You’re not long back from the foray to the Southern Hills. The weather’s still odd, and you had to wait for a break to get up on the temple roof and clear it of built-up snow. Devon stands on the peak and shovels it down so you can push it off. You’re seated on the edge, scraping it from between the thatch when a sudden gust blows a flurry into your face. You blink away cold flakes and wait for your vision to clear.
“Hm. That was odd.”
You look up to see Devon standing upright on the crest. He too is wiping snow from his face. He looks to you, frowning, then resumes the task.
“I’m…not sure. The wind changed. It swung round to the north suddenly, then it seemed to go straight back.” He shrugs, resumes shovelling.
“I will see you tomorrow,” Altram replies, looking to the north. “And the day after. You won’t keep me from my roof.”
“That’s it. Lines and hand nets tomorrow.”
Your uncle Fergal is stripped to the waist. Sweat runs from his bare chest despite the chill wind. It took the better part of an hour to free the boat from the tight spot in the narrowing channel, just upstream from Bone Island, then two more to get the boat out of the water and back to the pier. The other boats have been out of the water for two days now, your crew the last willing to drag it daily to the channel.
“Brr, that wind’s got a bite to it!” says Faolan as you head for shore. Tadgh nods agreement.
“I’ll be happy to get a roof between me and that lot. And not too troubled if we don’t return to the lake until this breaks.”
“Shame,” says Faolan. “Never known the cod to run like this. And with the hunters coming back empty, we’re making good coin on our catch!”
“Maybe,” says Tadgh. “But there’s something not right in all this. Haven’t known a winter this long in a while. And were it not for our fish, Cathornans would be eating their boots by now.”
“What say you, Cian?” asks Eadon (your sister Essylt’s husband). “There more to this than bad weather?”
“There is something more to this,” says Cian. Faolan is troubled, but Galen reminds everyone their future holds fishing line and furs.
Leah meets Erfiren out of town. She’s rugged up in heavy furs, steam wisping from her collar. “Been a cold winter, Firen. Cold as I remember. And winds from the north now! Bad sign.”
She talks small for a while:
“Walker came through a few days ago. I was on the gate. It was after dark, but we’d been told to let him in regardless. I told him to put up his weapons, same as everyone, but he just brushed me aside. I would’ve pressed it but Marl – he was on the gate with me – told me to drop it. He went straight to Stenner’s house and just barged in. I came off watch before he left.”
“Stenner called us all out next morning. He said bandits had attacked ‘our friend’ Walker as he was coming to Cillien with a wagon load of weapons, food and herbs from out west. He said two of our own, Tel and Argus, were guarding the wagon, and were killed before Walker was able to slay the bandits.” She looks pensive. “We’re all on half-watch now, patrolling the west road out to the Whicker farmstead. Hard times to be out on the road, but Stenner won’t hear a word of dissent.”
It’s apparent there’s something on her mind, and eventually she gets to it. “Look, something’s happened. Something bad. Stenner’s got half of us out on the road, or guarding the Whicker’s place, all in winter when we should be standing our walls in twos and threes in between spells around the fire at the inn. He’s not…scared so much. But he IS worried. Brundis knows it too, but he’s more scared of Stenner than anyone these days. Nobody’s seen Walker since, and all I can find out is that he filled his travel sack with hard tack at the store, then left without paying or saying a word. Took the best horse and rode out. Now all Stenner can do is ask us if we’ve seen him.”
“He’s a danger to you all,” says Erfiren. “If there are those among you who would see him gone, we would stand with you. Spread the word, as best you can.”
She nods, then stands “I will. Now I have to go Firen. Hunting’s terrible in your valley right now, and I’ve little enough time for it with the watch roster. You watch yourself. Watch yourself, alright?” She turns and runs into the west.
Your hands tingle as you remove your gloves, the cold air biting at the exposed skin. You quickly slip on the fine kid gloves, a gift from Neeshka two winters back. They’re stiff, but fit well, and tightly enough to protect without denying you sensation. Flexing your fingers experimentally, you reach into the pouch at your belt, pull out one of the spheres.
The dust inside sparkles, despite the dull light of early afternoon. The glass is good; strong and even. Anika Helesto, the itinerant glassblower who joined the village last summer, may have provided the final ingredient. You heft the sphere, testing its weight.
The trigger vial fits neatly. Despite yourself, your hands tremble slightly as you insert it. A quick look around; the redoubt is empty. You breathe deep, draw back and hurl the sphere at the flagstone set by the wall.
It shatters perfectly. The dust fountains into the air, a cloud like glittering metal. You watch, wait, breath held.
Nothing. Then, just as you’re about to come forward to inspect your latest failure, light and fire erupt from the cloud. You shield your eyes; it’s ten metres distant, but you feel the heat on your face as it burns furiously, clinging to the wall, the ground, filling the air between with fire.
It lasts several seconds. When it dies away, there is a pall of grey smoke and a broad scorched patch of grass around the flagstone. The smoke drifts on the steady easterly; it swirls suddenly, caught in a sudden turn of the wind, then disperses.
You return to your workshop, wondering how best to use this new tool.
Good tidings in the O’Conchubhair clan
In the morning, Blathnat and Fionan are talking to Bran before he calls everyone together to hit the lines. He nods, then speaks. “It’s been a poorly kept secret I’m told. Among the womenfolk at least; I had no idea. But time it was known. Faolan?”
Faolan stands, faces the gathered clan. “The earth mother has blessed the clan again,” he says in a voice equal parts resignation and sarcasm. “Keela is with child and will bring a new soul to this place come summer.” There is a rousing cheer, and shouts of ‘Pig!’, including from Ruark, who immediately petitions Bran to be allowed on the hunt. Bran is noncommittal. Keela races to Cian and hugs him, looking up at him with gratitude and saying “Thank you! Thank you so much!” She is teary as she clutches his arm and looks to everyone. Faolan looks suspicious.
