The Orphans of Cathorna

Sessikon 20, 30 Dec 15

Food for the journey
After meeting Seer Velda in the Emhaintar inn, Second Skirmish formulates a plan to reach the conjunction of the Firen and Sirannon rivers, the likely location of the Winter Seed. Brief discussions precede their departure, during which Velda tells Tomas he currently lives in Tharbad, but cannot be reached through the Brotherhood of the March. He offers the address of his quarters there should Tomas ever be compelled to find him. He also informs Tomas that the Brotherhood was originally commissioned by the then-king of Tharbad, but has since split to become a business.

They scatter to enact their part in the scheme:
• Altraam heads for the kitchens to find and steal food for the journey. Deciding not to chance a walk through the lit corridors, he ventures outside, entering via the front door and quickly finding his way to the kitchen. It is dark, quiet. The kitchen opens to a scullery, thence to a well-stocked larder with sacks and boxes and jointed carcasses ready for use. He takes ham, butter, dense bread, other rich foods. Noise nearby alerts him to company; a servant girl enters the store just as he is about to start work. He captures and binds her, offering quiet assurances she will not be hurt, then looks to the task of accessing the garbage chute. A rusty padlock is quickly dealt with, and he begins sending food outwards. Sound in the kitchens outside alerts him to further company; deft questioning of his captive reveals it is probably another servant come to light the fire, and will not interrupt his task. He sends as much down as he thinks they can carry, then heads for the rendezvous, an approximate value of the stolen goods tucked away in memory.
• Tomas heads outside to secure the goods Altraam sends his way. The gap beneath the palisade is too tight for his large frame, and he is forced to shovel away some of the dirt they replaced after entering. He finds the garbage chute outlet, hears a noise nearby but dismisses it as an animal rooting about in the rotting pile. Right on time, Altraam delivers the goods, and Tomas busies himself bundling up supplies into manageable loads.
• Cian and Erfiren are forced to venture deeper into the village in search of clothes. Young Dira accompanies them as they sneak from shadow to shadow, avoiding the guards who shuffle and shiver along the parapet. The store is quickly reached, and plundered for enough leather pants for an entire mardi gras, along with three decent backpacks. Dira is troubled by the sight of his father’s store being plundered, but is assured he will be repaid in time. Cian leaves a few token coins on the counter. They sneak out and head for the gap in the fence, but are blocked by guards as they approach. Stealth is an option, but offers less opportunity for violence than a charging takedown. The latter approach is taken with Dira running interference and two guards are flattened before they have a chance to make a sound. They are plundered for their equipment and left tied in the snow with the parting words, “Soon you will fear the name ‘Walker’!”, spoken with a suspiciously Daen accent and only two levels of skill in Westron. Another guard is heard soon after, calling for “Gam! Gam?”
• Yeld’s task is to raid the guardhouse for weapons. He returns with four daggers, three longswords, two shields and a bow with twenty arrows.

Equipped, clothed and provisioned, Second Skirmish farewell Dira and head for the ferry.
On reaching it, Tomas finally identifies the nagging concern he had on leaving the village: the oars and poles to propel the pontoon ferry are kept inside the gates. The risk of returning is assessed and dismissed; Tomas makes a quick decision and begins tearing up some of its boards to use as oars. The risk increases suddenly when soldiers appear at the gates and head towards them. Erfiren pulls loose one of the iron stanchions and hacks at the ice; soon the ferry is freed and they drift out into the sixty-metre wide channel.
Two riders flank the barge as it heads downstream. Upon reaching the far side a few miles downstream, Second Skirmish anchor the barge using the stanchions and climb onto the ice. They pause, look back at the riders just as one of them pulls away his scarf.

It is Walker.

“You fools,” he calls. “I had no quarrel with you. I was happy being a small lord in a small town. But now…now you have drawn the Eye to yourselves, to your home. He has given me power, power I did not want, but that I must wield in his name. And wield it I shall. Against you!”
Second Skirmish mock him roundly from the apparent safety of the far side of the river. But Walker gestures, calls out something in a voice too faint to hear, in a language they cannot recognise. The ice beneath Altraam’s feet suddenly crackles, turns black….
…and Second Skirmish choose to retreat south, away from their long-time foe. They climb the steep hill flanking the river’s edge, and take cover in the dense trees lining the long ridge.

“Do you have them? Do you see them.”
Vflynn’s Second Skirmish teammates have been gone three days now. With everyone on half-watch, Palanto has been unwilling to release anyone to look for them. With no witnesses on the gate or dock remembering anyone seeing them leave, you’re not even sure where you’d start.

It was natural to look for them in the spirit world, that other place where you can hear the whispers of familiar souls. Your early attempts were fruitless, the incessant chatter of Cathorna’s many familiar friends the only things you could hear. You listened beyond, to the forest of the valley, heard the surly growl of the temple daen, the pinprick pain of orcs loose in the valley, but of your friends you heard nothing.

Until Amrik came to you on river guard one night, eyes wide and skin pale. “We must find them!” he whispered nervously. “We must know where they go!” He brought you back to his chaotic workshop, closed the door with a furtive glance outside.
He lit candles, brewed tea, offered you a draught. Sharp and bitter, it made the quiet sounds of the room seem distant and muffled, and brought the sounds of the spirit world into sharp focus.

And this time you heard something. Far away, you heard the familiar, wandering chatter of one you know better than most, one who constantly wanders into your world. Your eyes snap open, you point, and say, “Erfiren.”
Amrik pulls out a map. You look, he speaks, you listen, both to him and to the aimless wandering of Erfiren’s thoughts. Between you, you feel your way to an answer, in the form of a chalk circle on Amrik’s carefully inked map.

“So far!” says Amrik worriedly. It is further than you’ve been in years, since you first came to Cathorna. It’s beyond the cold plains of the Colgar daen, perhaps beyond the Sirannon river. It is unfamiliar land, and not to be entered lightly.
But Amrik looks pleadingly at you. “They are far away! They are without things they need! None can find them but you!” He sees your hesitation and his expression shifts indecipherably. He looks up at an armoire against the wall, then quickly stands and goes to it.
You hear the click of two keys, then he glances back furtively. You hear muttered words, feel the prickling of some power, then the armoire swings open. He reaches in, quickly takes something out and slams it shut.
“These,” he says quickly, pressing two things into your hands. “Take these.”
One is a bottle. “Drink this. A little each time you look. You will see the other side more clearly.”
The other is a ring. Something like vertigo touches you when you examine it.
“Wear this when the enemy are close,” he says. “It will help to hide you. But tell nobody! Show nobody! And bring it to me when you return. This thing…it is dangerous. Eyes watch it, I can feel them.”
“Can you go? Can you go alone? Now?”

Snow is heavy on the ground when you set out. You skip across it, keeping to cover, relying on dead reckoning to find your way north.

Into the wild
Vflynn’s journey north takes her across empty plains. Choosing caution at first, she heads for the familiar cover of Thror’s Hills, keeping to low ground, travelling when visibility is poor. She sees riders, lines of black spots marching across the clean white cloth of the plains. They are many; more even than when the Colgar patrolled in force. She takes a chance and runs for the safety of the Derrin Downs…
…but luck is not with her. A cluster of riders turns onto her trail she crosses the Gap.
They follow, closing in on mounts that do not move like horses. She takes cover in a snow cave, leaves a gap to watch, sees them coming straight for her. They are orcs, mounted on enormous wolves – the wargs created by the Black Foe to give his minions speed. Realising they are following her prints across the fresh snow, she is forced to put on the ring given to her by Amrik.
The wind changes suddenly. It swings around to the north, blowing snow from the crests of the deep, still drifts. Her footprints vanish. The wolves become indistinct, blurry; the orcs suddenly seem gaunt, hung with rags that flap in the wind. The leader raises a staff, points it straight at her, then looks behind him and pulls his mount into a sharp turn. They ride away, the snow obscuring them from sight in moments. Vflynn waits, then removes the ring and resumes her trek northward until tiredness forces her to seek refuge in the high branches of a wintry tree.

She awakes suddenly from a sleep haunted by the clattering of the dry branches. Night has passed, snow has fallen, and enemies have found her. A circle of six skeletons surrounds the tree, all staring up at her, loosely grasping rusty maces and shields adorned with faded symbols of Arnor. Unwilling to risk an uneven fight, she runs along a branch and leaps to the ground, fleeing north at speed. The skeletons settle into pursuit, the clattering of their bones louder than her breathing.

A meeting
Second Skirmish cross the ridge southwards, in time to see seven figures heading towards them. They watch from concealment, watch seven skeletons running hard into the tree line. The leader is robed and helmeted, the others bear only swords and maces. They allow them to pass, watch them cross the ridge and turn east, along the river. Soon after, Vflynn appears, sharing a little news of her journey to find them. They tell her what they have learned of the winter curse, and together they set off southwest towards Witchmount.
Riders constantly cross the plains, heading north, heading south. Snow caves offer concealment and protection; an orc stops nearby late one night, pausing long enough to leave a patch of yellow snow before riding on. The hills east of Witchmount are reached in two hard, cold days. A camp is made in the eaves of their rocky flanks, the party hidden by Vflynn’s protective umbra.

Fires are visible atop Witchmount that night. Six of them, each higher than a house, burns bright enough to illuminate figures moving about nearby. The sound of metal being worked echoes across the plain. Come morning, wooden constructions are visible: six tall gallows, empty nooses swinging slowly. Six pairs of eyes regard them briefly, but nobody speaks as they break camp and head west.

Home or onward?
Discussion ensues.
Some speak of returning to Cathorna, to gather equipment for whatever might face them at the confluence. Erfiren disagrees, insisting it is best to press on, at least to see what is there. The latter case wins out with Yeld’s support, and Second Skirmish follow Erfiren to the Kelp Wolf’s forest to pick up the river. Altraam proposes initially tracking towards Cathorna to throw off any pursuers.

After a nervous but uneventful dash through the forest, they discover the Sirannon is not frozen over. A thirty-metre channel remains between the jagged bulwarks, a constant march of icebergs grinding and rolling against them. There is brief talk of returning to another crossing point familiar to Erfiren, but the fifteen kilometre march is deemed too risky. Erfiren argues fervently against plan to build a raft; instead he shows through observation and simple calculation that the larger slower-moving ‘bergs can be used to frogger across. The plan is nervously adopted, and Second Skirmish prepares to cross. Cian produces two daggers to use as anchors on landing; Yeld and Erfiren cross first, making it with some difficult. Tomas returns the daggers while Erfiren gathers firewood against the risk of an immersion. Altraam and Tomas follow, using their cloaks to aid their landing. Disaster almost strikes when Vflynn stumbles, but in a spectacular display of acrobatics, Cian leaps the gap, gathering Vflynn on the way across and flinging her to safety before nailing his own landing on dry ground and scooping Vflynn from an ungainly landing in freezing mud.

“Well now, you don’t see a show like that every day.”

The speaker is watching from the shore. Fiftyish, he is small and leathery and affixed with a permanent half-smile. He stands at the edge of a copse of trees in the crook of the two rivers, watching as they gather their wits and their belongings.
Tomas greets the stranger, and introductions follow. He tells them his name is Duff, he has been there some years, and subsists on the plentiful fish in the river. On being asked about recent visitors, he says “A tall feller in a cloak came by couple of months ago. Stopped by the river and looked, then just left.” He invites them back to his little cabin and offers tea. They prepare fish in butter for him, which he accepts gratefully.
In amongst the pleasantries and tales, he points at Tomas with his fork. “You’re that Tomas feller, aren’t ye?” He says the Enotarians stopped at his little camp some time ago, laughing about ‘meeting Tomas’ children.’

At the river’s edge, the water is clear where Cian and Erfiren saw the icicles deep below. Icebergs seem to skirt the patch. A pig stands frozen at the water’s edge. Its hindquarters are chill to touch. Its snout is translucent ice. Despite this, Vflynn can still feel its mind. After eyeing the pig for some time, Vflynn asks the question on everyone’s lips: “Can we rub him?”
There are no takers. Instead a pig litter is constructed by Erfiren and the pig is gently lifted away from the water’s edge.

