the dire effects of Budych’s absence for more than a day.” A heartfelt murmur of agreement. “With this in mind, your council has decided that those amongst us who cannot be spared their trades should be allowed to keep to them, by sharing their wealth. From this day forth, any man or woman of Cathorna may ask that another stand their militia shift, for a fee of ninety copper. Only Dorrigan or myself may approve this, and we shall choose who will stand your shift. Your replacement shall receive seventy copper for your shift.” There is a growl at that. “You surprise me,” Palanto says. “Neither I nor Dorrigan nor anyone else undeserving shall see a glint of that coin. For with the turn in the season and the wealth flowing from our forges and boatyard and hunting grounds, we have decided that Cathorna is ready to support a full-time soldiery. We believe it is time we allowed those amongst us whose greatest skill is skill at arms to be known as armsmen. And the first amongst you to receive this title is our friend and staunch defender, Klud.” Klud is called forward, and approaches rather sheepishly. “I just open and close the gate,” he says.
“In Fourth Cathorna, you closed the gate on two ogres,” Palanto admonishes. “Should more come to visit, please do so again.” Smattering of laughter. “ Armsman Klud will be joined by others, of our choosing, once we are sure we can afford this. Should anyone wish to pass off a shift, or stand extra ones, please speak to Armsman Klud or master Dorrigan.”
A tomb in the gloom
More prosaic concerns are addressed on Cian’s return. With the location of the putative tomb revealed by the dwarf strangers in the Valley, second Skirmish set out to investigate, following the creek to Armagil Lake before striking southwest. Deep gullies hinder passage, especially where the ground has slipped in recent rains, but it is one of these slips that reveals something unexpected: a cyclopean edifice, set high in a ridge, seemingly exposed by a large landslide. From a distance, the stonework has the look of Cardolan slate, and a carving upon the doors that looks worryingly like the symbol of Belial
Unwilling to chance such an obvious plot hook, a long, damp and ultimately fruitless search west is conducted, sweeping the ground south of the Timbal stream and the road. Days pass before it is decided there is nothing to be found, there are no other searchers. Second Skirmish returns to the village and fetch Yeld in preparation for a journey into the dark.
Nobody minds that the trek to the tomb is peaceful and undisturbed, though wet and cold. The last ridge is climbed and Second Skirmish begins to explore.
Accessing the doors from below proves impossible. The loose earth of the exposed subsoil gives way, sending climbers scrabbling harmlessly to the bottom. A brief trek around the slopes brings SS to the gentle slope above the exposed entrance…
…where they discover a stone roof extends back beneath the ground. No easy access is evident, so ropes are strung. Cian and Tomas swing down and apply firm but gentle pressure to both doors. The right door moves slightly but holds against some unseen stop. The other gives with a grinding of stone. Repeated attempts force it open wide enough to avail a glimpse within.
Into the dark
A broad avenue presents. Curved walls have been carved deep in the likeness of ribs, giving the space the feel of an enormous beast’s gullet. Statues stand between the ribs, tall robed and armoured men. Little more is visible of the dark space within, so lanterns are lit and Second Skirmish venture inside.
The statues number eight. The style is distinctly Numenorean, though some later craftsman has defaced them. Their stern expressions have been chiselled away, leaving them with pocked visages of pain. Deep holes have been carved into their chests, exposing crude hearts, each with the symbol of Belial cut into the stone. At the end of the entry hall stands a simple wooden lectern, stained dark by time and use. Beneath its dusty top is a stack of decayed bronze tokens, glued together by verdigris. There is also a bronze key in a similar state of disrepair. Tomas takes it up and spends a quiet hour restoring it to its former strength.
Three doors present themselves.
The centre door opens into a living space. A simple cupboard stands beside a desk, a chair. The cot against the wall is the resting place of the occupant; he is long-dead, curled in a position of agony, hands clutching at his face. Rusting bronze weapons are left, but a magical (Suppress) clear gem set in a silver fitting on a chain is taken.
The doors to either side lead into large spaces set with chairs, benches, scattered with decaying accoutrements. One appears to be a simple space, with wooden benches, wooden plats and simple cutlery, a few scattered animal bones, the debris of daily life long ago. The other is better appointed, with well-made chairs, scattered porcelain shards and metal implements. A carved wooden throne stands against one wall. The arms have been removed, replaced with skeletal human forearms, a skull placed atop the back. The faint traces of murals are visible on the walls: outlines of trees, ships, great castles barely perceptible in flaking paint. Newer, cruder daubings hint at flying beasts, giants, fires. Corridors from both lead into a larger space, clearly a place of worship.
The chapel has two levels: a lower space occupied by long stone pews facing a raised wooden stage. Above, a sturdy timber mezzanine roofs half the space, high-backed wooden chairs facing forward. A lectern sits atop the stage, a decayed wooden cupboard at the very back of the room. Old Cathornan arrows are embedded in the underside of the mezzanine, scattered on the floor, broken between the pews.
Found at last
Near the front of the chapel are two bodies, a man and a woman, long dead. The man has a broken hip, femur and ankle. He wears a leather breastplate, an equipment belt with a water bottle (empty), a jerky pouch, a pair of short swords (Cathornan, six or so years old), a hunting knife in his hand (Ulric’s work) and a small glass sphere with a dried fly in it.