That day’s catch is good, given you’re limited to hand throws and fishing lines. Tadgh is pulling in big fish, and straining to do so. “I’ll be as strong as you by spring, Cian! And look at all these cod!” Everyone on the ice is smiling and energetic. On their return there’s a huge omelette cooking on the skillet over the fire. “Good day for eggs,” calls Keela. “Mmm, good.”
The chickens lay more eggs, the goats give more milk, and there is a warmth throughout the family.
Mella the trader
A lone trader, Mella, straggles into town with a wheelbarrow loaded with bolts of hessian and some dyes and herbs from around Tharbad. She is wet, cold and frightened “There were four of us,” she says. “Me, old Dagall the grain scratcher, Horrie the cobbler and pretty Sondra the whore. But we got to Cillien and they said, they said ‘We’ll not do trade with ye, not if ye’re goin’ on to the Cathorna.’ Pretty Sondra, she’s wearing aught but silk, and freezing with it; she can’t chance another forty mile for disappointment, so she stays right there, puts up with the catcalls and the rough hands and the swindlers wot that Stenner fella lets work. Horrie and Dagall though, they’re not mad keen on bein’ told, so they’re up packs and off. Me too, cuz I know the Cathorna likes my hessian. But we’re out that night at the beach, y’know, the camp spot, and these fellers are comin’ and kickin’ our fire out and knockin’ over our brew cans an’ throwin’ our blankets in the river! Was more than Horrie could stand, he was up and off that night. Dagall scratched a fire back together, but it was feeble and most o’ the wood was gone, but he had a spare blanket so he lay on it. My things was all soaked and froze, so I packed up and came here, knowin’ the walk would keep me warmer than lyin’in a froze blanket.” She swallows. “Glad I did too. Was mebbe two hour later when I’m hearing a commotion like chasing, and clanging like swords, then a scream like a man dyin’! Reckon they did for old Dagall, they did. Reckon I might wait for the next boat as to takes me back past them Cillien devils if ye don’t mind.”
Mella speaks briefly with Tomas. “The four devils wot found us at the camp? Wore Cillien leather they did, and Cathorna short swords, though they only used clubs when they came to roust us. Silk masks too, silk face masks wot covered their faces up to their noses. Mmm, silk it was; funny sorta thing. A moustache on one of them though, saw that.” Tomas also moots the idea of settling in Cathorna. “Well,” says Mella. “Im a trader I am, and that’s all I knows. I trades with the temple too, and that’s how I makes my money. Not much of a farmer or a hunter or a cobbler. Or a whore!” she cackles.
Gnolls at High Town
Lim Ward comes back from a hunting trip. “Saw something strange up around High Town,” she says. “I go there just to cast an eye every week or so. This time that Thurvald fellow was outside his walls, treating with a couple of gnolls! Growling and barking in their language too. He gave the gnolls something heavy in a sack, then he went around and pointed to some trees outside their redoubt. Funny sort of scene. Oh, those archers are still there. At least two of them anyway.”
The rat up the cliff
Several of the village children find a big rat up the western cliffs near the midden. They camp at the bottom, throwing rocks at it to try to kill it. It is very large, with a body the size of a kitten. Dimi Borrett brings it down and Orsa kills it with his knife, taking a bite on the arm in the process. He asks if it’s magical and heads off to get it cleaned. There is discussion on how it got there. The hole is a metre deep and has both small and big rats. It’s barely big enough for the big rat. It’s a girl rat, but shows no sign of having bred. There is speculation on how it got there. Cian tries using his dog to find it, but the dog finds nothing. They search the top of the western cliff and find giant rat poop in the middle tunnel. They track west from there, but can’t be followed. A trap is set to scent a rat, sized to fit either the giant rat or a smaller creature. Fish and rosemary oil are the scent.
Filas goes to Erfiren
Filas Tannerman, a somewhat lost young girl, not stupid, but no intellectual, is trying to learn magic. She is struggling, mostly because she can’t get the hang of elven. She goes to Erfiren for help. He tells her she needs to get a better grasp of Elven to make progress, and offers to help her practise.
Turk in town
Turk and Nena Bosto make a trip back to Cathorna to visit family. They do the rounds of the leaders’ houses, and drop in on the shop. Altraam is there at the time, tending to the few customers who come in to peruse the largely empty shelves. “Your sister’s flourishing at the Hill, Altraam,” says Turk. He looks around the shop. “It’s been good for her to get away from this store awhile.”
Amrik comes in while they’re there, but seems stand-offish with the Bostos. He quietly purchases the half-ounce lump of gold recently sold by Tomas.
After the Bostos leave, he reveals his feelings about them. “Too worried about the village to think of the people,” he says. “You know, when they thought Kel was…I don’t know, doing something, Turk he said perhaps I could convince people Kel was using black magicks, he was in league with our enemies.” He shakes his head. “Truth is tool to be used, but lies against our own…it is good he is at Hill.”
The bad weather deepens. Cathornans line the river channel from before dawn, dangling lines in hope of bagging one of the big cod the O’Conchubhairs seem to bring ashore so effortlessly. Few are as lucky or as skilled though, and there are resentful words when the clan head back with full baskets to prepare their catch for sale.
Tomas moots the idea of a hunting expedition to the Swath. Palanto agrees, but warns that it cannot distract from normal militia shifts. “We are weak enough as it is,” he says. “We cannot afford to be fewer at a time like this.” Tomas’ idea of paying others to cover shifts proves unhelpful, as food rather than money is the commodity in short supply.