Meanwhile, Yeld throws a branch into the water. Everyone watches. It floats, begins to gently spin, then a vortex gradually forms and the stick is pulled soundlessly into the depths. Altraam experiments further, catching some live fish to test the waters. His catches are sucked down, other objects are pulled in, but ice simply swirls around it and continues downstream.

Down, down
A decision is made. Altraam plunges into the freezing water. It swirls, pulling him in, pulling him down, and in less than a minute he is gone. Vflynn says she can still feel his mind far below; at this Yeld runs in after him, Vflynn close behind. Cian takes the time to fashion a decent spear from a pole and a dagger, then mounts frozen piggie and leaps into the water. Erfiren pauses long enough on the bank to ask Duff to tell Cathorna where they have gone before leaping in.
As Tomas and Erfiren are pulled down, they hear Duff call out “…careful…ogre down there…few weeks ago…probably dead by…”
Ice-rimed stones break everyone’s fall at the bottom. They find themselves in a broad cave, the walls equal parts ice and stone. Light filters in weakly from above; the river is visible through a broad oval portal, the water held back my some mystical force. The sound of it flowing above is a deep, soft rumble. Fish, stones, stained timber and numerous bones litter the floor, along with a rusty Cathorna short sword and a few coins. And they are not alone: three night goats emerge from the shadows and butt at them gently. Each has scars across its back. Torches are lit and exploration begins. Not, however, before Cian discovers he is tongue-on-a-pole stuck to the frozen pig he decided to ride down into the depths. A solution is arrived at, about which Second Skirmish agree never to speak again…
A barrier of wooden slats set into the ice is the first obstacle. It is poorly-constructed and is easily removed, but offers a clear indication that intelligent minds are at work…

Into the ice caverns
Night goats roam the space beyond, climbing the walls, nibbling at fronds of cave weed. Broad patches of faintly luminescent lichen supplement the party’s meagre torchlight, arocca mushrooms bud on rock surfaces, while thick green-grey moss grows across both ice and stone. Another barrier prevents progress; it is quickly dealt with, but an arrow from the darkness beyond Cian’s hide (1 body 3 stun). They hear the sound of running footsteps as they breach the barrier, and find no foe. Beyond is a trench carved in the ice, a four-metre wide barrier filled with jagged stalagmites, fragments of metal, an enormous leathery HORROR WORM and several humanoid skeletons, all of which are slowly transmuting into translucent ice. Realising the trench must be crossed, Tomas roughens the ice to provide better purchase at the edge, testing the principle with a few practice jumps before omitting to the leap. As he works, another arrow cracks out of the darkness, and they realise the goblin has crossed the trench. Violent action ensues, Vflynn hurling a dagger and striking the foe squarely. Tomas leaps the gap and charges; the goblin dives from his path, but is neatly cut in two by a downslashing longsword. Plundering its corpse yields a poor-quality bow, six equally worthless arrows and some ragged clothes, seemingly made of human skin.
As they press on, they are approached by an emaciated dog. The usual instincts are repressed and Tomas approaches it, offering food. It accepts it and meekly submits to human contact.

The next meeting is less friendly. Four more goblins, as gaunt as the first, appear beyond another trench. Altraam harks back to his memory of the encounter with the goblin shaman in the depths of Silver Hill and begins chanting; confused, the goblins engage in a heated discussion as Second Skirmish approaches. It serves them ill; a volley of arrows and knives scythes them down, the one survivor run to ground as it attempts to flee up crude ice stairs at the end of the passage. Investigation of these stairs reveals they end a few metres up. It looks like they were carved upwards through solid ice.
Evidence of farming is seen. Swathes of the different mosses have been cut from the walls. Rolls of them are stacked neatly in places, along with fans of arocca. The plant life is present in different thicknesses, suggesting the farming practices have been ongoing for some time.
They are greeted at the entrance to a large cave by another dog, as friendly as the first. Another occupant is less enamoured by their arrival; a haggard wild-haired woman approaches, holding a half-frozen human femur as a club. They watch, try to communicate, until a noise behind alerts Vflynn to another presence. They turn, in time to see another wild woman, this one armed with a slender longsword seemingly made of transparent ice. The fight is brief; one woman is killed by arrows, the other grabbed by Cian and knocked out by a brutal cross from Tomas.
Searching the space reveals the women’s crude homes: simple nests made of dried vines, rags, bones and other detritus. A third woman is curled in one; she shrinks from them in fear, trying to protect something she is holding. They get close enough to discover it is a tiny puppy, obviously frozen to death. The wild woman shrinks back from Altraam , but accepts food proffered by Vflynn nervously, reciprocating with a dog skull full of a fine yellow powder familiar from the mines in Thror’s Hills. Searching the other nests yields what looks horribly like a human scrotum, filled with large black shiny seeds. Memory serves again, and they are recognised as the seeds of the corpse vine encountered in Thror’s Hills. It is left behind, and the dog skull is hidden in the trench behind which the four goblins fought. Troubled at the prospect of leaving the women unarmed, Vflynn leaver them some crude bone spears and a dagger, and Altraam leaves some ham.

The source of the corpse vine seeds is quickly found. Vines reach out from an nearby cave mouth, all truncated at a demarcation line. Wands of drying corpse vine are stacked near the entrance, clearly indicating someone is harvesting it. Venturing inward, a woman lurches clumsily towards them, vines growing through her, restraining her. Torches are produced and she is driven into a corner. Searching the cave yields nothing but a broad expanse of corpse vine, so the space is quickly exited. As Tomas crosses the vines, he feels a sharp pain in his ankle. He looks down to see a tendril of vine pull loose, leaving a small wound in his foot. Vflynn fetches ice and the wound is frozen, then cauterised by Erfiren’s fire attack.
Another cave is almost empty. In its centre is a goblin, its body half-turned into ice, a perfect ice spear clutched in its hands. Blows to its wrists snap them cleanly, and the spear is taken.
The smell of glaarg greets Second Skirmish in the next cave…
Only when the smell is recognised do they notice the odd texture to the floor. They stand upon a broad expanse of glaargae, its surface rimed with frost. It reacts not at all to their presence, so they press on into the cave. Inside, a lethargic, sunken-bodied glaarg clings to the wall. Leaf-tipped tentacles droop on the floor, a single small polyp flaps open on its icy carapace. Yellow shoots of corpse vine spring from its tentacles. The moribund creature is left alone and Second Skirmish continue their wandering exploration.

Intestinal tracked
Tight, twisting tunnels through ice and stone are dubbed ‘Erfiren’s intestines’ for no clear reason. Dead ends and near-impassable gaps impede progress, forcing reversals and backtracks. The danger grows when something bites Altraam’s arm; even after a second attack he does not see the foe. When they realise the corridors are changing behind them, they increase the pace, looking for a way out, with Erfiren leaving a trail of return markers behind them.

When they find a broad circular chamber with a glowing blue sphere on a plinth, they wonder if their quest is at an end. It is silent, still, the blue sphere radiating a cold, bright light. Wondering if it could be so simple, Cian approaches, and attempts to cover the strange artefact with a cloth…
…only to be assailed from above by a RUG MUNCHER (I may have said this was a glaargae). It drops on him, acid secretions eating at his skin. The glamour suddenly drops, and Vflynn realises they are in an empty chamber, the victims of a magical ambush. Swords flicker, and the rug muncher is cut through by Tomas and Yeld, with Vflynn stabbing at it with her torch. Cian hurls the beast from his back, but suffers 6 Body damage, leaving his skin raw and pink, eaten through in places by the revolting creature’s ichor. Disheartened by the episode, Second Skirmish press on.

Relieved that they have emerged from the tight, twisting, changing tunnels, Second Skirmish is little troubled by the sight of a pile of ice in a cave ahead. But as the approach, it shifts, grinds, and an enormous bipedal figure rises from the crystalline mound. It is a skeletal ogre, its bones turned to translucent blue ice. Its skull is missing, but it has no trouble locating them as it charges forward, raising an icy club high.
Heavy blows rain on Second Skirmish. Yeld is knocked sideways, Altraam quickly follows. Tomas and Vflynn try to engage it, while Cian searches for some clue to the thing’s power. He finds another trench blocking their exit, this one with what looks like a rope ladder coiled on the far side. Hoping to find some clue to defeating the beast, he leaps the gap, skidding to a halt on the far side.
Tomas and Vflynn struggle to harm the monster, their blades doing little more than chipping flakes of ice away. Vflynn draws her Numenorean dagger; ignoring the ominous sense of otherworldly presence looming in her mind, she strikes at the foe. A solid hit does little damage, but where she strikes, the hard, cold ice changes to fragile, yellowing bone. The effect fades almost immediately, but she realises it may give them a chance. Tomas readies himself and Vflynn strikes again, narrowly ducking under another swing of the huge club. She stabs, piercing the heavy bone of its pelvis. The ice retreats, Tomas swings, strikes a solid blow at exactly the right spot. He feels his sword cleave through bone and moments later there is a tinkling crash, and the ogre collapses into a pile of glittering shards. High fives may or may not have followed the victory.

The fallen are bruised and breathless but otherwise intact. Attention turns to the exit across the trench, where Cian has managed to secure the rope ladder to anchor points on the near side. He has also taken his pants off for some reason. Nobody bothers asking.

The world below
The tunnel divides.
Narrow branches lead up, down, left and right. A broader central avenue shows signs of use, and is avoided for now as the others are explored. One leads to a frozen pond, fish visible in the ice at the bottom. The smell of glaarg turns them back from another rapidly narrowing tunnel, but two others lead to a different view of the same thing: a substantial underground village, perhaps a quarter of the size of Cathorna. From low-ceilinged caves ten metres higher than the village, they look out onto damaged and decayed stone buildings, each repaired using blocks of ice cut to match the stonework. Timber is used sparsely throughout. A broad road leads through the centre, with neat, well-work paths crisscrossing between the even lines of buildings. Some huts are built against the walls of the cave, others are tucked into nooks and crevasses in the rock. It has the feel of a place long-abandoned and reoccupied. People of perhaps Cardolan, Daen and Hillman stock go about their business, cooking food over outdoor fireplaces, hanging sheets of moss and lichen, grinding other materials, or simply talking and playing in the streets. It seems normal, peaceful, but in the centre of the village a figure lies spreadeagled on a stone plinth in the centre of two circles of stone with fire crackling between them. Something sits atop his chest. They hear a distant scream from the figure, faintly see something like tentacles writhing on the thing. Children watch from beyond the circles; as he screams, they laugh and throw things at him, prompting more screaming and flailing. It is hard to tell, but it looks like the thing catches some of the objects they throw…

Unmanned lookout posts dot the upper caves. Collared night goats wander and sniff. Smaller caves are stacked with rolls of lichen and moss, slabs of arocca, carcasses of night goats. Booted footprints crisscross the space.
As they explore, Erfiren witnesses a curious interaction below. A tall bearded figure, one hand tightly gripping the arm of a woman, speaks with a well-dressed elf. They speak for a minute or more, then the bearded man roughly shoves the woman towards the elf. She falls at his feet; the elf looks down and both he and the bearded man laugh. The bearded man places four rolls of moss or lichen into a sack and forces it into the woman’s hands, then the elf unwraps a sword from a cloth and hands it to the man. There are final words and the elf strides away towards a tunnel at the rear of the cave, forcing the woman ahead of him.
With no other options, Second Skirmish descend the cliffs from the right side galleryand sneak into the village. From a safe vantage inside an abandoned building they observe the rear tunnel. Ice walls narrow it from six metres to three in the middle, the gap closed by gates seemingly made form timber recovered from a boat. Guards stand behind wooden palisades atop the ice walls, watching outwards. They are alone, and some distance from the village; there is talk of rushing them to get by, but it is interrupted by the sound of voices. The guards speak to someone on the far side, then open the gates and an elf enters, though not the one seen before. They appear to mock him briefly, laughing as he heads for the village. Second Skirmish quickly debates approaching the bearded figure in the centre of the village, but Tomas and Cian propose approaching the elf, surmising from the interaction with the guards that he is in some way an outcast. The proposal is adopted and the elf is <cough> pssted as he passes. Though wary, he appears curious, and comes close enough to speak.