The woman lies on the floor beside the male, his arm across her. She is curled into a foetal position. She wears metal bracers and an iron helm (Ulric’s work again), has a broken and rotted bow beside her (no arrows), a heavy knife in her hand (dwarven) and two waterskins beside her, both empty.
The equipment is familiar: they are Rael and Merry Dellow, lost to Cathorna some six years earlier when they went adventuring with their dwarf friend, Boldas Ragner, soon after their son Giles died of plague. Wary of the dark space, they are left initially; the party splits, Altraam, Tomas and Cian exploring the lower level while Erfiren, Yeld and Vflynn head up.
Demon ape babies!
It seems to be the opportunity the foe was waiting for. Creatures leap from the darkness, shrieking as they hurl themselves upon Cian, Altraam and Tomas. Small, bipedal and covered in black fur, they resemble nothing so much as hideous monkeys with small heads and twisted human faces. They slash, they retreat, they leap again. Unable to land a blow, Cian, Altraam and Tomas retreat to a defensible corner; Altraam’s net is presented to form a barrier while Altraam stabs at them through it. Thus protected, they begin moving around the wall, making their way to the back of the chapel and meeting Erfiren, Yeld and Vflynn. Erfiren brings forth his crystal and takes away the shadows that hid them. They clamber through the rafters beneath the mezzanine, duck behind stone pews and continue their attack. Erfiren is ready this time, and swipes one nearly in half with his longsword. Stricken and bleeding, it drags itself towards them, slavering and reaching, until he crushes the waning life from it with a boot.
A retreat to the open space of the mezzanine is proposed and enacted. Vflynn proposes hurling the seats over the edge to provide fighting room, resulting in a timber deluge upon the pews below.
Second Skirmish waits, watches. Yeld speaks: “They don’t want to eat us,” he says. “Or they would have eaten Rael and Merry by now. They just want to kill us.”
With unsettling timing, the two surviving demon ape babies appear, climbing slowly over the railing. They glance briefly back at the dais, then the mouth of one moves, but sound emanates from the other…
“The priest will take you,” they say. “Death approaches. He will claim your souls. He will devour your flesh. You will become nothing.” Refusing to be intimidated, Vflynn flings a dagger at one. It dodges easily, the dagger clattering to the floor below. The creatures stalk across the floor towards them, then crouch and spring to the ceiling. Upside down, they walk towards Second Skirmish, their heads slowly twisting around to stare at them. They pause above them; Cian thrusts at one with a torch and its fur catches aflame. It burns with a smoky, greasy crackling, but it remains still, seemingly untroubled.
They attack again, but this time Second Skirmish is ready; both beasts are swatted aside.
They stand. They stare. They seem to smile as weapons fall and crush them to the floor.
There is a brief pause while Second Skirmish reflects on these events.
The search resumes. A trapdoor is found in the dais, but despite the simple expedient of LOUDLY banging in nails by which to lift it, it resists all efforts. Detecting magic on the mezzanine proves fruitful: a filthy nest is discovered in the tangled rafters and roots beneath. In it are found a blood-red liquid (Str), three silver pieces and a carved wooden duck. On its underside are inscribed the words “Happy birthday Giles!” Vflynn recognises it as her work from some years ago, a piece bought by the Dellows just before their son’s second birthday.
Another disheartening discovery is made nearby. Half-stuck in a hole in the stone, the body of Boldas Ragner is found. His belt is hooked on a nail protruding from the timber; his legs are horribly clawed. He is recovered, along with a well-made axe with a head of grey metal. Cool air is noted blowing down the hole.
A search ensues. The tunnel Boldas concealed is left, seemingly too unstable to risk ascending. Searching the surface reveals a small hole, down which dangles an ancient decayed rope. Beneath is a square chamber, the top of the tunnel. In the opposite corner, sand trickles slowly away. As Second Skirmish move about the small space, the trickling accelerates, and sand and earth suddenly flows away, revealing a staircase cut into stone, leading down…
Down and down…
The passage is carved through a natural fissure, the steps chiselled from the rock. They descend some fifteen metres, close to the bottom of the temple, Tomas guesses. The remaining earth is cleared away from the small landing at the bottom, which terminates at a stone door with a heavy bronze plate. There is a keyhole in its centre.
Tomas wields the key found on the corpse in the temple. It fits, and the door swings grittily open.
The space within is quickly identified as the underside of the dais. A wooden scissor lift is attached to the underside of the trapdoor. It is ignored, because in the centre of the room is a font.
Cast of heavy bronze, eight skulls surround the deep bowl. Its base is more than a foot wide, the bowl almost two. Tomas estimates its weight at close to a hundred kilos. Erfiren the curious immediately detects magic on it. While his spell does not confirm the presence of magic, it does render him immediately unconscious. Vflynn immediately springs to his side, drawing a moustache and bushy eyebrows on him while he slumbers.