Returning home after a fruitless hunt, Erfiren is met by his foster mother, Balaya. “It’s your father, Firen!”, she babbles. “He’s in with the elves. His toes are all frozen!” Erfiren hastens to Elenril’s little room, where he finds old Doreon Tannerman sitting, one hand bandaged, smiling weakly as Elenril gently kneads his bare feet. “Silly of me really,” he says. “But we needed those skins. Folks are wearing all their clothes and still freezing. And even with what you manage to bring us – thank you son – we can scarce afford our food. And I’ll not go on Palanto’s poor list,” he adds resolutely. “Not while there’s life in my limbs.” Elenril quietly informs Erfiren that his foster father will survive, but he will probably lose part of his hand. Young Orsa Brin sits beside him, one hand heavily bandaged and his gace half-hidden behind a waxy poultice, evidence of exposure on a bitter cold river watch in driving snow. Cet Aerghin lies quiet nearby, still-unconscious victim of a fall into the river on his crew’s last trip to the lake.
Kalida Kelhaller, girl dwarf and spear warrior, comes to Altraam after a night on road patrol. “Ambushed!” she snarls. On the trail near the bridge! Three men, strangers, we think daen but not Colgar, not Conchubhair. They let us through; we only noticed when one tried to follow. The other two fled. The one fought well, but he is staked now, staked at the bridge to warn others. On the one, we found this.” She holds out a scrap of hide, on which is written neat text:
A GOLD COIN FOR THE HEADS OF ANY CATHORNA SKIRMISHER:
THE ARTIFICER TOMAS
THE HUNTER ERFIREN
THE DAEN CIAN
THE ARCHER NEESHKA
THE ELF VFLYNN
THE SOLDIER YELD
BRING THEIR HEADS TO ME
It is written in blocky Westron script on rolled hide. Six reasonable sketches below the text show each of the named skirmishers in their usual travel gear, usual armour and weapons, fairly recognisably.
It is late at night when Tomas chooses to walk the walls. With the river channel almost closed, the Tomas mirror provides no protection, and he is concerned about a breach of the river wall, particularly at the midden end. He is heavily furred against the insidious wind as he walks the wall, looking for places to site spikes, alarms, trips, anything to make the village safer. The coiled rope ladders near the temple remind you of another weakness: the dependency on the little anthracite mine. It’s been years since the miners have had to bring their haul over the river wall the hard way, but not so long since they were last assailed by enemies to the north. Were that lifeline to be cut, Cathorna might well freeze before it starves.
He is little comforted by an overheard conversation from below. Mason Cooper and Boak Hender pass on their sheriff patrol, complaining loud enough to hear from the wall above them:
“…go up to Defiance Hill, if there were call for my trade. But little enough need here for a cooper, let alone there. And I’d sooner sleep in the midden than share walls with that toad Beckett.”
“He’ll get his, you’ll see. He won’t buy my char, that one. Says it’s still wet, says it ruins his steel. Maybe if he were a better smith.”
“Aye, better off without him here. Too late for my Ella though. If only she’d married that Fornas lad from Cillien like we planned. I’d be living high in the Healing House up there this very day.”
“Mmm. I should’ve cut him that day, I should’ve. But he’s one that’ll use dark magicks on you. I know it.”
Their surly self-obsessed conversation quickly loses your interest. You’ve kept your hand between your eyes and their torches to preserve your night vision; consequently you catch a flicker of movement behind them as they round the corner near Seela’s boatyard. You stop, watch, see two figures steal through the shadows and round the corner after the inattentive sheriffs. Though armed with only a dagger, you quickly descend the steps in the tower and follow.
Two shapes hunched against the wall of Alwyn Gedult’s house rise as the sheriffs move away. Tomas follows close; wary of tackling them unarmed, he decides to alert the sheriffs, tossing a stone to draw their attention. The simple trick works: Cooper turns, demands to know who threw the stone, accusing the Borrets, the Brin lad, the hobbits. Tomas calls, points: “Look there!”
Two figures spring from the shadows. Swords hiss from scabbards and an orcish growl is heard. Hender responds immediately, casting aside his torch with a shriek and bolting for the gatehouse. Cooper is mere steps behind. The orcs turn, see Tomas standing there, charge…
Virtually unarmed, Tomas reacts quickly, throwing open Alwyn Gedult’s door and shouting, “Stand to! Orcs inside the walls!” Alwyn is on her feet in moments, grabbing a heavy club and charging outside. Tomas is quicker, grabbing a sword from above the door and heading out.
The fight is brief and violent. Tomas pursues one orc onto the ice while Alywn finishes persuading the other with her club. The fleeing orc attempts to deter pursuit with a hastily-thrown bag of beetles, but the cold weather is too much for the tiny assailants. Both orcs are searched; their forearm brands show they are Varg, armed with Khazad Dum swords and daggers, dressed in grass cat furs and iron-capped boots. All they carry is some hard black bread and a copy of the bounty letter found on the ambushers by Kalida Kelhaller. A quick search of the village is organised, but reveals nothing. Erfiren is able to track them back to the midden wall. Cian beheads both orcs and places their heads on sticks, along with the bounty letter. Both are given to Aesyl Breghaus who leads the next road patrol, so she can place them at the bridge. The orc’s frozen sulphur beetles are hurled on the fire, producing a little burst of blue fire.
Much of the militia has gathered by now, and Palanto has been briefed on events. Cian proposes means of alerting the sheriffs to intrusion, while Tomas questions the wisdom of putting such poor guards on duty. Palanto looks to Dorrigan, who nods…
“Trust your uncle,” Dorrigan tells Tomas as Palanto walks away. “Perhaps he is happy to see such people on the dangerous shifts.”