They learn that he is Cirphen, a scout from far to the west, sent to bring back Sulkana two years ago after Dellaran left. He says he was sent by an elven king, that Elesse’s death was a matter of grave consequence to his people, and that an elf living in Cathorna could no longer be allowed. He says he travelled with a man he met in Bree, but that the last thing he remembers was being in a boat with him coming up the Firen, then blackness. He says the man claimed to be a close friend of Dellaran and Elesse, and sympathetic to his wishes, but oddly wary when he spoke of Cathorna.

Of his time in the ice caverns, he is willingly forthcoming:
“I have been here some three years now. I negotiate with the savages for food, giving them carved charms and simple weapons in return. They are little more than animals now; they fight each other, fight the goblins, sometimes raid the caves claimed by Calon and Eledhron – the other elves trapped down here. Sometimes they try to kill me for their own amusement. One day they will succeed. The villagers protect them because they fashion the ice weapons for which they trade. Goblins, ice worms and glaargs are a constant threat down here, as are the creatures that still occasionally find their way down from the river; without those weapons, they would be as vulnerable as than the goblins.
In that time I have tried to escape, but I think the Seed itself has kept me back. Each time I find a new tunnel, each time I try to mine my way out, it seems to grow back faster, to grow harder beneath my simple tools. Once I found a narrow passage that seemed to lead upward; when I was forced to turn back after reaching its end I found my return path blocked by stalactites. I drew upon what little magic remains to me to break through.
I sought to reach that accursed stone, but the ice there freezes faster than elsewhere. And when Calon and Eledhron realised I sought to claim it, they threatened to kill me. They have tried themselves, I know it, but they stopped. I wonder if they wish to remain here.
But…something has changed. Perhaps two months ago, I felt a spirit, an outsider come into this place. It was drawn to the seed, I know it. I felt pain, anger; behind it a hunger for revenge. It is here, now, close to the seed, but it pays us no attention. Since it came, the ice has grown faster, the creatures have grown bolder. And there is something more…a presence, dark and malevolent, greater than any I have known. It reaches through the seed, through the outsider, but how, and why, why NOW I cannot guess.”

When they speak of dealing with the Winter Seed themselves, he tells them he is willing to help, that there is a way to reach it without going past the two guards or alerting the villagers. They readily agree, and follow him to another disused building nearby. He opens the lid on a rusty stove; beneath is a slick, oval tunnel through the ice. One by one they wriggle through and drop into the chill passage, following Cirphen as he crawls and slides ahead. It widens, meets rock, ascends sharply for several metres. After more than twenty minutes slipping and stumbling through the cold and dark, they see a dim blue radiance ahead. Cirphen gestures them to silence, and beckons them forward.
A transparent window of ice offers a view below. Eight metres down, they see a large circular cave. Its walls are translucent blue ice, its floor perfectly smooth. In the centre is an ice mass that half-fills the cave. Massive icicles jut out from the mass, some reaching the walls and ceiling, the entire mass pulsing with a dim blue light.

“The Winter Seed,” says Cirphen. “Or…so I believe. A source of power, regardless.”

He tells them there is a way down, but that they must brave the lair of the biggest horror worm he has yet seen in the Ice Caverns. SS are utterly undaunted by the prospect, and urge him to lead on. They descend, sliding as much as walking, until the tunnel broadens into a wide chamber, a mere metre in height. Thick ice columns brace the low ceiling in several places. Cirphen points to holes, some near a metre wide, telling them they are the passage the worm gouges through the ice as it seeks its prey. They realise the strange warren through which they have crawled must be the remnants of earlier worm burrows. As they set out to cross the space, their foe strikes. Emerging from a tunnel its viciously toothed maw snaps at them, its tail flicking about as they try to flank it. Yet despite its size and ferociousness the battle is short-lived, Erfiren’s arrows and Tomas’ sword taking a quick toll. When the worm tries to flee Altraam drives a spear through it, which jams in the hole. Blades flash and it is messily dispatched. They press on, Cirphen pausing long enough to take some of its hide. “For crafting,” he says.
It takes but five minutes to reach the chamber of the Winter Seed. They emerge into cold stillness, enough that they pull their cloaks tighter. The ice mass is enormous, more than twenty metres long, half that wide and five metres high. Lacking any power that might penetrate its mass, they decide instead to ambush the elves next time they emerge. But as they prepare to set their trap, a voice calls from the tunnel beyond:

“Enough. Thank you, Cirphen.”

Cirphen shuffles away, hiding his face from them all. Another elf emerges from the tunnel, eyeing them one at a time. “Come out” he calls to them in their hiding places. Altraam does so at a dead run, his spear ready, but the elf simply gestures and icicles pierce Altraam’s ankles, fixing him to the ground. Cian attempts a charge, but inexplicably falls to the ground insensate. The others emerge, Yeld complaining bitterly about Second Skirmish’s persistent talent for dragging him into captivity.
“You did well to make it this far,” the elf says. “But…what did you hope to achieve? Once you found this place, what did you intend? Was there a plan? Or did you simply fling yourselves blindly into the unknown, trusting to Fate to deal you a new hand at this moment?” He shrugs slightly. “No matter. You are here now. And I shall take full advantage of that.”

Cian awakens. He is inside a spherical chamber no more than three metres across. The walls are smooth, featureless, faintly blue. As he looks about, a wooden knife falls at his feet. Moments later a rock joins it.
A voice speaks…
“You. You did this. You sent me here.”
He turns. A gaunt Hillman, dressed in worn but well-kept trail leathers faces him. Blood stains his belly and right leg, oozes darkly from a throat wound and mats the hair atop his head. He regards Cian briefly, then reaches out and grabs him by the throat. Dirty black water gushes forth as he opens his mouth and snarls…
“You killed me!”

Session 19, 3 Oct 15
Where are my pants?

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:
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.

Another message
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.

Pants. Pants?
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…

A secret
…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…

Trouble brewing
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.

Discussion ensues.

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.

Seer seers
“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.

Common thieves
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…

Session 18, 3 Apr 15

Session 18, 3 Apr 15

The quiet of winter settles after the journey west beyond Cillien. Sheep shuffle and bleat on the Green, ice grinds dully in the ever-narrower channel of clear water. Cold and tired but untroubled since dusk, little else holds the attention of the night sheriffs before they do their final rounds and stumble wearily home.
Frost rimes the morning as Cathorna resentfully emerges from warm beds to stoke fires and face the day. Talk is of the coldest winter in memory; 1626 brought deep snow and orc raids, but 1632 saw the river freeze over for the first time. It was also the year of Third Cathorna, the first and only time the Enemy breached the gate. Conversation quickly turns to other matters at this.
The hunting has been poor for Erfiren, the forest preternaturally quiet, the usual hibernation burrows empty, the few unfrozen waterholes little visited. As recently as a week ago he could find a few half-starved rabbits gnawing at roots, an occasional bush fowl roosting high in a tree. Of late he has turned to leatherwork to earn his daily coin, fixing belts and patching armour for coppers when he comes back with an empty bag. Cian’s fortunes are better, with plentiful cod coming out of the ice-narrowed lake, and surprisingly good production from the clan’s livestock. The chickens and goats are unseasonably productive, and Erfiren occasionally drops by on some pretext just as the O’Conchubhairs are sharing an enormous cheesy omelette from their skillet. In his shrine, Altraam has heard fearful whisperings from the more credulous Cathornans, convinced that ‘The Ice King’ was raking his bony talons across Cathorna’s back. Seeing no cause beyond inclement weather, he reassures them otherwise. Tomas takes advantage of the chill to experiment with some of his more volatile essences, and spends the better part of a week pursuing a promising lead on a more stable form of coal oil…

Neeshka remains lost to her friends.

Troubled by her slow recovery, Altraam spends two days calling upon Orome’s will to return her to the world. Erfiren manages Altraam’s chores for a day, bringing him food and water through the long ritual. Neeshka remains stubbornly asleep, though her breathing steadies and her skin loses some of the grey pallor that has persisted since her fall.
Inaction begins to chafe at the team after several days, and Cian calls on them to venture beyond the walls once again. The blank space on the map to the south could hide orcs, he insists, could hide ogres, could hide treasure! Moreover, the lair of the oft-mentioned Drughal had to be somewhere, and every black space revealed gave him less places to hide. There are nods and quiet words of agreement. Yeld agrees to join Altraam, Cian and Erfiren on a journey into the cold, cold woods.

Footprints in the frost
Altraam and Cian are late. A fruitless evening spent fishing for trail rations left them with nothing but frozen feet and empty bait buckets, and a late night as they completed their chores. Yeld arrives at the gates with the bulky five-man tent already bundled awkwardly to his pack. He gruffly dismisses the usual offers of assistance, making the usual request that he be allowed to punch Cian if he snores. Altraam arrives, wearing the recently reunited Boots Of Hopping On Both Feet (one of which radiates tracking magic, the other stealth). He discovers to his frustration that they seem to have a side effect: attempting to speak while wearing them produces only a convincing duck-like ‘quack’. He stumps off in a foul humour, returning shortly thereafter with much less silly footwear.
The equipment ritual proceeds. The journey’s length is estimated, and food purchased to accommodate. Hopes of forage on the trail are dashed by Erfiren’s gloomy recounting of recent hunts, and a little extra jerky is bought from Nedley’s. Cian briefly regards his pack, wondering if there is room for a (Medium)(Sly)(Unhygienic) whore, but decides he’d rather take an extra blanket.
Others are preparing to leave as they gather. Second rank, First Spear are about to head for Defiance Hill; seeing them huddling at the dock, Altraam quickly scribbles a note for his brother Tobias. “Have a care,” he warns. “The enemy are watching Defiance Hill. They seek eyes inside, but believe it will be difficult. And know that they are watching Beckett. Watch him, and trust no stranger.”
The gates swing open. “When will we see you back?” calls Lim as they file out.
“Six days,” Cian rumbles. “No more.”
“Good hunting.” The gates swing closed behind them.
They climb the steady climb to Cathorna Hill. The ruts hold puddles, frozen to the bottom. Frost crackles and melts with each step, leaving every footstep visible. The air is mercifully still, the sky masked only by high white clouds scudding fast to the west. Further north, heavy black thunderheads loom. A brief wind stirs the trees as they reach the top of the Hill, fading immediately to leave them in unfamiliar silence.
Erfiren feels a nagging sense of unease as they cross the High Paddock. The frost persists into the afternoon, showing no trail but their own, a narrow dark swathe across the open field….