Erfiren hears the sound of water splashing, as of someone cupping handfuls from a vessel. He hears soft footsteps, feels a hand upon his face. Hands clutch his head, then he hears soft laughter, and the footsteps retreat. He wakes suddenly, looking up to see Vflynn poised ready to boot him in the ribs.
The arched stone corridor beyond is partly carved from the rock, partly built up with bricks. The murals persist; they are clearer now, showing hills, dark shapes, splashes of red. The air feels warm, close, damp; there are smells, of humans packed close, of places kept from air and light, of decay. A four-way junction appears from the darkness. In the distance, a sound like faint wind and the clanking of chains can be heard.
Ghosts of another age
Turning right reveals two rooms on opposite sides of the corridor. One seems to be a simple guard room, with crude bunks suspended by diagonal chains. Faded graffiti daubs the walls, the debris of daily life litters the floor. A simple armoury is opposite, the dark stained wooden racks bare of weapons but for three broken old shields and a long-rusted sword.
The door at the end of the corridor resists attempts to open it, but yields to a persuasive daen argument. There is little question as to the room’s purpose: it is well-equipped with the accoutrements of the torturer. There is a rack, upon which is a skeleton, its neck dislocated and the fingers of one hand missing. Close by is a helm with sharp screws, a variety of gruesome implements for the dislocating of limbs, the piercing of joints, the bringing of pain. A cupboard against the wall contains several small wooden vessels. All are empty but for one, which contains a thick black paste. It is added to the collection.
The corridor opposite is a cell block. Six tiny cells line the walls, all barred. The second holds a long-decayed body, little remaining but black-stained bones and scraps of cloth. Bold, even script, written in Common, lines the walls:
“Alandur Talremis, soldier of the 1st foot, Dunlostir Guardsmen. I am the last. No more screams; they will come for me soon. Know my brothers: Ostomir, Carantar, Eoin, Mordegil. We fought well, but were bested <unreadable> to this damned place of lies. They took us, tortured us, sacrificed us to their black gods. We <unreadable> no hope of rescue. We passed this pit a hundred times, but never guessed at its presence, never thought the old strongholds survived, or could be turned to evil.”
“<unreadable> quiet since they took Carantar. The priest is troubled.”
“The priest is ill. He brings only scraps to me, says the sickness has come to the forest.”
“No food. The priest is dying. I demanded release: he laughed and spat blood upon me, saying ‘there is your release’.”
“<unreadable> sickness. <unreadable> beseech good men to destroy <unreadable> return our bones to the water. Our souls shall find the western <unreadable>. Goodbye Finduilas my love. <unreadable>.
The last line is scratched deeply and clearly into the stone: “For the Free.”
Erfiren copies the text into his journal, and the last cells are investigated.
Altraam stares in shock at the sight of a tall figure, whole and hale, staring defiantly from behind the door of the last cell. He is dressed only in a filthy loincloth. The fingers of one hand are missing. “So,” says the stranger. “You come for me now?” He is clearly frightened, but defiant. He responds readily to questions: “Carantar,” he replies proudly when asked his name. “Soldier of the First Foot, Dunlostir Guardsmen.” He is released from his cell, and goes immediately to the others, staring in stony silence at the sight of the remains of the occupant of the first cell. He speaks as he searches, telling his tale distantly, something like bemusement touching his voice. “We sallied from the ruins of the old dwarven town,” he says. “The enemy was gathering at the swamp temple: we sought to find their priests before they crossed the river. But…there was a darkness that came upon us from the bare mountain as we crossed the high meadow, it took our breath, hid the world from sight. They were upon us before we could draw steel. We fought, but they were too many, too strong. They had nets…we were taken like so many fish, and dragged helpless to this place. We had sought the old temple for months, but when they brought us here, when we saw what they had done to it…I knew our fate.”
As he walks slowly ahead, the faintest sounds of dying screams echo through the corridor. A sound like strangled laughter, suddenly cut off, follows a gurgling cry. The stranger enters the torture chamber ahead of them; when Second Skirmish follows him in, something
The stranger is on the rack. The walls are cleaner, the crude murals brighter, clearer. A chain is looped about his neck, his feet manacled, his arms bound. “I did not fail!” he gasps. “They tried to break me, but I did not fail! I remained true to my faith.” There is a creaking from the rack and he stretches again, grimacing in pain. “I told them nothing, I did not surrender our secrets!” There is a hideous tearing sound, and his head lolls suddenly. His eyes roll back, then focus suddenly on Altraam. “Avenge me,” he hisses. “Find the priest in this place of torment. Burn him. Burn him!”
The room blurs, and he disappears. Only the skeleton remains on the rack. Second Skirmish pauses and reflects on the experience, and commit to returning his remains to the water. With the occasional nervous backward glance, they press on.
A circular chamber looms from the darkness: in its centre is a long-dead Eogban dun. He is dressed for travel, armed for trouble. It is clear he found some; there are signs of violence about his body, his shield cleft in two, his arms and shoulders hacked by blades. A small wooden box containing dried spiders is found in a pouch on his belt; Cian takes it.
Piled against the wall in this space are bones. The remains of twenty or more humans are heaped together, mixed with scraps of cloth, rusting swords, broken shields. As Second Skirmish leave, a skull rolls from the top of the pile, clattering to the centre of the room and coming to rest, its empty eyes staring after them.