Palanto addresses the sheriff patrol, informing them their failure has earned them an additional shift.
Second Skirmish rest as best they can during the brief reprieve from sheriff duty. Hender and Cooper are in foul moods when SS come to take over their duty. “Oh good, the skirmishers are here,” growls Boak. “I feel SO much safer.” Palanto arrives to oversee the handover from the recalcitrant night sheriffs, Keeper and Aefyn Fornas are there next. “All’s well on the midden wall,” says Keeper brightly. “Nettle tea on the hob in Dellin’s smithy Altraam. It’ll be a bit tart by now, but still warm!” The others trickle in, Vflynn’s mother Vyl seemingly just there suddenly, but somehow hardly noticed. Tan Ochoa does not appear. Palanto asks the rank leader where she is…
“River watch,” growls Mason. “Good for aught more, so I always put here there.” Asleep again I’ll wager. Keeper, go fetch her. Run!”
Moments later there’s a shout from the watch cave. they see Keeper coming back down at speed. “Dead!” he says. “Dead! Frozen stiff with her blanket ‘round her shoulders and a mug in her hands! Oh Altraam, have the Valar turned from us?”
Palanto is calm as he turns to Cooper. “When did you send her up there, spearman Cooper?”
“Uh, she, uh…”
“Speak, spearman. I need to understand.”
“First thing, master Palanto. She isn’t, uh, wasn’t, much good on the wall.”
“And she was there alone? Did you send anyone to check on her?”
“I…yes. Yes! Boak…spearman Hender, I told you to watch her!”
“What? You did no such thing! After you sent her up there you made me share my brandy with you, and you said ‘Silly cow can freeze up there for all the good she does’!” Cooper pales and he stutters a reply. Palanto immediately whips out a knife and grabs Cooper’s collar. There is a tense moment, then he slashes the rank tabard from his sleeve and tears it away.
“Get to the shed you fool. AFTER you fetch down your fallen spearman. And show her the respect in death you failed to show her in life! Spearman Nedley, you lead your rank. Do better than your predecessor.”
“My, uh, what does…”
Palanto grunts impatiently. “The one before you!” He looks around. “You think yourselves safe because you patrol within our walls. You are not! On the road? On the paddocks? You see goblins, lost orcs, starving bandits and wayward beasts. The strongest foe, the one who can pass our guards, our walls, our protections, THAT is the foe you will face on sheriff duty! You face not the smallest threats, but the greatest! And if you fail there is nothing, NOTHING between that foe and our families. And now I find you cannot even protect each other. Second Skirmish, you are relieved of morning duty. Second Spear, Third Rank will be remaining on guard for now. Use the time to…”
He is interrupted by a dull grinding noise from the river. A few people are stirring by now; torches and braziers are coming to life around the village. Light mist obscures the view as he turns and heads for the dock, gesturing SS to follow. Keeper clumsily calls his rank to order, but Palanto says “Stand your posts, Spearman! Our walls are unguarded while you witter.”
Second Skirmish push out carefully onto the ice. The cleared path to the channel is hackly with fresh snow and frozen spume. The grinding sound has ceased by the time they reach the channel. There they discover an iceberg has wedged tightly into the channel, blocking it completely. Water cascading over the margins has already frozen it in place, and brief attempts to dislodge it are immediately recognised as futile. The river has frozen over.
As they return to the bank to inform Palanto, the wind drops away and the air becomes completely still. There is a deathly howl from the north bank. Cathorna falls silent. It is repeated, then a fitful breeze blows through the snow-dusted trees beyond the river, bringing a flurry into the village. They snow is hard, crystalline, and leaves chill red marks where it touches skin.
Dorrigan appears at Palanto’s side, buckling on his sword. Palanto stares expressionlessly across the river. “Half watch, master Dorrigan. Until I say otherwise.”
Dorrigan grunts. “As you say. We’ve not the food for more than a day though.”
“I know. From tomorrow midnight, we begin issuing from the storehouse.”
Dorrigan looks shocked. “Tamas, the Long Patrol! The Huz…”
“…will have to wait,” he says. “There’ll be no Long Patrol until we regain our strength.” He looks to Altraam. “You’ve the best head for such things; inventory the food and decide how best to share it to keep folks on the walls. Tomas, you’ll see to giving it out as Altraam decides. You’ll make no friends; hungry mouths make for angry words, but best you learn now how to lead those who won’t follow. And Cian.” He sighs. “Full hearts may ease the pain of empty stomachs. Tell one of your damn tales. Lift their spirits, and bring them together. There’ll be thievery and fights soon enough, but maybe you can weave some fairy tale that will keep them from killing each other over a turnip. And Erfiren. Your rank will be busy. See to their needs. Get to it. Master Dorrigan, with me.” They stride off towards his house.
Altraam is immediately accosted by worried Cathornans, all wanting to know whether the Valar have indeed forsaken them. Boak offers his own opinion: “It’s them skirmishers!” he proclaims loudly. “They’re bringing the eye of the Enemy on us! I know it! And it’s because of them we’re starving!” Altraam is dismissive of his claims, but Sulda Tagala demands an explanation. Pinder Harfoot also asks whether something the skirmishers have done has brought the darkness to their home. Altraam quickly reassures everyone that it simply isn’t the case, and that the enemy seeks to divide them. Sulda expresses regret and shame, and Pinder apologises for doubting him.
Cian sets up a whisper sigil at the crossing point, to warn of intruders. He wanders the village, raising spirits by sharing his tales. Later that night he sees Bran in a whispered but seemingly heated discussion with Galen. As he approaches, Galen storms off with “You’ll see our children starve for these heathens!”