Mining kobolds
The familiar trail to the kobold mine brings no threat, no danger. Erfiren pauses briefly at the place where he shot a kobold at fifty paces last summer. Altraam eyes the landslide that buried a daen warrior, robbed for his dagger and bracers by Beckett. Cian eats bugs he finds on rocks.
The top of the kobold mine hill brings a surprise: a frozen kobold, half-naked at the base of a tree. Armed only with a rusty and dented dagger, he clutches a short stick in his claws, and seems to have frozen to death. He is left to lie, and Second Skirmish bang on the hatch to the mine.
“Skirmishers!” booms Ougan Reihak’s voice as he undogs the hatch. “In, in!” Cian, Altraam and Yeld descend, savouring the warmth of the smelter fire, recoiling at the sharp reek of burning sulphur. Erfiren, curious as always, pauses at the hatch, holding it briefly open and peering about. A chill breeze eddies about him as he does so, bringing the faintest smell of decay.
He wonders briefly if he imagines it, but as he looks north he sees the faintest outline of a figure in the swirling snow. As he stares he hears a whisper on the wind that a credulous villager might mishear as “Pain.” Suppressing a shudder, he closes the hatch, secures the latches carefully and descends.
“A wraith.”
Altraam’s proclamation silences Second Skirmish. Erfiren’s brief description elicits old tales, of fell spirits given strength by the deep winter, given freedom by the retreat of Free Men to their holdfasts. Erfiren’s description is scant, but Altraam knows of little else that brings dank air, ghostly shapes, whispered fear.
“Rathes?” Cian’s pronunciation is close enough “How do we fight them?”
“The right blade,” says Altraam. He shares old tales of spirits struck down by renowned swords, the daggers of heroes. Thoughts turn to the tools on hand; sturdy, efficient Cathorna steel, but workaday weapons, forged and wielded by commoners. The dwarves offer little; Altraam cannot recall tales of fell spirits hungering for dwarven souls.
“Wraiths, spirits. Pah!” Khelden has little time for Altraam’s ghost stories. “A locked gate and a little faith in steel is all I need to be safe. I’ll check the back gate while you frighten each other.” He takes up a lantern and stumps off into the old workings.
He is late coming back.
Erfiren glances at Cian. “Best check.” They take the spare lantern and head up the icy stairs cut into the old slipway.
The cavern beyond glitters with ice, familiar spaces subtly altered by inches-thick frost. They pass timber stockpiles, water barrels, heaped stone and fresh wounds in the old ore seams, reawakened by the keen-eyed dwarves. The pit, once home to a grass cat, has a ladder down it; the coarse hide-and-timber dividers in the kobolds’ living quarters are all gone, leaving broad, echoing emptiness.
Khelden’s lantern is found at the top of the old vertical shaft, now repurposed as a ladderway. By its light they find him in the upper gallery, poking at slurms and scraping goo off the walls. He head-jerks towards the entrance when Cian and Erfiren appear. “Come see.”
The entrance is completely blocked by snow. Piled to the top of the low cave entrance, it has slumped through the gate, half-covering the floor of the circular space. Erfiren’s hand unconsciously drifts to the spear wound in his back.
“Never seen the like,” Khelden says. “Entrance cave must be full.” He shrugs dismissively. Erfiren scrapes curiously at the mounded snow, prompting a brief avalanche from outside. He eyes it warily as they turn away and head back.
Ougan gestures at the hatch when they return and tell their tale. “That’s new too.” Icicles hang from the hatch, inches long. Ice obscures the latches and reaches down to the top rung of the crude kobold ladder. “More of your wraith’s doing?” He takes up the scuttle, shovels more coal into the fire pit.
Altraam stands. Gaze fixed on the frozen hatch, he calls out a challenge to the world beyond, daring the wraith to come forth and face him. A wind swirls through the cave as he calls. It gathers above the fire, drawing up the flames, swirling upwards and dying away. Into the silence he shouts again, mocking the weakness of the unseen foe.
The hatch creaks. Nobody speaks. Latches clang and the weather reaches through the suddenly open hatch. Snow and wind and darkness tumble into the cave, then something round and heavy bounces from the first rung of the ladder, tumbling and clanging to the floor and landing with a sick, hollow crack as the hatch clangs shut.
“What…who is that?”
Ougan’s question is shouted into silence as everyone looks upon a frozen disembodied head. It is familiar, and recently so: the ravaged face of Kel Porter stares emptily at Second Skirmish.
“Porter? But he disappeared months ago! Why is he here now?”
“We were reacquainted recently,” says Cian. He stands, circles the fire and picks up the grisly missile. “Can’t seem to stay away from us.”
Yeld laughs easily. “And he’s as frightening now as he was in life,” he says. He gestures at the head, the hatch. “This wraith: what has it done? Has it harmed us? Has it troubled us? No, all it’s done is exactly what it wanted to do: frighten us. Evil spirit or no, come morning I’m going out there.” He rolls his bulky pack to the fireside, pulls out a well-worn blanket. “And until then, I’m going to stay warm and get some sleep. Wake me for my watch eh?”

Night passes.

Everyone is a little dry-throated from the fire, but warm and safe and well-rested. Nothing seems to have changed; ice still coats the hatch, but nobody is harmed, nothing has intruded. Cian monkeys up the ladder to the hatch and begins bashing away the thick ice. It falls in glittering slabs, shattering on the stone below. The latches are cold, but yield to daen persuasion. As does the ladder; the uppermost stanchion snaps as he pushes upwards.
“Kobold ladder,” rumbles Ougan. “Good enough for dwarves. Good enough for men. Not made for daen fatheads.”
The next few chunks of ice shatter slightly closer to Ougan, drawing a beard-muffled oath and a rueful chuckle.
The hatch opens with some effort. Snow trickles through, then tumbles down in a rush, covering Cian and making the now-loose ladder wobble disconcertingly. It ceases quickly, and weak daylight is visible beyond. Cold and wet, Cian shovels snow down past himself until he is able to climb through.
It is barely dawn. Snow is indeed heaped outside, but it covers only the hatch. The ground a few yards away has only a few flakes, the trees none. While the sky is mostly clear, the dark thunderheads still loom in the north.
Second Skirmish emerge into the pale dawn. On instruction, Ougan builds a fire while they discuss a plan. It quickly becomes apparent that there is a shortfall of understanding of the foe. Deciding to face it on home ground, Second Skirmish bid Ougan and the surly Khelden goodbye and return to the trail. Altraam stops along the way and gives Kel’s mortal remains the dignity of a marked resting place in the earth.

Trouble brewing
“Sooner than expected, Skirmishers.”
Klud is well-bundled up when he greets them at the gate. “Been odd sorta weather since y’left. All still an’ quiet ‘ere. An’ them big clouds in th’ north.” He grins. “But I’m sure you lot’ll ‘ave it sorted soon enough!“
Altraam fetches his chain, then visits the family store.
“Well, that’s quite the backpack Altraam!” Keeper admires the chain on its harness. “And quite the chain! Taking several dogs for a walk?”
“Build a fire tonight.” There is no mirth in Altraam’s reply. “A big one.”
Keeper’s face falls. “A…what? Are we expecting…”
“Trouble. Yes. Dark trouble.” Altraam turns and leaves the store.
Mindful of Altraam’s tales of epic blades, Erfiren decides to risk bringing his longsword. He also fetches his mother’s brooch, returning to the gate as soon as he is ready.
Cian’s preparations are a little more leisurely. Amrik’s store is closed, so he decides to visit his home with a little wine. Thoughts of bringing him a (small)(sly)(hygienic) whore are dismissed as impractical.
“Wrrrraiths, you say?”
Cian winces at Amrik’s pronunciation, almost as much as he winces at the hedge wizard’s appalling attempts at painting. His home is much like his store: jam-full of knick-knacks and curious, rough-hewn furniture and half-finished sketches, mysterious bottles and worryingly stained garments. After lengthy and circumspect discussion he offers that the mysterious entity’s real intent is simply to frighten them, and it is as likely to be a wilful, magic-armed intelligence as a baleful spirit.

A plan
Speculation that the wraith is attracted to the group is acted upon. Outsiders are corralled into disguising themselves; Allum Shallah agrees to dress as Erfiren. Cian chooses Slaine as most like him in build. His cousin glares, gestures to the training field, and the row of heavy rocks that serve to rank Cathornans by strength.
“This one!” Slaine gestures at the heaviest rock, its surface little worn, rarely troubled by hands other than Mahti Edhellen’s and Durgan’s. Cian assumes the position, grasps the foe. Flawless technique and an uncomfortably protein-rich diet join forces, and the rock is hefted to the required shoulder height. The ground reclaims it with a meaty thud, and Cian steps back.
There is no doubt, no fear in Slaine’s eyes as he grasps the foe. There is also no technique in his lift; after a minute of vein-popping, eye-bulging, god-cursing effort he yields, and steps back without a word.
“A good effort,” says Cian. “Now, let’s play dress-ups.”
Once the subsequent misunderstanding is resolved, Slaine is dressed in Cian’s usual garb. On Cian’s direction, he embellishes the deception by offering choice observations of Altraam’s character: “You! Priest-person! You are more female than male!” Well-pleased, he marches out with Altraam, Yeld and Allum, heading up the road towards Cathorna Hill.
Erfiren and Cian have a tougher time. Choosing to take the river to the Low Paddock, they struggle to get their little coracles to the channel, then again to climb the ice wall downstream. It takes a good hour to make it to the shelter of the willows, and half that again to deal with the worst of their waterlogged gear. As they prepare to leave, a dank wind blows fitfully from the north, briefly chilling them more than the icy Firen. It eddies and swirls across the ice, through the trees, dying out as it stirs the long ice-silvered grass of the Paddock. They wait for the feeling to ease before they set out up the trail.
The High Paddock is familiar ground. Second Skirmish disperse to familiar hides and lookouts. Altraam lays out his chain in the middle of the corral, and five fires are lit around it.
They watch.

Duel in the Dark
Darkness does not keep them waiting. The dank wind returns, blowing out of the cloud-burdened north. Snow flurries gust and skirl about the corral. From the vantage of the southern watchtower, Cian sees a tall, vague shape crossing the corral. Little more than an outline in the snow, it seems to blow across the ground towards him, just as he hears Altraam begin the words of a spell…
He vaults the stairs to the ground, grasps at the door. He manages to unlatch it, but something pulls it violently shut from the other side. Erfiren hears the commotion, crosses to the door side of the tower and sees the ethereal shape below. An arrow from above pierces it lengthwise, but simply sticks shuddering in the ground. On a hunch, he turns from the thing, vaulting the outer wall and running for the low cliff that is the corral’s eastern wall. Cian leaps out on the corral side ready to fight, but the creature seems to simply lose shape and drift away on the rising wind. Altraam’s chanting reaches a crescendo, but his words go unheard by the Valar. Seeing another of the ethereal snow figures approaching from the north, he quickly pulls out his horn and calls upon Orome’s light.
Altraam’s chain lies ready, lit by five fires. Second Skirmish run towards it, hoping to lure the spectral creature inside. It works: the thing reaches the chain and blows away with the wind the moment it crosses the hallowed margin.
“Over there!” Allum’s shout is whipped away by the wind as he points towards the gate. “Something watches us from there!” Unable to fight wisps of snow, Second Skirmish follow, hoping to find a more solid opponent.
It finds them first. Something whips past Allum and thuds into the snow. Cian is close by; a moment later something crashes heavily into his chest, leaving him gasping for breath. Through pain-clouded eyes he sees a twelve-foot tall bipedal creature, seemingly made entirely of snow. The red mist claims him and he charges headlong a the monster, Allum and Altraam at his sides. Weapons are drawn and they prepare to set about the thing, but a sudden stinging hail plucks at them. Guessing what is coming, Cian dives away. He is beyond the reaches of the deadly shower when it hits, but Altraam is caught within and pummelled to the ground, extinguishing his light.
Cian decides to gain some height to spot the source of the powerful phantasmal effects. He enter the old house through a breached wall and grasps an exposed beam. It gives way with a crack, dumping him on the floor. Cranky but unharmed he tries again, this time reaching the roof. Altraam recovers and restores his spell, heading for the centre of the corral to give the combatants the best chance of seeing their elusive foe.
Erfiren and Yeld have acted on their own instincts, scaling the twelve-foot muddy cliff to the convex slope above. Through the oddly swirling snow they discern a single figure, seemingly gazing upon the scene below. Erfiren crosses in front and circles to its right, Yeld taking the opposite path. As Erfiren approaches, he feels a tugging at his boot, hears a crackling; looking down he sees fingers of frost reaching up his leg from the ground. He presses on, but it gains strength, grasping his leg firmly moments later. Undaunted he draws his bow, takes careful aim on the figure, dim-lit by Altraam’s spell, and lets fly with an enchanted arrow. It strikes true, but there is little power behind it. He draws another, feeling the ice creeping up his leg. A second shot has no greater effect. The ice however is gaining strength, pressing painfully on his knee. His attacks have done little more than draw the attention of his foe, who turns towards him, raises a hand and hurls something at him.
It is his own arrow, encased in inch-thick ice, tapering to a needle point. It pierces his leather and gouges his ribs, leaving him groaning in pain. Through the black curtain of agony he hears Altraam’s strident tones, calling curses upon the foe.
The stranger responds in kind: “Who is your master? What is his name? I know mine! I know him!” There is a flurry of gestures and an enormous figure appears near Altraam. Denser than the other snow apparitions, it raises shapeless fists and brings them crashing down. Altraam avoids the blows with ease, mocking the stranger’s feeble efforts.
Cian has seen the true enemy, and sprints for the cliffs. He reaches the top just as Erfiren breaks free of the ice. The stranger looks about. He sees Erfiren, free and ready with his bow. He sees Cian, running hard at him, sees Yeld closing in with broadsword drawn. He makes a sudden sharp gesture and a powerful wind rushes down the slope. Yeld is swept off his feet and sent spinning towards the cliff. Cian drops low, digs in and drags himself relentlessly towards the foe. Altraam’s torrent of curses reclaims his attention, and the same hailstorm descends, this time dodged with ease. With the enemy distracted, Cian leaps to his feet and charges. Yeld runs in, Erfiren gets to his feet and peglegs towards him, one leg still weighed down with ice.
The enemy’s defiant calls cease. He eyes the three closing in, then gestures open-handed at the ground. Seeming to accelerate instantly he toboggans across the snow towards the cliff, narrowly dodging Cian and landing metres away from Altraam.
It is a mistake. Altraam’s net is quickly at hand; he runs, hurls, snags the enemy. His hands are trapped, but he does not slow, moving in a straight line for a break in the corral. Seeing him fleeing, Cian draws a javelin and flings it, scoring an amazing hit. The foe seems suspiciously untroubled by javelin and net, running towards the house despite the entangling net and encumbering javelin.
“The house! To the house!”
Allum’s cry is audible to all as he runs for the house. Seconds later there is a heavy impact and Slaine is thrown through the door, tumbling across the ground outside. As Second Skirmish converge on the house, they see the fleeing foe enter the house, moving oddly, perhaps confirming earlier suspicions that it is another phantasm, and the true foe is elsewhere. The house firms as a possible hideout when Slaine leaps back in and the ring of steel on steel is heard.
Altraam reaches the house next. He enters in time to see a slightly-built elf, ill-dressed for the season, leap from the door and run for the road. He hurls his trident, but misses. Allum sets off in pursuit, running hard, but falls behind the fleet stranger. Cian cuts across his path and flings two more javelins; one hits but has little effect, the other falls short and sticks firmly into the snow. Erfiren sizes up the shot from the clifftop. He allows for wind, for the drop of his arrow over the distance. He fires, hits! Again the strike is weak, and the arrow falls to the ground.
The stranger slows, turn.
“Others will come!”
His voice is high, almost hysterical. “I will not be the last! Others will come, but I, I will claim his reward!” He gestures defiantly at the pursuing skirmishers before turning and fleeing north.
Second Skirmish maintain their pursuit. The elf is running hard, but they are still in touch, until he disappears into the tree line encircling the High Paddock, close to the spot where the sprite tree sprang from the ground last summer. From the forest beyond they hear a heavy crashing sound. The canopy shudders, then a tall tree tumbles to the ground. In the space they see the shapeless mass of an enormous snow apparition, at least fifteen metres tall…
It pursues them. Walking in a dead straight line, it follows them across the High Paddock as they run for the far side. “Separate!” shouts Yeld. He grabs at Altraam and Slaine and drags them towards the corral while Cian, Erfiren and Allum remain in the tree line. It follows Yeld, Altraam and Slaine, pursuing them into the corral. It crosses the wall just as they reach the fire. Slaine grabs a flaming brand, roars a daen curse and runs at the thing. Altraam and Yeld are at his side. They reach its legs, swing wildly for the massive limbs, just as it raises enormous fists. They come crashing down as their own blows strike home. There is a sudden wind and the beast collapses into an enormous mound of snow, burying the three. The wind falls away at that moment, leaving them in utter silence.
There is brief, hurried digging. Three wet skirmishers are pulled from snow mounds and hustled to the fires to dry out. Allum is quiet; Slaine is awed and exulted by what he has witnessed. “I struck it down! With my flaming brand and my burning spirit, I destroyed the enemy-who-is-snow!”