The pile stirs. The bones move. Skulls roll atop spines, arms flex and find hands, femurs and pelvises merge within the pile. “The skulls!” Yeld shouts. “Smash the skulls!” his desperate advice is quickly heeded and the skulls are smashed to fragments, without a word of question as to how Yeld knew to do such a thing…
Leaving the bone room behind, the tunnel extends north. Sensitive noses detect the warm tang of fresh blood, sensitive ears hear the disconcerting sound of flesh being rent, of sinew being torn. Second Skirmish proceeds cautiously, entering the circular chamber to confront…
The aquahulk leaps immediately to the attack. Blood flows liberally from its broad sharp-toothed maw, torchlight glitters from the ridge of sharp triangular spines across its skull, its pale green skin shines wetly as it swings an enormous fist at Erfiren.
Battle is joined. The foe is huge, fast, tough. But numbers and skill quickly tell; several vicious stabs from Vflynn’s Numenorean blade strike deep, Tomas’ Frost brand chills its flesh, trident and falx and sword adding to the toll of blood. A meaty swing connects with Cian, sending him spinning senseless across the chamber; Vflynn strays too close and joins him in brief oblivion before Tomas brings the brand down on the beast’s neck and stops it cold. With the Frost brand. You see what I did there. Hello?
The mangled remains of a deer were the beast’s last meal. There is mud on the animal’s hooves; one side of it is scorched, as if briefly exposed to searing flame. Unable to learn more, Second Skirmish press on, the tunnel curving right and spiralling down, down, down.
Erfiren pushes ahead, watching and listening for trouble. He finds some at a low doorway; as he peers around the corner, a robed figure leaps from the darkness and strikes at him with a dagger. He reels back against the wall, ducking and weaving to avoid the foe’s strikes. Disconcertingly, Tomas and Cian pass him by, ignoring his plight. Vflynn shows greater empathy; she realises only he can see the foe, and reaches beyond the real to help him. Through his eyes she sees the enemy, and strikes him down with a blow from her Numenorean dagger. The cloak collapses, empty. Erfiren regains his breath and joins the others in the room beyond.
The chamber within is strangely lit by an eerie red light that seems to emanate from the walls. A tilted bed occupies the centre of the space. It is fitted with manacles for feet and hands, a collar for the neck at the lower end. There are grooves cut longitudinally, with hooks beneath the ends of the grooves at the lower end. A cup hangs from one of the hooks. Something dark and long-dried stains it inside. Around the room are similar vessels. Some contain unpleasant dried objects, others are empty. All are filthy. On a bench rests a device like a press, with drain holes and receptacles beneath. Some see a disconcerting effect when inside; viewed directly, everything appears old, dead, still. Seen from the corner of the eye, the objects in the room seem new, slick and shiny with something fresh and wet. Cian chances a glimpse with his eyepatch; it reveals Bran, upside down on the rack, his deeply grooved face twisted in agony. Wondering if the amulet might banish the effect, Cian dons it and looks again. His grandfather is gone this time, but a second look without the amulet does not bring him back. Erfiren the curious attempts to analyse the magical light emanating from the walls. He learns that the magical light emanating from the walls is some kind of light magic. Unsettled but none the wiser, Second Skirmish press on.
Five figures loom from the darkness ahead. Robed and hooded, they march slowly, showing little fear. They stop when they are abreast of Second Skirmish and proffer bowls. They appear to hold reddish-brown lumps of something once-alive.
“Eat,” they say. “Osomer will thank you.”
“Beg elsewhere,” Cian snarls. The strangers nod regretfully and pass on.
A messenger. A message
An even stranger apparition appears as they round the next turn. A tiny black figure ducks into a room ahead. Fearing another demon imp baby, weapons are drawn. Vflynn reaches within, finding a tiny, weak, frightened mind hiding in a corner, forcing a terrified shriek of agony from it with Mind Shard. Cian strides in, discovering a tiny black bat-winged figure cowering in the remains of a bookcase. Its head is almost human, completely bald, glossy black. Repulsed, Cian strokes its fur the wrong way, and the tiny light of its mind is snuffed. A scroll case is hung across its back. The scroll within carries a simple message, written in Common:
“You shall foment hatred amongst the orcs for the daen of the Temple. As the daen grow stronger, they grow bolder, less compliant. The orcs shall attack at night, slay their leaders and retreat leaving no sign of their allegiance. We shall occupy the void, and bring the priests of the Temple closer to our path.”
It is simply signed ‘A’.
The corridor spirals. The party descends. Soon, they discover an iron door, set into the inner wall. It is unsecured; a gentle push sees it swing open on well-maintained hinges. The sense of decay that dominated other spaces is now almost gone. A rooms beckons.
It has a vaulted ceiling of large black stones, cross-braced with thick, smoke-blackened timbers. Flames sputter in upside down human skulls filled with a vile mixture attached to the walls. On entering the room, Vflynn immediately feels sick. She demurs, and the others enter. Tomas and Erfiren feel the faintest prickling discomfort, but enter nonetheless.