“His heart’s long broken,” Bran says quietly to Cian. “And he looks to patch it with blind loyalty to the clan. He can’t see that Cathorna’s our home, our future.” They watch as Galen speaks quietly with Shea, looking back at Cian and Bran.” And the hungrier folks get, the more they might listen when they see their food go to other mouths. Perhaps a word from you?”
The elf Sulkana speaks to Erfiren, asking whether he’ll stay. Erfiren is confused by the odd question, but says yes he will stay. Sulkana seems pleased, but offers no further explanation.
Tomas receives another visitor late at night. An imp finds him and presents a note. It simply says “You were warned.” It is signed ‘O’.
Tomas replies with “Your warning came too late.”
Cathorna stands to. Cold villagers clutch spears atop snow-crusted walls, patrols shuffle through drifts across frozen grass. Fish still rise to deep-cast bait in the river, but little more finds its way to Cathornan tables. Second Skirmish are taken from the regular roster and given what seems like a reprieve; Palanto has them gather in the warmth of the forge, ready to respond to any threats. They doze, drink nettle tea and suffer in the acrid fumes of burning coal.
Altraam is on watch when Amrik comes in from the cold. He blinks at the fumes, fishes in his robes; a handful of something cast on the coals raises green sparks, but seems to take the edge off the discomfort. He pours tea for himself and Altraam.
“Difficult times,” he reflects. “Difficult choices. I speak to you of lies to Cathornans, of the bad that Turk does. Sometimes things are difficult. Sometimes, I think, it is necessary that there are lies.”
Altraam sees the whites of his eyes as he says this. Amrik stands, backs towards the door. “I am sorry, Altraam,” he says in a voice that seems to echo and roll from afar. Altraam stands, stumbles. He reaches the door, tries to call for the watch, but can only manage a feeble croak. A dark-cloaked figure appears before him and waves a hand. “Sleep,” is the only word he hears before he topples to the cold ground.
Altraam wakes up. A tangle of briars is above him, snow drifts down towards him. A coarse hessian blanket is draped across him. He calls ‘Swords and Shields’, is troubled to hear how feeble his voice sounds. Moments later he hears running birdlike footsteps. They circle him, snuffling, then flee, leaving no clue as to the identity of the owner. He crawls carefully out from beneath the briars, discovers he is in the remains of a circular stone tower no more than twelve feet high. There is a wooden watch platform built against one side, clearly a later addition. Close by he finds a crude nest on the ground with some bones around it. Some look worryingly human.
Cian wakes up, feeling Ruark tugging on his hand. He opens his eyes to see a rat biting him. It pays an immediate and violent price for its temerity. With his assailant dead, he throws off the hessian blanket draped across him and takes a moment to survey his surroundings. He is lying beneath a broken table in a broken house, occasional snowflake drifting in through the broken roof. He crawls out and climbs the roof via one of the sundered walls. From the higher vantage point he sees a broken tower at the top of a low hill at the centre of a radial town. With nothing else in sight but more broken buildings, he heads for the tower
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up! WAKE UP, YOU FOOL, WAKE UP!”
Erfiren wakes up. The shouty stranger’s voice recedes with sleep. He has little time to survey his surroundings, seeing a goblin with a raised rock beside him. He pauses, long enough for the goblin to smash him with the rock, but retaliates smartly, knocking it flat with a punch, then finishing it with a chair leg. He crawls out to inspect his surroundings, taking his hessian blanket with him…
Tomas wakes to darkness, a cold floor below, a damp, old smell, a coarse hessian blanket covering him. There is something breathing above. He feels his way around, realises he is in a basement. There is no ladder, no stair; he piles up broken furniture and scraps of timber and tries to reach the hatch above, but something tries to smash its way in. The thing outside leaves, he smashes his way out and opens the hatch just in time to see Erfiren above with an orc behind him. There is a brief one-sided fight and the orc is dispatched.
Disoriented and clad only in ponchos and skirts fashioned from their hessian blankets, Second Skirmish gathers in the tower. Tales are shared; everyone woke with only a hessian blanket and a silver coin in their mouth. Nobody has seen anything of Yeld. Concerned that their comrade is in difficulty, they take a chance and call out.
Yeld does not respond. Instead, five more orcs appear from the ruined buildings. Only one is armed, bearing a rusty longsword clutched two-handed by the blade. Seeking an edge, SS emerge at speed and engage one of the orcs before it is able to meet its comrades; it is quickly dispatched, and SS take cover in a building. The orcs come close, SS remains hidden, but as they prepare to attack an arrow strikes the wall. Deciding to tackle the visible foe, the orcs are confronted in the narrow space between buildings. A fight lasting barely six seconds ensues and all four orcs are dispatched. Attention is turned to the mystery archer, but before anyone moves and arrow strikes Cian in the back (2/4). Undaunted, they grab a table and hold it forward as a moving shield as they advance on the archer’s guessed position. Altraam guesses at where an archer would move to and lucks out: a figure with braided blonde hair, ragged boots and soft armour brigandined with bone is seen darting across the remains of a roof. She fires, but only scratches Erfiren across the back. She flees across the roof, leaps to the ground and runs out of town, heading southeast. SS briefly consider pursuit, but decide she is a survivor rather than a threat.
The ruined town falls silent. Without Yeld, weapons or pants, Second Skirmish start searching the town.
It is radial in layout, with five spokes, perhaps 400 metres from side to side at its widest. The buildings are of mixed construction: smooth, polished (probably elven) stone in varying states of repair and decay, capped with newer, simpler (probably Cardolan/Arnor) wooden construction, seemingly a later phase built on much older ruins. It is draped across a circular hill at the western end of one of the prevailing west-trending rises, with a view tens of miles to the north, west and south. The places where each of them appeared are revisited. In each case, there is a roughly two metre diameter circular patch of colder ground, with ice crystals growing across it in some cases, showing drag marks from it to the place where they awoke.