Taking the time to search their surroundings, Second Skirmish discover three things within the old house:
• A rough travel blanket of woven horse hair is crammed into a corner of a small room. It has no smell, and radiates very weak Change Environment magic
• A simple iron headband, wrought with three sharp inward-facing barbs, is found on the ground under the floorboards directly below the blanket. It rests atop the light drift of snow in this space. It radiates Telepathy magic.
• An iron dagger, perhaps of Edain make, stuck into the wall at about knee height near the blanket. A tin cup dangles from it by its handle. Every now and then, something like smoke seems to coil and writhe along the dagger’s length. It radiates Detect magic.

No less enthused by the night’s warm-up, Second Skirmish decide to press on with the original plan. Slaine and Allum are both offered a place in the trek.
“I must return,” Allum says evenly. “Tomorrow First Skirmish ventures up the mountain beyond Defiance Hill. We go to Plundered Camp to pursue giants.”
“I shall stay with Second Skirmish,” declares Slaine, eyeing Cian. “There may be rocks. Large, heavy rocks that only the STRONGEST of my clan could lift!”

No Huz to hunt?
Choosing caution over speed, Second Skirmish follow the forest line to the southeast towards the old Huz camp. As they emerge onto the flanks of the rising hills, they see smoke to the southwest, the faintest shimmer of heat somewhere near the tallest peak at the tip of the spur. They eye it warily, keeping to cover as they approach the old Huz encampment, recently the scene of the strange menagerie fed by ‘Walker’s elixir’. Seeking a better vantage, Erfiren goes to the bluff overlooking the hold encampment from the east. He steals closer, sees a little snow fort with ‘something dark’ inside it. Unwilling to endure a repeat of events atop the Milden Hills, he retreats.
Now certain the encampment is being watched, they survey their surroundings from a high point to the east. Perhaps a kilometre to the southeast they see another fire, then a third at the westernmost edge of the mountains, some two miles to their east. They find a safe place from which to spy upon the peaks, and Erfiren prepares his Eagle Eye spell.
It takes some time. But at the base of the near-invisible column of smoke he sees the blurred shape of an orc’s head, its body concealed behind a simple hide.
“Orcs,” he says as he removes the jewel from his forehead. “Watching us.”
Erfiren nods at Altraam. “Huz.”
“Too many eyes,” says Altraam, scanning the horizon. “Too far from home.”
Cian nods. “Another time.” Second Skirmish takes a moment to check gear, then heads north, back to the Kobold Mine.
Traps and timber
A troubling sight greets them at the mine. They disturb two Huz orcs, busy constructing a swinging log trap across the approach from Cathorna. The orcs take to their heels, leaving behind the unfinished trap, a stack of cut timber, a well-constructed hide in a tree.
“Set to cover a retreat,” says Altraam. “They planned to return.”
All is made safe and Second Skirmish bang on the hatch.
“Skirmishers again! In, in!” Ougan is as pleased to see them as ever, and brews hot tea while they dry off. The snow pile atop the hatch remains, but a path has been worn through it by the dwarves.
“Best be wary when you emerge,” warns Cian. “There was an orc trap on the path. Disabled now. But where there was one, there’ll be another.”
Ougan nods gravely. “As you say, Skirmish. We’ll be careful.”
A quick check of the back door shows the snow is still piled against it, but it has begun to retreat.
A comfortable afternoon is spent resting by the fire, nibbling on grilled arocca (to stifled dwarven guffaws about kratak) and more substantial dwarven fare. With Erfiren suffering from his customary wound, Altraam calls upon Orome to heal him as best he can. The call is earnest but goes unheard, and Erfiren stoically resolves to press on despite the eye-misting pain. Or something. Talk revolves around the renewed threat of the Huz, the risks of an attack on their holdfast across the Laska, the consequences of not doing so. Minds turn towards the questions of ‘how’ and ‘when’, rather than ‘if’…
Come morning, the hatch is opened and they venture once more into the cold dark morn, turning north for Cathorna and the prospect of a warm, safe bed.

Session 17, 31 Jan 15

It was the strangest marriage ceremony you’ve ever attended.
Beckett simply looked awkward in the stained and oft-repaired leather tunic and breeches that are as close as he gets to ‘best’, standing next to Ella dressed in the long woollen gown in which half the women of Cathorna have been married. Few came to the ceremony; no dwarves, no elves or hobbits, and only a handful of men. Ella’s sister Tabitha was there of course, as was her mother Agatha, and half a dozen of her friends including Aefyn Fornas and Rhea Kendall. Her father made a point of staying away as you expected. The only others present were Grigg Bisker and Varic Fornas from Beckett’s spear rank, both of whom seem somewhat bemused at their own presence. Held outside on the Green, the ritual attracted the occasional glance from other Cathornans going about their daily tasks. It felt strangely artificial, any gravitas dissipated by the mundane goings-on around you.
Stranger still was the last wedding guest.
Devon had been quiet in the weeks between Beckett declaring for Ella in chapel and the ceremony taking place. He quickly changed the subject every time you tried to raise it, and you dropped it after sensing a rising impatience with your queries.
Rain misted gently on the Green as Devon spoke; the pathetic handful of guests barely half-filling the two long benches brought out of the chapel for the event. The stranger seemed to appear on the bench just as Devon began the prayer of plenty; you noticed your master’s brief hesitation, looked to where his gaze fell and saw the stranger. Unremarkable physically, he wore a clean but well-travelled woollen jerkin and long woollen trews, and clutched a broad rabbit skin hat in calloused hands. He smiled and nodded at your questioning gaze; briefly you remembered seeing him in the inn two days earlier, eating alone in a corner near the little stage. You saw him speak with nobody but the inn staff, and only perfunctorily with them.
The ceremony seems to simply peter out rather than come to the resolute conclusion of most marriages you’ve attended. Devon simply stops speaking and looks emptily at Beckett; after an awkward pause the latter says “Are we…” Devon simply nods, turns and walks away.
The guests watch him go, their bemusement clear. “Thank you Devon!” calls Grigg Bisker “Do join us at the inn!” Devon halts briefly, then continues walking towards his home.
The female guests gather around Ella, wittering and clucking. Grigg and Varic come to Beckett’s side; there are quiet words and glances at Devon’s retreating back, but handshakes and smiles quickly follow.
The last guest comes forth. He offers his hand to Ella, who takes it warily and nods in response to his quiet words. He then goes to Beckett. Grigg Bisker eyes him curiously.
“A fine ceremony, Beckett, and a strong beginning. Should fate come between you and happiness, I hope you will think of me as a friend and ally.”
Beckett stares. “My thanks. But who ARE you?”
The stranger leans forward. He whispers in Beckett’s ear. Beckett frowns. The stranger smiles and shakes his hand. “Until that day, friend.” He turns and leaves. The men briefly watch him go, then Grigg says “Well, one less to share the beer! C’mon, there’s pork and bread waiting in the inn!”
Devon has little to say. “A Cathornan petitions me to marry, I officiate. There is little more to it, Altraam.”
“The stranger? Nobody I’ve seen before. Beckett is a hunter; perhaps someone he met on the trail.”
“Altraam, I have no answers for you! Pester Beckett if you must pester someone!”
Beckett is in a sanguine mood. “Him? Don’t know. Saw him at the inn yesterday when I was arranging things with Groot, but thought nothing of him.” He grunts. “Was happy to have him there, really. Ella thinks the number of witnesses is the number of children she has, or the number of years we’ll stay in love or some such foolishness. That stranger just bought me another year’s reprieve.”
“What did he say? Well, I meant to ask you about that. He simply said ‘I am a friend, Beckett, and I offer some friendly words. Should this priest abandon you, choose the next one carefully.’” He shrugs. “I wonder if he was one of those Kine priests, looking to add to his flock. Wasting his time if he was; I’ve a pretty wife and a child on the way, and no cause to turn from Orome.”