Chevrons of stone serve as pews. They are ranged before a broad stone hemisphere set in the ground with shackles set at four points around it. An iron sword lies across the top of the stone. There is a skull, cleft vertebrae still attached, close by. Nothing of this gruesome ensemble is touched.
It is the rear of the space that presents the strangest apparition so far. There is a gaping slash in the back wall, a metre long and 2/3 that high, sloping diagonally down to the right. A hideous face has been drawn around it: angular eyes, a bulbous nose, short, sharp horns, green skin. Looking cautiously through, a fire can be seen flickering in the distance. Objects are tossed through, but none have any effect. Second Skirmish retire curious, but safe.
A quarter turn around and some distance down, there is a similar door, similarly unlatched. It appears to be a bedroom, well-appointed and meticulously kept. There is a large bed, covered with a feather quilt. Good quality clothes hang from a wooden rail affixed to the wall. There is a large water barrel beside a silver wash bowl and a small mirror on a night stand. A plate holds scraps of fruit and meat. All appear quite real and fresh when gazed upon, but from the corner of the eye they appear withered and decayed.
There is a mannequin in the corner. A brigandine jacket adorns it, above hard leather leggings. A belt holds a quality short sword of unknown provenance, fighting knife and a tin water flask. There is a Saxon helm atop it. An iron mask hangs from leather straps on its face. Its visage is that of an orc, black, round, heavy-browed and squint-eyed. It radiates magic (Mind Control). Nobody is willing to wear it.
Another door, another bedroom, this one with less luxurious space for eight. It is clearly the dwelling of practical fighting men; there is a workbench, an anvil, heavy gloves and tools, and assortment of well-made, practical weapons and equipment. A check for magic is fruitful…
• A chain vest (PD), draped across a bedpost. There is a sword-width puncture at stomach level, darkly stained.
• A flail (HKA), upon a heavy workbench in the corner. Its handle is missing, only a broken wooden stub remaining.
• A pair of gloves (Skills), lying across the workbench.
• A basket containing three ordinary but well-made short swords, and one short sword (Skills)
• A backpack. It contains a surprisingly well-preserved vellum-wrapped ham sandwich (Telekinesis), a bag of rusty caltrops, a fair quality upper-thigh woollen surcoat dyed dark brown, a tinderbox, two empty glass phials (too weak to identify) and a stick (Per).
There are also five books:
• ‘A history of Cardolan kings’, familiar to Tomas.
• ‘The Way of the Sword’, a book of fighting techniques for blades
• A ragged hide book of recipes using game and local plants.
• ‘The tale of the Wanderer’, seemingly a tale of a man on a quest to find his wife
• ‘Soldiery for the new leader’, a tome of minor tactics written in Harad (but is identified by Amrik on return to Cathorna)
All are taken.
The down-spiralling tunnel straightens. Unnoticed, the murals have become fresh and clear, but the dark images of mountains, volcanoes, giants and dragons have given way to rural scenes; growing fields, orchards, sunlit hills. Ahead, soft white light illuminates two small trees framing an open doorway into a furnished room. The sound of water splashing can be heard…
The party advances. A voice calls to them “Come in, Second Skirmish. I will do you no harm.”
A stranger occupies a room, well-appointed in an older Cardolan style, with a stocked bookcase, a comfortable bed, clean, fresh garments, a deft portrait of a figure in Cardolan royal garb. The stranger is stripped to the waist, and bathes in a bronze tub at his feet. He looks up as the party enters, gesturing them forward, “Come, please. It has been some time since I entertained.” He points at the portrait. “A cousin. A distant one,” he adds. “The royal blood is thin in my veins; hence my recourse to the priesthood. There is little hope of inheritance for a minor baron.”
“Before we proceed,” he cautions, “There is something you must know. I have no desire to see harm come to you. But I understand that you may wish to see harm come to me. If that is the case, you may attempt it, and I shall defend myself vigorously, and mercilessly. But even should you prevail, know this. There is a curse upon my chambers. One who remains here will never age. But they can never leave. Should I die, that curse will pass to one of you.”
Lengthy discussions ensue. Secrets are revealed. Osomer tells Second Skirmish he is simply a peddler of influence and dealer in favours, that he has no real power beyond the Temple other than the information he shares. He speaks vaguely of his past, seeming confused when he says he is related to the figure in the portrait, a king six hundred years dead, but that he is cousin to a much older regent, and has been in the temple since the Second Age (1640 years ago in case your knowledge of Middle Earth epochs is a little rusty). He treats with Second Skirmish, offering them aid and information in return for simple task. He first offers a key and a map showing where gold might be found in the valley, in return for simply taking a letter to one Fallon, a junior priest of the Kine temple. When SS show little interest in agreeing, he offers whatever information they may ask in return for their cooperation. When asked where the children were taken after Fourth Cathorna, he says they are held at Silver Hill. Suspicions are still deep, Erfiren whispering of rushing him out of the room, but Tomas, insisting Osomer is kin, steps forward and accepts the deal. He receives a key, and a mark on his map.
Second Skirmish leave. Osomer tells them they are welcome to return when they wish. The mood is of deep misgiving as the party returns to the surface.