In total their search finds:
• a building with a fireplace, a gnawed goblin arm, some feathers, a repaired roof, arrow holes.
• a -3 sword borne by the orc
• a -1 dagger borne by another orc.
• an old bronze pot
• a -2 dagger beneath the bronze pot
• five desiccated turnips
• a holed waterskin
• two broken arrows
• a simple silver ring
• some dry, hard bread, months old
• a bucket in reasonable shape
A single whole building is in good shape. The door is strong and secure, and locked. Outside there is grey fur across a porch, the wood rubbed smooth. Inside there is some dry bread wrapped in vellum, perhaps a day’s food, and a tin with two litres of frozen water in it. There is a basement, in which there is a Yeld. He has been trying to open the latch from beneath with a splinter. He shares his story, which is the same as theirs: a blanket, a coin and no idea what happened.
Cold and thirsty, they gather in the building with the fireplace. The tin is used to hold snow while it melts over a small fire. Hunger replaces thirst, but cannot be assuaged; guards are set and they sleep as best they can.
It is perhaps 2am when sounds from nearby streets alert the watch. Padding footsteps, heavy breathing and quiet growled voices are heard. They recede into the darkness.
That way. Wait…
Breakfast is melted snow. Barefoot and naked, they do the best they can, fashioning simple sandals from fence palings and strips of whatever fabric can be found. They are poor but adequate; thus shod, they head out into the plains, tracking southeast. With the tin, some rocks and a few scraps of firewood.
It is not long before they encounter a rider. An elf, armed and armoured, rides close.
“Well,” smarms the elf . “It would seem a shepherd has let his flock wander a little too far.”
Erfiren replies in elven, offering a simple explanation for their situation. The stranger seems little pleased to hear his language spoken by a ragged stranger, and demands to know who they are.
“We are from Hightown,” declares Erfiren. “Slavers took us as we slept.”
The elf shows little interest in their tale, instead asking if they have seen or heard riders. He tells them they have come from the direction of the ruined village of Gelen, and that orc riders have used it as a haven of late. Before he turns away, he throws them a waterskin. The brew inside is cool, clear and refreshing. “Now go that way,” he calls, pointing southwest.
“Where does it go?” asks Erfiren.
“Not towards an orc encampment,” calls the elf as he rides away.
Silence settles on the rolling downs. Choosing to trust the stranger, SS turns southwest, plods wearily across the bare downs.
A shallow valley yields a sheltered place to pause, an old campsite, scorched stones. A broken dagger yields a length of leather thong to better secure a sandal, while a worn and holed boot improves Altraam’s hopping speed. In the next valley they see a patch of forest a few miles wide. The prospect of shelter from the chill breeze and a little forage lures them on. In its eaves they find a ramshackle hut, little more than three walls. It smells of dog, is festooned with grey fur. They pass it by and press into the trees.
A fallen oak offers good shelter. They crawl into the hollow of its roots, sleep close for warmth. Forage is poor; witch moth burrows are empty, the trees yielding only a few dried acorns. They are ground and mixed and kneaded and baked into hard, flat, crumbly cakes that make everyone thirsty before they drift into a restless sleep.
A sound in the night prompts Tomas to wake the team. Everyone listens, waits. There is one more sound, perhaps metal on metal, then a clear, confident voice calls out:
“There are times when one thinks ‘things cannot possibly get worse’. And then, inevitably, they do.”
Lanterns are unhooded. The campsite is surrounded, a ring of twenty or more encircling them. The speaker introduces himself as Athelar, leader of the ‘band’. Confident but cautious, he invites them to come out and join him at his camp.
A long and self-indulgent conversation ensues. Athelas appears to be toying with SS, enjoying their discomfort while rewarding their cooperation with food. He asks questions, prompts for deeper answers, asks what puts the fire in their hearts and why they do what they do. Tomas says he seeks to see the kingdom restored. He asks Erfiren his secret; a confused reply about his arrival in the village prompts Athelar to tell him he is directionless, lost. Erfiren agrees. He prompts Cian to share his most interesting tale, and indulges him as he uses props and extras and costumes to tell the tale of the gnolls. Athelar seems pleased by the outcome, and allows them to leave with an assortment of supplies…
…but only if they share a secret worth their lives. They speak of Edhril, but Athelas dismisses it. Talk of Osomer is dismissed as too dangerous, or too vague. He is about to send them on their way when Yeld speaks:
“There is a temple”, he says. “South of here. It is the home of an order who keep the battle lore, a lore older than the age.” Athelas’ curiosity is piqued. He leads Yeld away and they speak quietly. Yeld looks little pleased when they return, but they are given bread, short swords and pants.
“We would have died if we went out as we were,” Yeld says when questioned. “Unarmed, almost naked, hungry, with an orc camp somewhere nearby. We’d have stood no chance.” He offers nothing more.
Brief discussion of travelling at night ensues, but is dismissed due to orcs’ advantages in darkness. A campsite is sought early to take time to recover from a long walk and a longer night; a stony box gully offers sufficient protection to permit a fire, and SS settle in. A briefly curious grass cat snuffles at their fire and moves on; only when a FHOD appears do they act. Everyone is roused; they jog for half an hour to put some distance between them and it, then zing around a doober* to get away.
(*This MAY be ‘walk around a hill’. But could also easily have been ‘pass around a joint’. Feel free to choose).