Nan smiles, reaches out and covers your left eye with her hand. You smell wormwood and roses, feel softness where you expect rough and calloused skin.
“The earth mother wills, Cian, and we here in this place act in her name. Sometimes we’re her hands. Sometimes another acts for her. Time was coming when your pa thought he’d have to show you the path to the sight. He didn’t want to do it; would’ve meant seeing places he wants left unseen, hearing voices he’d rather only the dead had to hear.” She laughs. “Then some mad old witch in a tent takes that burden from him!”
Her smile fades a little. “You’ve seen things as made little sense I’ll wager, because every time you’ve looked, it’s been THIS eye, or THAT eye, THIS world or THAT world. Never both, never everything at once. Like standing on the riverbank; one foot in water, one on sand. Leaves you wondering if you should walk or swim.” She slowly removes her hand from your eye. “Time we fix that. Time you learn how to see the shade without the shade seeing you.”
She picks up your eyepatch, turns it over in her hands. “Keep this. Times will be your enemies’ sight will be too strong, and only hiding from them will protect you. But you’re blinding yourself to half of all that is, wearing it all the time. Put it aside. When you’re safe, put it aside, and learn to hide as you learn to see.” She looks up; her eyes widen and you feel a sudden chill as she looks at you, looks THROUGH you.
“Watch me now…watch me…”
You feel a hand , feel someone shaking you, look up in surprise into your da’s concerned face. “Boy! Cian? You alright son?”
You smell wormwood smoke, see the campfire, your family sitting in a circle. Most are talking, laughing; some are watching you. Slaine is staring, expressionless. Galen is watching you through narrowed eyes. He looks away at your gaze.
“You’ve been sitting her twenty minutes, lad,” your father says. “Staring…just staring into the fire. And doing this,” he adds, opening and closing his hand. “That old brand nan gave you itching again?”

The horses whinny and toss, clearly nervous in the dark and quiet of the back yard. You grip the reins tighter, reach up to place a reassuring hand on your mount’s flank. She calms at your touch, but around you, the other horses jostle and stamp.
You can hear the approaching riders. The pounding of hooves rumbles through the ground as well as the air. You guess their number to be twenty or more, at least a mile distant, but your imagination puts them at fifty, puts them at the gate, puts them across your escape route, waiting with swords and whips and brands.
You know your part. At the first signal, you climb to the parapet atop the back gate. At the second, you pull the bolts. Budych and Cloppy will throw them open. Your mother will lead the riders out; Budych will hold your mount and you will drop to her back from the parapet. You rehearsed it yesterday, you got it right three times in a row. But that was in the day, with an empty yard, with two men holding your horse.
You hear your father’s voice, low and close, you see two figures steal away, towards the main gate. You feel a hand on your shoulder.
“Time, Tomas. To the parapet. And should I fall, you do NOT remain, you do NOT think to come to my aid. I’ll not see my line end at the hands of a mad king. Ready?”
You ascend the parapet. The thunder of the gallop fractures into a clatter of hooves, changing from the muted thump of the trail to the rattle of the cobbles in the courtyard. The enemy are inside, they stand the very ground you and your family have shed blood to defend.
You hear your father’s voice, shouting across the harsh calls of strangers. “This is no place your you, majesty. Leave us in peace, or you will pay a price.”
The king’s voice is high, tinged with hysteria. “You threaten ME, oathbreaker? When I stand within your walls? You know what I want. Yield the boy and I will let you leave with your whore.”
“And my men? My lands?”
“Forfeit! As I give, so I can take! Yield the boy, oathbreaker, or all that you are will cease to be.”
There’s a pause. You hear someone curse quietly, then your father’s voice, loud above the rising wind. “My oath was to the king of Cardolan. The moment you rode unbidden through my gates, you showed yourself to be nothing more than a bandit chief. I am released from my oath.”
Those words are the signal. You grasp the bolts, pull, as you hear the shout of the man you once called ‘king’. “You swore your life! I hold the crown, I am the king! You die, now!”
You hear the clatter of the front gates closing, blocking the retreat of the invaders. You hear the sudden sound of startled men, panicked horses. Light flares from the courtyard as torches are put to tinder. In seconds, flames curl above the parapet, the oil-soaked straw burning with an intense light. In the flickering light, you see Budych below, holding your horse, her eyes wide and panicked as the paltry dozen of your household gallops past and out the gate. Horses scream and men cry from the courtyard as the fire builds, the centuries-old dry timbers catching easily. You see the gatemen scurry back in through the sally port, the place where you killed the traitor during the orc attack. They vault astride their mounts and disappear into the darkness.
You drop to your horse
You see a solitary figure drop from the rooftop of the homestead and run for the last horse, held by Cloppy. For a panicked moment you think it’s the king, somehow over the wall and into the back corral, but realise with a flood of relief that it’s your father. Smoke curls from his travel cloak; he cut his escape a little close. Men are shouting now, men are screaming, the sounds of panic and pain filling the air.
As you ride away, you hear a shout from behind. Looking back, you see a lone figure atop your burning home. Silhouetted by the rising flames, a voice high and cracked is carried to you on the wind.
“I curse you, oathbreaker! Your life, your line, I curse them! The shadow is upon you and yours; it is my will that you die before you know a new home!” The wind builds, tears away the last of his words. “And…brat’s soul…forever mine; …shall watch and…eyes…spheres…temple!”

Potent portents
Concerned about the rise of anti-Cathorna factions, Tomas shows Palanto the note he received from the strange little imp late at night, and they speak of the hierarchy of enemies inimical to Cathorna’s cause. There is talk of The Eye, a euphemism for The Foe Who Shall Not Be Named, who Palanto says is a baleful influence with designs on the entire world. Walker is clearly an enemy of Cathorna; despite the note entreating Tomas to leave him alone, they agree that Walker definitely needs to be further assailed. There is no clear sense of Osomer’s part in proceedings, and they conclude he is playing a tricky centre position for reasons unknown.
Cian meantime has decided that Cillien is looming larger in Cathorna’s headlights. Aware that Cathornans visit the town irregularly for a variety of reasons (mostly carnal), he begins compiling a “Who goes there” list of people who make their way up the road. His aim is to gather intelligence against whatever might come next in their relationship. He also slips Klud a little pipeweed to keep him informed about comings and goings avec Cillien.
Altraam is not idle. He speaks with Magrat Aerghin, asking her to write a letter to the council of Cillien. Well aware that the recent assault on the cattle homestead to Cillien’s west would have been reported, he plans to prostrate himself at the feet of the Cillien council and accept their justice. Intrinsic to this plan is the tale of discovering the men feeding the animals at the old Huz encampment to the north DAMMIT south, and the part played by ‘Walker’s elixir’ in creating the monstrous beasts that seem to be appearing in the Valley. Support for his plan is not unanimous
Tel and Argus, two of the men caught feeding said animals, are still secured in the river tower. Neither seems inclined to leave, perhaps as a consequence of the free pizza, pints and prostitutes being lavished upon them. Argus has sent word to his wife to join him (“Come to Cathorna you stupid cow”), and both have put forth their petition to become part of the community. Tomas raises the question with Palanto, who points out that both have in the past worked for Walker, and while their tale of innocence may have been true, he posits that there is much to lose and little to gain by admitting another hunter and leatherworker. Tomas gently informs them they are to leave, and sends them on their way.
After his unexpected encounter with Nan at the evening fire, Cian realises he needs to practise with The Cloak And The Eye. With no real idea how it works, what it does or anything beyond that ‘it’s pretty nifty’ he decides that Vflynn is his go-to. She proposes playing hide and seek with him, perhaps when he least expects it.

I can’t believe it’s not…oh wait, it is
Mid-morning a rowboat appears from upriver. Kotlas and Arin are at the oars, and they pull in to the temporary ice dock and begin unloading several barrels. “Butter,” announces Kotlas. “Better part of a hundred kilos of it. Pasture’s good up at the Hill.” Cathornans set to and the bounty is brought up to Nedley’s store, where a queue forms to buy some lardy goodness.
The archer Elgar appears in town. Vaguely familiar to Cian and Altraam from their brief time as Con of Aed and Haladan ar-Gwathlo, more familiar to EAGLE WARRIOR, he is seen watching the butter queue outside the store. Altraam speaks briefly with the reserved young archer and learns that he is visiting from High Town to pick up four mercenaries on their way to work at that settlement for a time. “Huz,” says Elgar. “They’re pressing close. Bows are good, but the head of the settlement whose name EVERYONE knows is Thurvald, he says it might not be enough. So he’s putting some more steel behind the gates. I’m just here to guide them up.”
With his Magrat letter in hand, Altraam goes to Palanto to discuss his plan to fling himself upon the merciful wisdom of the Cillien council for Second Skirmish’s recent transgressions. Upon being informed that the council in question comprises a doddering old Northman who can barely rule his bladder, the Cathornaphobic Deanna of the healing house and Stenner, who Cian INSISTS tried to kill him and BEAST CRUSHER when they went there, Altraam is dissuaded from his plan.
Undaunted by this minor setback, Altraam instead turns his mind to an opportunity to gouge a few coppers from his fellow Cathornans. He announces in the inn that if anyone wants to surrender or stand extra militia shifts, they can talk to him about arranging it. The buzz briefly dies down as people take in his announcement, then resumses. Groat Ochoa immediately asks for more shifts, especially at Defiance Hill. Seela Davon tells him to get rid of all her shifts. When she asks if she should give him the money, he immediately and unequivocally says ‘Yes! Yes you should.’ Mila Porter asks if he can get Richard off his shifts, and should she give him the money? The answers are a qualified ‘yes’ and an immediate and unequivocal ‘Yes! Yes you should.’
The magic shield propped at Tomas’ door draws his eye late one afternoon. With it, a ball-bearing flinger and a copy of ‘Statistical methods’ in hand, he heads for the range. Many ‘tok’ noises later, he has ascertained that a) the shield is no harder to hit with ball bearings, and b) medieval characters with tertiary-educated players makes for some implausible actions. Undaunted, he takes up a practice sword and spars with Yeld. After a leisurely twenty-minute session Yeld says “Could you use a different shield? That one’s really distracting.” Mental gears click-whirr softly and Tomas adds the shield to his equipment list.

Random whores
The recent successful roll on the table has delivered Iris and Lal into the arms of Cathorna, and vice versa. They seem quite pleased with the prospect of a safe, well-provisioned town chock full of customers, and have petitioned to stay. Brief discussions between Palanto and Tomas indicate the former is enthusiastic about their presence, and he directs Tomas to see what he can do about securing both the council vote and the popular vote. Palanto says that Cian and Altraam are influential around town, and both should be brought around to the same way of thinking.
Tomas fetches Cian and tells him they have some diplomacy to enact. Cian roundly supports the proposal, and both go to visit Iris and Lal in their safe and possibly sexy house down in the Circles. “So,” says Tomas. “We are tasked with the fraught question of your petition to remain with us. We feel it is only fair that we give you a chance to present your case, through logical argument and a robust discussion of the net social benefit of your continued presence.” This is completely untrue of course; actual events were little removed from an opening scene of the “I ‘ave COME to CLEAN ze POOL” slash “Pizza delivery! What? No cash? Well…” variety. Iris and Lal put forth their most ‘persuasive arguments’, leaving Tomas and Cian thoroughly ‘convinced’.
Once the windows defog, Iris and Lal are told they should make nice with the councilors, particularly Seela Davon whose position on the question is unknown. Cian also decides to start a whispering campaign to persuade the village of the virtue of an in-house whorehouse, because it will defuse tensions and keep the young men in the village instead of taking chances further afield. Discussions with the women of Cathorna are interesting; some make it clear their vote is dependent on their husband being refused service, others on their husbands receiving service.
Later, Cian and Tomas approach Seela to discuss her position on the prostitutes (thank you, what a great audience). Her door is open but she does not answer a call.