A final resting place
Duty is fulfilled on reaching the upper temple. The bodies of the Dellows and the imprisoned solders are committed to the depths of Lake Armagil over a cold, wet, muddy day of trudging through the forest with makeshift litters. Cian farewells them on their journey to the next world with a heartfelt eulogy to their courage and persistence.
Everyone is tired and dirty by the time the question of the font is considered. Talk of building a false wall is abandoned when Tomas proposes digging a hole and hiding it beneath the existing flagstones. It is hard, tiring work, but the remains of an afternoon see it done. Efforts are made to conceal and secure the temple as much as possible: creepers are planted close to the edge, the hole is concealed, the stairs down to the lower temple are hidden beneath a removable stone to facilitate re-entry, goo is smeared on the doors to hold dirt, seeds and soil are placed on the ledge, Boldas Ragner’s tunnel is infilled, the doors are barricaded by the statues and with bronze slugs melted onto the floor. Another day is spent in these endeavours. The final sad duty is addressed; Boldas Ragner’s remains are bound to a litter and borne back to Cathorna. Lim Ward opens the gate on their return home.
Boldas is taken to the dwarfhomes by Tomas. “This is a fine deed you’ve done,” declares Durgan. Doors and windows are closed, the forge and smelter are cold for a day while respects are paid to their returned brother.
As is customary, everyone crowds into Palanto’s house for debriefing and jasmine tea. He agrees that the temple is dangerous, and supports the plan to emplace an orb overwatching the site. When Erfiren mentions the gold Osomer pointed out to Tomas, Palanto invites Tomas to tell him where this bounty might be found. Later, Palanto asks Altraam if he might try to determine why Tomas lied to him about its location…
A deal fulfilled
Tomas wastes little time seeing to Osomer’s task. Making his way to the bridge, he watches until a rider appears, heading north. The stranger is Rendel of Cillien; Tomas offers him some coppers to bear a message back to Fallon. Rendel agrees. He also asks if he might be welcome in Cathorna. Tomas nervously confirms he would, and is told in return he would be welcome in Cillien.
Several cold, wet hours later, Fallon strides onto the bridge.
“For you,” says Tomas, handing over the letter. “From Osomer.”
Fallon takes the letter wordlessly, his gaze narrowed in obvious contempt. His expression hints at some surprise, but nothing more is revealed, the young priest turning and leaving with barely a word.
Rael and Merry Dellow’s scant possessions are borne by Cian and Erfiren through the forest to old man Dellow’s home. The usual wait ensues, after which he is presented with their chattels, and the little carved duck. He is moved to tears by the things they share, and thanks them for giving his loss a meaningful end. They ask if he would consider returning to Cathorna, perhaps to live with the clan, or with Erfiren; he offers them his gratitude and says he will consider it.
With Palanto harassed, it is Amrik’s turn to experience the joy of another Second Skirmish homecoming. Erfiren goes to him with sprigs and fruit from the trees that flanked Osomer’s home. Amrik seems overjoyed to see the cuttings, but is other than pleased when he is told they were growing outside the home of a deathless ‘priest’ living at the bottom of a temple of unutterable evil. Erfiren leaves, muttering about the challenges of pleasing some people. Amrik does however agree to translate the book of Haradrim tactics, and is amazed when Altraam utters a few words in his native tongue.
With Osomer’s task out of the way, Tomas looks to the question of gold. He heads out of the village alone, and begins a methodical search of the place where Osomer told him to dig. Several tiring hours later, he comes to realise the task is beyond him, simply through lack of experience and manpower. Frustrated, he asks Durgan what to do. Durgan nods; “Leave it to me.” Two days later he seeks out Tomas and tosses him an angular fragment of quartz. A thin band of gold is visible in its milky depths. “No small feat to find that,” Durgan says. “Making a mine of it will take time, money and dwarves.” Tomas is left to consider his options.
The militia reshuffle
After training one evening, Palanto says he will have some announcements to make regarding changes to appointments within the militia, and that he will announce them at the inn tonight. Consequently most of the village is in the inn by seven. Palanto takes the opportunity to mount the stage.
“Friends, Turk has sent word that all goes well at Defiance Hill. By now, most of you would have spent a patrol manning the walls at our new outpost, and seen the fine work done by the Long Patrol, and by our doughty skirmishers in finding and planning our eastern stronghold. Now while I know you all miss the pleasure of warm, fresh milk every morning, Turk assures me he will return a goodly number of milkers to us as soon as the herd is established at its new home. And meantime we are all enjoying the considerable bounty of the Swath; there is more honey, venison and eorna in the store than I’ve known for this time of year, and it can only improve when summer returns.
Now, with two dozen or more Cathornans happily settled at the Hill, it has become necessary to rearrange things a little to fill some gaps in our militia. Dorrigan and I have spoken to those who will be moving, and they are as keen to take on their new duties as we are to see them succeed. Here are the changes:
Groat Ochoa, come forth. You are now the leader of First Heavy,” (presents a dwarven broadsword)
Tani Gedult leaves First Spear to join First Heavy
Beckett moves to First Skirmish
Orsa Brin and Dubtach Fornas leave the archers for Second Rank First Spear. Come forth!” (presents them with new dwarven spears and shields). “Join your comrades!”