The morning is greeted with talk of direction, purpose, goals. Nobody seems sure what to do, other than to keep walking…
The sounds of battle are heard over a rise ahead. Cover is found, then the site is cautiously approached once the noises die away. On the site they find two dead men, kitted out for riding. One is missing a leg, the other his head. A horse is found dead, the other near death; they put it down and search for clues and loot. A short distance away, Cian finds saddlebags in which there is a good-sized slab of raw beef, a coarse woollen shirt, a tinder box and a letter:
“Scout the Gelen Hills. Find the orc camp from which their beast riders venture. Seek the meaning of their boldness in the east, and their withdrawal from the west. Find the source of the cold that lingers over Eregion, or at least find its limits. Return five days hence.”
It is signed ‘Steward Ulcarr.’
A FHOD is found nearby, pierced with an arrow. Still wary, SS bolt for the cover of a copse of withered trees at the sound of approaching riders. Two orcs on wargs pass slowly, pausing briefly before riding on eastwards. Erfiren picks up their trail and follows it back, into the west…
…where it leads to a burnt out homestead. The palisade walls till stands, and the homestead within is partially intact. Of people or things of value there is no sign. A basement hatch is quickly slammed shut when a throaty growl and a wet-dog smell indicates it is already occupied. Bodies glimpsed below offer some hint as to the fate of the homesteaders.
The search for plunder is barely done when two riders are seen approaching from the west. Caution prevails, and only when they are identified as men on horseback does anyone emerge. The riders ask of the homesteaders; when they are shown the cellar wolf they try to kill it with crossbows, but give up after a few wasted bolts.
There is talk of the haunted elf-city, Ost-in-Edhil, rumoured to be the birthplace of the Rings of Power. There are questions as to the extent of the cold: is it centred on somewhere? Is it moving? The riders say the enemy has been moving south in strength since it began, driving out hillmen and daen, burning farms and hamlets, harrying the scattered patrols on the eastern flanks of Cardolan and Arthedain. Both nations have enjoyed a reprieve since the northern enemy looked south along the flanks of the Misties, but they are worried as to what it might mean for the greater good. Hoping to take advantage of their protection, SS suggest they all return east together,, to share their tales and the plunder of any battles they might win.
Erfiren, standing watch on the gate, calls out. A rider approaches, coming from the east. It is an orc, and it is alone. It stops a hundred metres short of the gate, dismounts.
“Hu-mans!” it calls. “Leave! Walk Away!”
Opinions are generally against this course of action. A headlong charge is delivered as an alternative, and the orc mounts up and bolts. The faster horses ride it down and it is slain, but one rider takes a nasty warg bite. Altraam quickly applies first aid, but it is clear he needs better treatment and the riders decide to decamp to the west. Second Skirmish take advantage of the minor win and gather:
• A broadsword (mediocre)
• A work knife (good)
• A hide shield (average)
• Oversized iron-clad boots
• Broad, short chain shirt (average)
• Wolf pelt vests for four. Stinky and greasy, but better than half-naked.
With the riders gone, SS decides to look for the orc encampment, reasoning that it may be (or be associated with) the source of the deep cold. They follow warg tracks east for over twenty miles, seeing nothing but frozen grass and snow drifts, until they near a crest. The cool easterly brings the less-than-subtle tang of orc from the valley beyond, and they make for cover in a nearby gully.
THAT guy again
A quick scout late in the day reveals a sentry, poorly hidden on the hill flanking the gully. With only open ground between them and it, they retire to consider a plan for the next day. During the night, the mounted elf from the previous day reappears. “You have done well,” he says, eyeing their wolf-grease jerkins and Village People pants. “The enemy is restless in these lands. He presses south in strength, and his slaves are using this strange curse to pursue their foes across the whole of Eregion.” He speaks of other scouts patrolling the area, mentions that there has been no word from Cathorna in some days. They share what they have seen, and the elf asks them to accompany him two days east to meet others who have been seeking the power behind the ‘weather curse.’
They march out the next day. Pairs of orcs on wargs are seen, some heading north, most heading south. They move boldly, confidently, seemingly little afraid of trouble. Hiding where necessary, they see a ruined elven tower on the southern downs north of the Sirannon river.
We are to meet a friend here,” he says as they approach. As they close, a voice is heard on the breeze, seeming to carry further than it should: “This place is mine!” says the voice. “I shall defend it!” A spectral figure, almost invisible against the grey sky, is seen atop the tower.
Negotiations ensue. SS ascertain that he is Denecar , of Tharbad, and that he defends the tower against the enemy. Attempts to reconcile his words against the tower’s moribund state and the patent lack of enemies are initially unfruitful, until they manage to convince him the enemy has returned, and he is to the west. “They will pay…” whispers the ghostly figure, and he disappears in a gust of bitter wind.
The elf’s friend is found in the bottom of the tower. He is deathly cold but still alive. A fire and a little time are sufficient to rouse him, and he recovers fairly quickly. He says he is Belden, formerly of Metriath until he defied the king to walk free, and they need to get to Emhaintar as soon as they can. He calls the elf by his name, Vire, and together the group heads southeast, towards the river.
A farmhouse on a ridge adjacent to Emhaintar is the next stop. Vire and Belden leave them there, promising to return promptly with food, weapons, less gay pants. Tired to the bone, Second Skirmish manage a rudimentary search of the farmhouse before collapsing inside.
Their rest is interrupted soon after. Another pair of the seemingly ubiquitous orc riders enter the compound. They hide in the kitchen and scullery; the orcs wander about, drink something from a flask in a cupboard then leave without either spotting SS nor showing any concern about the prospect of anyone being there. Tomas investigates the flask and discovers it contains the same thin, bitter draught discovered by SS some years ago during the pursuit after Fourth Cathorna. It is returned to the cupboard, with a goodly handful of broken and ground glass added.