Mercenaries. A story
The four mercenaries of whom Elgar spoke arrive in town. Though weapons are left in the gatehouse, it is apparent they are well-equipped. Two, Bigelow and Rith, are quiet and reserved and wary of the people around them. The others, Seth and Nackall are more open, and speak with those around them. Bigelow and Rith are in the inn one afternoon, and ask about events at Defiance Hill, the tale of defeating a hundred dragon-mounted orcs flinging lightning. They ask whether the rumours that the defenders called upon the dead to fight at their side are true; Altraam confirms it, but concedes that they were under a curse. Tomas gently probes for information about them, about anything they might know about Walker
Smelling an opportunity, Tomas talks of equipment to the moderately well-equipped mercenaries, asking whether they would be interested in purchasing equipment made of white metal. Nackall shows some interest, and agrees to Tomas’ unspecified price once the GM has bumbled through his own crafting rules and figured out what it will be. Tomas then realises he needs white metal ore, the last of which he used up making his own gear. Memory rescues him and he recalls Beckett coming back with sacks of it from Thror’s Hills (the only known source), which he subsequently failed to do anything useful with because Beckett. Tomas is about to send a message Defiance-wards to ask if Beckett can send his ore back when Altraam reminds him that Beckett left in a hurry, and may not have packed thirty kilos of useless grey rocks along with his extra socks and a spare sack of stupid. A quick stroll past Beckett’s locked house reveals a handful of useless grey rocks spilling out from beneath it, solving Tomas’ supply problem with one quick burglary.
The mercenary Seth turns out to be the talkative type. He reveals that while he was at Cillien quite recently he saw Erfiren TANNERMAN paying a lot of attention to talk of Walker. When TANNERMAN got up to leave, he was followed out the gate, down the road and onto the bridge. The guards asked Erfiren TANNERMAN “WHAT…is your name?”, to which he replied ‘Erfiren EREND oh bugger I said it didn’t I?’ Seth says the stranger following young Erfiren Something questioned the bridge guards, then headed west at some speed. “And for one silver,” says Seth, “I’ll tell you his name.”
Money changes hands. “No business of mine,” says Seth, “but this one fellow, his name is Turkule Fornas. Cousin of the healing lady. Second cousin I think, by his age. Cilliener families, they breed a bit too close to be sure. But a surly, sneaky piece of work, this one fellow, and no friend to Cathorna by the things he says. Thinks Walker is the kin of Yavanna to hear him talk about him. Won’t hear a bad word.”
“And for another silver,” Seth says, “I’ll tell you where to find him.”
More money changes hands. “He lives in town some of the time. Got himself a dim little girl there, a pretty enough piece who mends his buttons and fetches his cow chips. But most of the time he’s out at his little mine. Comes back once in a while with some nice bits of copper for the smith. Some say he’s bringing up gold too, but nobody knows, and he never lets anyone follow him.”
“No business of mine, but folks with something to hide always make me curious. One time a little rosemary oil got on the wheel of the little barrow he takes out there don’t know how, careless of me, and, well, my little terrier, he’s a good ratter, but a fair sniffer as well. So I found my way out there this one time, and there’s this mess of briar in a gully and my terrier, he’s sniffing and barking and scratching at it. So I take a look and there’s the trace, just the trace, of a wheel track leading under it, so I grab a branch and lift and look at that, the whole tangle lifts up and there’s a flat patch underneath. So I poke at it and there’s a hollow noise. No business of mine I’m thinking, but that’s a lot of work to hide a bit of copper. So I look a little closer and there’s a little ring, a little bronze ring sticking up. I give it a little tug and well now, who’d’ve thought, there’s a big square of boards as moves and it looks like there’s a hole underneath. And a funny smell coming from down there, like as you get at a smithy when his ore’s bad and you see green sparks going up the chimney. Round about then I’m thinking it’s no business of mine what’s under there, and maybe a fellow might not be so happy knowing someone’s looked under his boards. So I put it back and I head back the way I came, covering my tracks as best I can.”
No more money changes hands, but Seth shares a little more. “No business of mine, this. But you Cathornans are good folk, so I’ll tell you this for free. Walker’s got a band out on the road; a rough little crew of five or so who take care of things for him. Was this one fellow who told him lies about gnolls in the forest a stretch back; day or so later this crew of Walker’s left town soon after, headed east on this one fellow’s trail. Turned up a day later, dead and butchered and left to rot. Folks asked Stenner about it; the fellow was Cilliener after all, but Stenner wouldn’t hear, just said Walker was Cillien’s greatest friend. Them five ruffians came and went as they pleased after that. Sometimes they wouldn’t pay for drinks, but Stenner wouldn’t listen when Caratan, that’s the innkeeper, when Caratan told the guard. Even old Brundis goes quiet when they’re in earshot. No way for a chief to behave, but there it is. You look fit to take on their sort, and the words I hear say you’d make short work of them, but that Walker…he’s not one to send a swordsman to a bow fight if you understand me. You mind yourselves now.”
Seth says there are several people in Cillien who work with Walker, and that he brings a lot of cash into the village. “But working for that fellow,” he cautions, “it starts a fellow down a dark path. Not one I choose.”
Strapped for cash, Second Skirmish take stock of their savings. They realise they still have a small handful of green gems won by Haladan ar-Gwathlo in the Round some time ago. He decides to try to sell them, but makes no progress when he speaks to Sulkana the elf jeweller, who simply says he will charge what is fair when Altraam decides who he wishes to give the gems to. He does however give Altraam a simple iron ring, which feels warm when he slips it on. Further attempts to sell the gems to Seela and Dorrigan make no progress. Dorrigan does however give Altraam a hint about the lightning rod, telling him the writings on it are of the south, and possibly familiar to Amrik?
Tomas offers to try selling the gems for Altraam, and sells two of the green gems to Durgan for ten silver. Durgan asks him not to tell anyone he gave him so much for them.
Seth’s tip-off proves impossible to resist for the tired but committed Skirmishers. They prepare for a journey upriver to the rolling downs west of Cillien. Troubled by the prospect of passing through the Misty Fens again, they speak briefly with Amrik. He offers them a concoction which he claims will distract the mewlips long enough to let them pass. Strapped for cash, Tomas approaches his uncle for a handout. Palanto is surprised, but tells Tomas to take what he needs from his study. Tomas finds a coin box with several silvers’ worth of meticulously arranged coins, and takes eighty. Altraam crunches the numbers on finance for the trip, ensuring they have enough food and supplies to get there and back without eating each other’s’ boots and belts
There are discussions around the question of timing, before it is decided that passing Cillien’s jetty late at night is best. A staging camp is pitched a few kilometres west of Cathorna that night, from which the Altraam, Cian, Tomas and Yeld depart early the next morning.

Ice on the oars
The river is frozen across all but sixty metres of its width. A broad rime of blocky ice floes reaches from each bank, making the journey to the open channel tricky and slow. Cathorna has a cleared and levelled ice road to the water, but elsewhere it is a struggle to carry the barge across the slippery, uneven surface. Everyone is already tired by the time they climb aboard and begin paddling. Thoughts of the Misty Fens loom large as Lake Firen is crossed…
…but there is no mist, no sucking whirlpool of death, no threats overt or otherwise. The spirit bombs are put away, but kept within reach. Cian eyes the shallows warily, wondering if the thrice-slain priest might feel his presence.
At the junction of the rivers where Cian recalls seeing the whirlpool, a curious phenomenon is visible beneath the surface. Long, slender icicles reach upwards from the bottom, all seemingly pointing towards a spot on the surface. Implausible thermodynamic speculations follow, none of which are AT ALL appropriate amongst a group that still believes the sun is a magic seed in a chariot or something.
Progress is steady if not speedy, and a few hours sees them reach the ford. The water flows faster here where the river is widest and shallowest. Close to the ice on the northern bank, they espy a strange tree protruding from the water. It proves to be the yoke of a submerged wagon, the driver still aboard, still at the reins, but very, very dead. He appears to be tied to the seat. Several boxes are seen on the back of the wagon…
Discussions ensue. Ideas are proposed for removing the boxes, the final solution involving Altraam’s Net of Frequent Usefulness and Trident of Hey This Thing Is Really Handy Too! Once all are removed the wagon itself is hoiked onto the ice via baulk, rope and a combined strength around seventy. Several iron spikes with broken ropes are discovered during this process, supporting speculation that the wagoners tried to recover it.
There are four simple spruce boxes, iron-reinforced and latched. They contain:
• 24 bronze ingots
• 20 jars pickled cabbage
• 20kg pickled pork
• 20 Cathornan longswords
Of greater interest is a locked strongbox attached to the base by a padlock. Tomas makes short work of both the padlock and the lock securing the box itself. Inside are the following:
• 3 x silver filigreed daggers
• a bag of 32 teeth radiating magic (HKA)
• a small pouch of gold dust (0.5 oz)
Everything is loaded into the barge, the wagon is pushed unceremoniously back into the water and the party sets off downstream.
As might be expected, Cillien’s new fishing boat pier, built with the help of Con of Aed and AXE BATTLER, is frozen and deserted. SS pass by, keeping low, and look upon new lands, previously unseen by Cathornans. The river widens and shallows some ten or so kilometres west of Cillien, and Altraam finds a place amongst willows and sedge to hide the barge.
Everyone sleeps. All is well until the graveyard shift, when unfamiliar calls spook Tomas. He wakes the party and there are tense moments as the calls seem to circle in. The moment passes when a call is followed by the flapping of wings, and all falls silent. Nonetheless, Yeld remains awake with Tomas until morning.
West, and far from home. A hidden hill
The morning is cold and a little uncomfortable. Frost is beaten loose from blankets before they are packed, and waterskins tucked under jerkins to thaw. Equipment is checked and everyone sets off across the ice to dry land. On reaching it, Tomas glances back at the monotonous white stretch of unfamiliar water. “How,” he wonders, “will we find our way back?”
The question is answered with a combination of Cian’s sniffer dog collar and a rag soaked in vinegar and dragged behind. The return path secured, they trudge across the desiccated eorna stubble, leaving a dark path through the fine white frost. On reaching the road, Cian picks out a landmark to guide the return. As insurance he also scribes a subtle symbol in the road, marking the point at which they crossed it.
A low range of hills, familiar from Seth’s tale, appears some twelve chilly kilometres later. A low hill is spied at the east end of the range, just as described. Second Skirmish approaches warily, expecting trouble, magic or vengeful Cillieners other than pleased at their homesteads being invaded and plundered. No such thing is encountered by the time the hill is reached, and explorations begin in earnest.
It proves challenging.
The lone hill seems to merge with the range. The flattened peak seems to morph into a ridge, fingering out from the larger range. The blind crest seems to lead to another crest, then another, then onto the higher hills. Perplexed and unable to progress, Second Skirmish try a variety of magical solutions, but none offer any clues, so the reset button is pressed and a new approach is discussed. More prosaic methods are tried: Cian, Tomas and Yeld gather and watch as Altraam ascends the hill. They watch him veer gently north as he climbs; directing him back onto the right line fails, and they realise he is only able to make progress by stopping, moving sideways and making another upward foray, essentially tacking up the hill against whatever magical pressure is misdirecting him.
By the time he reaches the apparent crest, he is taking two steps sideways for every three up. Nonetheless he reaches a high, deep fence of briars, and gestures everyone to follow. With a point of reference, they are able to make their way to his side. The briars are thick, resilient and vicious, thorns up to an inch long clawing and catching. SS caterpillar around the fence, but find no breaks in the barrier. They do however discern a faint wheelbarrow track in the dust. Testing the briars at this point, they discover the tough branches yield, bending inward to form a narrow tunnel to the other side. Second Skirmish passes through.

An ancient town
The remains of an ancient town appear beyond the fence. Cobbled paths, ruined buildings, water cisterns, wooden floors and the debris of everyday life are strewn across the shallow bowl of the hilltop. Some two hundred metres across, it is ringed by a ruined wall. Of the hedge there is no sign from within. It is warmer too; while still cold, there is no snow. Some power is evidently protecting the space from the chill weather of winter. Remembering the words of Seth, they spiral inwards, searching and prodding beneath every bush they see.
There is evidence of recent habitation scattered through the town. They see a handful of sheep, a few chickens, a good-sized vegetable patch (perhaps 1000 square metres) and a dozen or so fruit trees (peaches, apples and almonds). All are in good condition, and have been recently tended. The animals are clearly domesticated and show little fear of humans.
The search yields results. Near the centre there is a hollow sound when the ground beneath a juniper bush is prodded. A quick inspection reveals a cowhide stretched across a board, set with a brass ring near one edge. Precautions are decided upon and the board is lifted. Stairs lead down.