Anika Helesto (glassblower), newcomer to Cathorna, joins 3rd rank 1st Archers
Borgen Tannerman to face the Test next Full Moon Circle
“We have fourteen able-bodied fighters at Defiance Hill, but we will continue to send patrols up there for the foreseeable future. The strongest walls are of no value without stout-hearted Cathornans behind them, and we will all sleep sounder knowing our friends at the Hill have enough eyes to keep them safe too. And should anyone else be thinking of making a permanent home of Defiance Hill, let it be known. Thank you friends, and I’ll have a beer!”
I see flames. Where’s Second Skirmish?
Second Skirmish is not idle while Tomas is searching the hill. He sees the evidence of their activities in the distance on night, an enormous fire blazing on the distant Milden Hills. He speaks to his uncle about it as they watch from the roof of the redoubt. Palanto’s wife joins them briefly, but quickly retreats before the cold, mumbling incoherently. Palanto confesses to his nephew that little remains of who she was, and she will be lost to him soon. He admits he has already farewelled her, and that her passing may well be a mercy.
Second Skirmish’s return is brief; they soon leave again in a wagon train with an orb hidden beneath a blanket. There is brief talk of gold mines; lies are not told, but truths are not revealed.
Beckett’s bride. The Edain petitioners
Altraam speaks to Beckett. He tries to explain to him that he must cease consorting with Nisha, that only evil can come of their union. Beckett is indignant, and demands Altraam leave. Durgan is Altraam’s next stop. He explains to the dwarf that Tomas has the gleam of gold in his eye, and it may have robbed him of his customary rationality.
Altraam and Erfiren journey upriver, heading for Defiance Hill. They decide to open relations with the Edain petitioners in their palisade. They are welcomed at the gate by Thurvald, the man who sought to join Cathorna when his wife was pregnant. Thurvald invites them in, and offers them beds for the night. It is apparent when they enter that the gate is ill-suited for the purpose, and takes far too long to open and close. Thurvald says it is fortuitous that they are visiting, as he was considering visiting Cathorna to seek the aid of the renowned artificer said to live there. He takes them inside the redoubt within the palisade, a very well-constructed and defensible structure of firebark trunks anchored deep into the ground. There they meet four archers, apparently recently arrived at the palisade in response to a call from Thurvald for mercenary archers to help hold his walls against increasing Huz aggression. They are Rya, a Cillien Cardolan woman of 25 or so. She is a simple girl, recognised by DUKE BICEP from river patrols. Elgar of Dale, a pale Northman with a longbow. He seems physically weak, and again is familiar to ROCK ARROW. Another is Kel, a slightly gawky eighteen year old lad who has little to say
The fourth is Gares, a thirtyish Eogbann daen, typical of Cillien. He is calm, friendly and chatty, and talks of goings-on in Cillien. He says they’re eating more fish now that the dock’s done, though their fishers are nothing to Cathorna’s. He says the eaves of the forest are safer, and that their patrols go deeper now since Stenner went into the woods and discovered the ogre that had been killing lone travellers for some time. The beast’s head sits atop Stenner’s door. He says the caravans travelling to the dwarven city have ceased for the winter, and that the last caravan of dwarven goods headed south passed through two weeks ago. They also speak of the tales they have heard of the place called Defiance Hill, where soldiers of Cathorna stood against an army of orcs, and called upon the dead to fight at their side.
Thurvald speaks of the trouble with the Huz of late. He is deeply troubled when Altraam relates details of a an incident in which the Orc Kul threatened to drive the Huz into the valley in response to some action of Second Skirmish’s, and asks why they would visit such tribulations upon his home. He does not tell them to leave, but makes it clear they shall not be welcome beyond sunrise. Erfiren offers to hunt down any orcs that might trouble their settlement. Thurvald says he would prefer that Second Skirmish simply leave them be.
Altraam’s sister Caralyn is pleased to see him when he arrives at Defiance Hill. He shares pleasantries, then approaches Nisha. Beckett follows. Altraam tells her not to marry Beckett, calls him a murderer, a killer and a liar and asks her whether she wishes to be married to such a man. Nisha looks frightened, but rather than recoiling from Beckett, she looks to him for guidance. When Altraam asserts himself, Beckett puts a hand on his knife. “Altraam’s just leaving, Nisha,” he says, the warning tone clear in his voice. “There’s nothing more to be afraid of.”
Caralyn hears something of what Altraam has said of Beckett. She asks him whether they should drive him out, whether they are safe in a place with a murderer, a killer and a liar. Altraam speaks of terrible things coming; Caralyn misunderstands, thinking he means Beckett has brought the plague to the Hill. Altraam’s frustration with the affair gets the better of him, and he asks her why she doesn’t deal with it. She is left disconcerted by the situation, and clearly troubled by Altraam’s words.