The orcs leave. Vire and Belden do not return…
Cian decides to head out and see what has happened to their guides. Cover is sparse until he reaches a neat little forest at the top of the gully between the ridges; as he parallels the road through it, he sees two bodies on the road. His suspicions are immediately confirmed when he recognises Vire and Belden, both recently dead to orc arrows and swords. Deciding to investigate the town himself, he presses on.
Minutes later he hears someone call to him from the undergrowth. Suspicious, he investigates, and finds a fourteen year old lad who introduces himself as Dira. “Are you the ones?” the boy asks “The Skirmishers? You’re late so the seer sent me to get you!” Cian is suspicious and declines to answer when the lad asks where the others are. After some negotiations and a little chicanery to ensure it is not an ambush, Cian agrees to accompany him to the seer.
He follows cautiously, the boy bringing him to the eastern side of the town’s palisade in gathering darkness. The solid gates are closed, sparse guards dot the high wall. At the bottom of the steep road to the river, the broad, square ferry barge is frozen in. The wide Sirannon is mostly frozen, but a fifty metre channel remains open. Using the cover of the next gully, Dira leads Cian to a washout against the eastern wall. He grasps the base of one of the thick, heavy uprights and pulls. It wobbles, pivots near the top and dirt trickles from beneath. A gap large enough for a fourteen year old boy to wriggle through opens up, but it takes ten minutes of scratching with knives and hands before Cian is able to scrape through.
They emerge in a narrow alley between a two-storey building and the outer wall. Dira takes him left, to the end of the building, and in through an innocuous door that leads to a steep wooden stair. They climb one floor, pause to listen and enter what appears to be a corridor in an inn. Dira opens the first room and leads Cian inside.
“Where are the others?”
The old man seated at a small desk looks up from his map. “Where is Tomas?”
Cian makes excuses for their absence. It quickly becomes apparent the seer is as little interested in telling his tale twice as the GM is, so Cian agrees to fetch the others back.
They return single file through darkness and silence. The sight of orcs so far south has Yeld on edge; he calls for pauses, listens, sticks to cover. Nothing troubles the quick transit to the eastern side of town though, and a hurried twenty minutes sees the hole widened sufficiently to get everyone through and into the inn. Memories stir for Tomas; it has been years, but he recognises the walls, the gate, the road to the ferry. It is the place where his parents
It is crowded in the small room. Nonetheless, the old man immediately and warmly greets Tomas. It is Seer Velda, his one-time tutor at Metriath, before he declared for freedom and left the city. Pleasantries are briefly exchanged, and he gathers everyone around a map to share what he knows.
“The hillmen of the northern towns now openly work with the men of the cold north,” he begins. “The southern towns are under pressure; their trade is throttled, their chieftains are being isolated and threatened to cooperate, all under the guise of a need to deal with this weather curse. Whispers in the north claim it is an elf curse, summoned to bring the Hillmen to their knees.” “Further south, the Colgar have withdrawn to their strongholds, their journey huts. They hardly patrol, rarely hunt. They are doing well enough, but their lands are no longer their own, at least until they can return to them in numbers. The mountain daen have not been heard from in weeks. They are safe in their caves, and come forth only to assail the orcs when they become too bold on the mountain trails. Cathorna has fallen silent.”
“But now it is shifting, changing,” he goes on. “The centre has moved north these last few days, slowly, slowly. And I have learned something of the source of this curse. I believe it is the Winter Seed, an old, old artefact created thousands of years ago in Ost-in-Edhil. The Ring Maker may have had some hand in its creation, but we cannot truly know. Nobody knows where it is, nobody has seen it since the Second Age. We cannot even guess where it might be, other than it must be near. Somewhere, perhaps in a glacier, some other ice mass, it sits, and whoever controls it is there.”
“As to where it might be? This much I can share.” He fetches down a book from a shelf, opens it to a tagged page, reads. “‘There shall be beasts frozen to their blood. Trees become as is, the air itself glitters as snow, icicles grow, sharp and cold and wicked. The Winter Seed shall be at its heart, and the one who mastered it shall be near.’”
Speculation begins. Cathorna itself is posited, the pinprick-cold of the recent snow flurries perhaps being a sign of glittering air. Armagil’s glacier is discussed at length, though none can remember it seeming different, larger, colder compared to the times before the Change. Mountain peaks, Silver Hill, the kobold mine, even Keep Mountain are put forward, but none seem to fit the description from the Seer’s book.
Until Cian remembers a phenomenon witnessed in the swirling waters where the Firen and Sirannon meet. Icicles, long and pointed, reached up from the water deep below, all seemingly pointing to one spot on the surface. More tangible threats like mewlips and running out of time to burn down a lovingly crafted dungeon meant the phenomenon was ignored at the time. The description of ice at the bottom of a river takes Seer Velda’s attention, and he agrees the site warrants investigation.
Thoughts turn to swords, food, pants.
Dira confirms the guardhouse is well equipped, and almost unguarded. It holds shields, swords, bows, arrows, and can be easily accessed. The Seer warns that the bounty letter is displayed prominently about the town, but that the robes he offers will adequately conceal their identities since their garb is the only recognisable element of the pictures. He also offers, not for the last time, the use of his washbowl. Plans begin to take shape. Talk of raiding the village clothing store are interrupted when Dira says “That’s my dad’s store!”, but excuses are made, rationalisations are proffered, and the boy agrees, so long as nobody gets hurt. Prices are discussed, but it is readily apparent that five silver is insufficient for even one person’s gear. Cian proposes leveraging the value of their little cash stash with some negotiations, a la “Would you like five silver, or would you like your head punched in?” It is agreed that this argument carries considerable cash-equivalent value, and he is selected to venture forth. Yeld is apparently frustrated by days of leather-pantsed wandering and hiding, and seems keen to get involved.
A map is drawn. A plan is formed. The die is cast…