Erfiren the Curious talks to Kotlas about the state of affairs surrounding Beckett’s recent arrival at the Hill. Kotlas confides in him, saying Turk won’t let Altraam take Beckett away because he wants a smith. When Erfiren claims he will deal with the Huz threat to both settlements, Kotlas simply smiles, and asks if he might assault the enemy in his black tower when he is done. Little is gained; discouraged, Altraam and Erfiren head for home.
Beetles and boats; Neeshka’s folly
Cian is wakened in the deep of night by the cries of distressed animals. Goats and pigs and sheep cry plaintively, rousing the clan.
Venturing outside, he discovers panicked animals fighting, writhing in the mud, trying to leap from the corral. He ventures within and immediately feels a burning sensation on his legs. Dark scuttling shapes catch his eye: beetles are loose in the corral. Blathnot grabs a sheep to prevent it headbutting the wall, but she immediately screams in terror and flees. Slaine catches her before she gets far, but is hard-pressed to restrain her manic thrashing. “What do we do?” Tadgh calls to Cian, Faolan at his side. “How do we stop this?”
“Out!” orders Cian. “Get everyone out, get to the wall!” His kinsmen acknowledge and began gathering the family against the river wall, just as Tomas, on sheriff patrol, enters at a run. He quickly realises what is happening and runs for his flat, returning with a bag of delrean dust. A plan is hastily formulated, and beaters with dust and torches begin moving across the compound, driving the creatures before them.
It works; the insects are cleared, crush and forced out. When Teagan discovers a wooden disk, branded with a stylised dehorned kine, Cian deduces it is an attack by the family’s old foe. Cian sends Faolan to the drain to check for beetles. Neeshka leaps to the wall with her bow. “A boat!” she calls. “Three men, rowing away!” Moments later there is a cry and she topples from the wall, landing heavily on the village side. She does not rise.
Tomas leads the sheriff posse to the boats, leaping into the big rowboat with Slaine, Faolan, Vflynn and Yeld. They press forward through the ice, their torches illuminating a smaller boats fleeing at speed. The chase is brief; the enemy hurl beetles in bags. Most are swatted away, but Yeld grunts in pain as the acrid tang of sulphur beetle rakes at everyone’s senses. Tomas’ crossbow speaks and a man falls dead in the fleeing boat; another takes up his oar. As the pursuers close, Tomas calls for their surrender. One throws up his hands, but the other curses him, curses Cathorna and pulls harder at his oar. Another Tomas bolt ends his insignificant rebellion. The last, spattered with blood and seeing six vengeful Cathornans bearing down, dives into the icy river.
He does not get far, the chill water sapping his strength. He is pulled free and quickly returned to the village and Sul’s healing hands, but it is too late; the cold claims him.
Erfiren and Altraam return in the morning. Erfiren seeks out Palanto, finding him at Neeshka’s side in Devon’s care. “She’ll live,” Palanto assures him. “But it’ll be some time before she’ll climb again.”
Huz on the Hill!
Routine duties are resumed soon after, and Second Skirmish finds itself on standing patrol, crouching cold ‘neath rain-sodden bushes on Cathorna Hill for hours, counting returning Cathornans back down the road. Nights pass with nothing more interesting than lethargic ants and chiggers. Come the seventh night, Second Rank 1st spear are late returning from their road patrol. Just after dusk, Erfiren decides to run ahead and see if he can find them. As he reaches the Low Paddock, he receives a call informing him half of them have returned, Klud in the lead. He heads back, but as he crosses the crest of the Hill, he is ambushed! An arrow pierces his flank, then another strikes his leg. They fall free, but a numbing deadness spreads from the strikes. Alone and unable to run, he dives for the cover of the trees.
Meanwhile, a tall, powerfully-built orc bearing a flaming brand turns the bend onto the road covered by Second Skirmish. “Second Skirmish!” it bellows. “Come forth!” Cian emerges from cover, walks slowly towards the foe. “No,” snarls the orc. “Not one. ALL!”
Second Skirmish complies. As they approach, bows crack and Yeld is hit. The orc laughs and throws the torch to the ground: it flares brightly and the orc turns and runs. Pursuit ensues.
The orc quickly discovers it has underestimated the foe. Altraam casts his net, forcing the orc to dive for cover; Cian closes in, while Tomas turns into the trees to tackle the ambushers. Klud tosses the scintillating torch into the undergrowth, casting a bright light across two of the ambushers; Tomas runs one down and slays it with ease, leaving the body where it lies. Meanwhile, Cian has overtaken the orc leader, and tackled it to the ground. A one-sided wrestling match ensues; bones break, limbs are wrenched and it breathes its last. Cian leaves its head staked in the middle of the road as a terrible warning to others. He loots the orc’s heavy pot helm, black chain shirt and a crudely drawn map showing Cathorna’s location in the valley.
Erfiren has fared well enough. Forced to hide beneath the trees, he hears movement close by. Not knowing whether it is the rest of Second Spear 1st Rank returning, he holds his fire, but his nerve breaks and he looses an arrow blindly. It strikes something that grunts and falls; moments later he hears an orc snarl, then the crashing of something running through the bush. Silence falls; he summons aid on the Towitt and is borne back to Cathorna.
Time passes. Silver Hill is visited. Second Skirmish return. The dwarves leave. Tomas promises to build a fire…