Down. But only a little
The stonework is good quality, close-fitting blocks of local dark stone forming steps and walls, with foot-wide single spans forming the ceiling. The architecture is similar to the buildings upstairs, either suggesting a common builder or perhaps a later phase of building using stone scavenged from the ruins.
The entrance presents a mundane sight. Shelves on both sides are stacked with tools and supplies for gardening, all in reasonable condition, at least some recently used. There is soil spilled on the floor, there are plant cuttings on the shelves, and every sign the space is being used by gardeners.
Beyond, SS discovers corridors forming a square, perhaps twelve metres on a side. Two large rooms are accessible by doors on the eastern corridor (nearest the entrance), one containing well-stocked shelves of a variety of foodstuffs, the other containing a wealth of weapons and adventuring gear. There is speculation that the similarities between the supplies therein and the goods found on the drowned wagon indicate some link.
While conducting the usual search for mystical tasties, Tomas detects something beyond the western wall. Taking the right hand corridors leads to a large and fairly well-equipped kitchen, with large kettles, stacks of simple but sturdy crockery and a well-flued fire pit. There is evidence that the kitchen has been used recently, though on a small scale.
A door in the corridor on the far side yields onto a pleasantly-furnished study. Second Skirmish has time to see comfortable chairs and a large table when they hear the groan of the entrance hatch opening and the low hum of voices. An ambush is quickly conceived and everyone gets into position, just as the session ends…
…and picks up next day with the sound of voices descending the stairs. Much of it is inaudible, but the words “Lady Edhril” and “fallen” are heard before the first figure rounds the corner. He is politely greeted by a Tomas crossbow bolt and a Yeld knife, then subjected to a brisk approach by Cian and Altraam. A second figure appears in time to receive a robust daen hug, which takes him to the ground. The first viction is engaged with pulling the crossbow bolt from his belly when Tomas attempts to assist him by loosening his head with his longsword. There is a gurgling and he topples sideways, quite dead. The hugged interloper is subjected to a vicious elbow lock that will compromise his tennis game for many days, while Altraam rounds the corner to investigate the third figure, backpack-burdened and unmoving on the stairs.

An old ‘friend’
It is Kel Porter. He is very much the worse for wear, his jaw askew, his nose mashed flat and one eye socket ruined, such that the eye peers permanently downward. His expression is utterly empty, and he reacts not at all to Altraam’s presence.
The other figure is also familiar: it is Argus, recently dispatched from Cathorna after a two-day pies-and-prostitutes binge, while the dead man is identified as his partner-in-Walker-servitude Tel. Argus and Kel are gagged and tied to barrels in the kitchen for further questioning.
Argus is not particularly forthcoming. He reveals that he has not been to this place before, that he doesn’t know who tends the garden, that Walker does occasionally come to the hideout and that he has only ever been told by Walker to bring stuff there, nothing more. It is apparent Kel is being used as a pack beast in this regard; checking his pack yields little more than clothing. Deciding that Walker cannot know they have found his hideout, SS openly discuss killing the pair, and Altraam frightens him further with a terrifying threat of eternal doom. He pleads for his life, and offers a valuable gift in return. On their instructions they remove a well-worn and carefully concealed document roll from beneath his clothes. It contains several notes…

Someone else’s mail…
(‘1’ signifies a florid Westron hand on quality vellum, ‘’2’ signifies a simpler hand on parchment)
The weather curse is weakening the cattle. It must be broken. Cathorna must believe the breaking of the curse is the action of the priests of the cattle; it shall further divide them from the Cathornans. See to it. A
Kul moves. He will fail. Drughal’s work must continue. A
Kul keeps his promise. The Huz move west, driven by their old foe and his new ally. A
Drughal’s redoubt is ready. His part is fraught; the cattle mistrust him. Aid him as he requires. A
My instructions were clear. Aid Drughal as he requires. Disobey again and you will suffer. A
Have a care in your dealings with Osomer. His allegiance is questionable, despite his history. Remember the name of your master. A
There are whisperings. Some speak of you as a foe of Cathorna. You have been careless. I trust that you are destroying these messages…A
I am sorry my friend; I cannot do as you wish. The Huz are too fragile. O
My thanks for your gift. Yes; it was taken north by Dorrigan He was followed beyond the Milden Hills, but he shook loose of my agents late at night. They found him on the return trail some twenty miles north, but he simply returned to Cathorna. I can tell you no more.
Do you seek it on the demands of your master? Or do you have some personal motive? Tread carefully; powerful forces are gathering around us…O
My thanks for your gift. It is better guarded than you might think, and they are always vigilant. The shadow of the attack still lingers, and they are yet to lower their guard. With so few present, it would be dangerous to attempt to recruit an agent amongst them. Hunters and travellers visit on occasion; perhaps some catspaw? I could be of some aid in this. O
No! You are a fool to think of recruiting him. His fresh doxy may already be with child, and there are names far greater than ours watching that union. O
I am sorry my friend. I cannot provide the things you need. So much was lost in the burning of the tower, and I have so little left to me. I fear the alchemist’s work must begin anew. Perhaps the old Huz encampment to the south? O
I understand, but there is little more I can do. You must explain to your master that the burning of the tower has set his work back months, perhaps years. And safe though his little redoubt may be, it is too small, too poorly equipped for his work. He will make slow progress. O
My thanks for your gift. I offer no promises, but I shall entreat your master to show lenience. And no, I cannot guess why the skirmishers were there at all. It was simply…bad luck. O

In florid elven script on vellum
My dear friend,
Two things. First, matters north of the river are my affair, not yours. Should your stumbling oafs cross the ford again I shall deal with them swiftly. No doubt you will think to inform your master of this, so spare you the temptation I have already done so. He values mithril above the allegiance of a few sack-garbed grub-rooting forest daen and their priests, so even if your bumbling plans succeeded you would still be in my shadow. Second, Cathorna is south of the river. Our master looks to you to subdue it, not me. I am busy enough with Colgar and goblins and overcurious adventurers, so kindly keep them away.
The Lady Edhril.

In florid elven script on vellum
My dear friend,
Why do my scouts report Cathornans ‘fishing’ in the willow marsh? Did you not heed my warning? The-priest-boy was among them; why has he not been gifted to the temple priests yet?
The Lady Edhril

In hasty elven script on vellum
You will suffer for this, Walker. I told you to control Cathorna. I told you to keep them away. I am summoned north to face Him; on my return, whatever price He demands for my failure I shall extract from you tenfold. Do not think to hide behind your master’s robes; there is nothing he can do that is the slightest echo of His wrath. You will pay.

Pleased with this bounty, Second Skirmish make no promises but do not kill Argus out of hand. “Be careful,” he warns as they leave. “When you enter the mine, do not take the stairs! They are trapped.”

Stairs and bears in there
The mine is behind the double doors in the western corridor. There is a small ante-room with large doors facing east and a well-made windlassed platform. Heeding Argus’ warning, Tomas and Altraam descend…
…and are greeted by darkness, and the smells of sulphur minerals and beast. There is a snarl, and an enormous bear swipes at them. In the light of Altraam’s torch they see a huge bear, six feet or more at the shoulder, with incisors as long as a finger. They dive from the platform and a one-sided battle begins. Tomas immediately lands a stunning blow on the beast, but his blade makes no impression on its skull. Several more strong hits make it apparent they cannot easily harm it, even after Altraam gorillas a damage roll. The situation worsens suddenly; Tomas feels something moving on his neck, and discovers a bat-like creature has latched on. He hurls it to the ground and blood flows freely from a non-painless wound.
Seeing the struggle below, Yeld chances the stairs. Cian follows close, running down to a gate barring the space in which Tomas and Altraam are trapped. There is a second gate; Cian stands ready at the second and calls them through as Altraam flings a bloodsucker from his own neck. They flee, and the gate is slammed shut in the bear’s angry face. In the light of several torches they see a floor scattered with dozens of human bones, most cracked and gnawed clean.
Clearly a little put out by his new friend’s error regarding the stairs, Tomas heads upstairs to remonstrate with Argus. The latter has freed an arm, but is prevented by a badly damaged elbow from making his escape. Tomas expresses his disappointment with several levels of longsword, and Argus’ attempts to plea for his life are cut bloodily short.
Downstairs, the mine appears to be just that, an angled seam striking east below the entrance. Nothing of interest is found, other than a few traces of copper ore clinging to the margins of the seam. The absence of any smelting facilities leads to a search, and a simple furnace is located after a fire is lit in the kitchen fireplace and the smoke is seen emerging from a primitive brick kiln in the ruins of an old building. One more question answered, Second Skirmish heads down to further investigate the study.
It is a pleasant space. While stuffy in the usual underground way it is well-furnished and simply decorated. There are three comfortable chairs, a cork board, a large well-made table, a sand box with collections of marker pins and string and figures and a map of the Firen valley nearly identical to Palanto’s. Chalk has been used liberally on it, especially round Cathorna, the Kine and Cillien, but everything is too heavily erased to yield useful information. There are also a few creature comforts like good glassware, pipes , some nearly-empty spirit bottles and a couple of ounces of slightly dry Eriadorian tobacco. The space is searched, Altraam applies his understanding of methods of concealment, but nothing further is discovered. They leave the space little disturbed, and go to the locked door in the northwest corner.
It yields after a detailed search reveals a tiny iron catch between two planks. Within are simple shelves with a handful of items on them:
• Unguents: All-heale (a non-magical balm for tired feet), a reddish-brown paste (healing), Delrean paste, a thick black paste with a crust on the surface and a nasty smell (Drain)
• Two bottles of the elixir Walker used on Kel (mind control)
• Two potions (life support) 100ml.
• A box of the fine silvery powder Kel was seen using (clairsentience)
• Two kegs of ‘Walker’s elixir’ (growth)
• Three kilos of salt in wooden boxes, 250g each
• Three tiny flasks of belladonna, recognisable by the smell.
All are swept into a bag for later analysis.
With the space thoroughly searched, plans for plundering begin. Thoughts of fetching a wagon from Cillien are discarded early in the piece; instead the one-wheeled barrow is located upstairs and loaded with plunder:
• Twelve ten-kilo bags of eorna
• Fifty longswords and fifty daggers, variously carried and on the barrow
• The tobacco (2 oz)
• Everything from the locked room
Before leaving, the hideout is subjected to several indignities. The vegetable garden is hacked flat (a jar of seeds is rescued), the bodies are brought upstairs, their heads are hacked off and the enemies of Cathorna are nailed upside down to the fruit trees.
Penetrating the briar barrier is easy from the inside. As they cross they feel something plucking at their clothes and look back to see it has reappeared. With the sun well down the return journey is undertaken quickly and with little fuss thanks to the open ground and time taken to secure navigation points, and the boat is reached late at night. Goods are unloaded and a steady three-day row sees Second Skirmish pulled up at the ice beyond the Cathorna breakwater.

Home again
Goods are transacted promptly. Six sacks of eorna are sold to Nedley for three silver each, and everyone takes a 250g box of salt for personal use. With the plunder secured, Palanto is roused for the usual debriefing.
The various notes take his attention immediately. He reads through them all, and is briefly silent. “So,” he says finally, “how do you plan to use this knowledge to better protect Cathorna?”
Discussions ensue, considering the part each player has in the game that seems to be whirling around Cathorna. In the middle of it all, Lim Ward enters, trail-dirty and tired, snow lightly dusting her helm and shoulders. She throws an enormous gauntlet on the table.
”Giants,” she says. “In the mountains. Working with the Kul.” She glances at the gauntlet, then to Second Skirmish. “Found that at the encampment you rousted late last year. Two Kul there too; seemed to be watching for something. Or someone. And we saw a giant too, though we didn’t stay to check his glove size. Thirty feet tall or more, he was. Coming down the mountain from the southeast.” Tomas does some quick calculations and estimates the gauntlet would fit a humanoid some thirty five feet tall. Cian does some calculations and estimates ten goblins with long sticks could manage both it and the giant footprint-maker.
The name ‘Drughal’ piques Cian’s interest. He speaks with his family, asking whether any of them have heard it before. He has no luck until he asks his aunt-by-marriage Blathnat.
“Drughal,” she repeats thoughtfully. “I heard that name, though years ago now, before I married your uncle. My family had a few outsiders join over the generations, and…perhaps fifty, sixty years ago? There were a few came over the mountains from the east, and I think there was a Drughal amongst them. Wasn’t with us long; he was banished, sent out and never heard of again. But east. East of the mountains. That I remember.”
Altraam meanwhile decides to ask Klud about the strange guest he saw at Beckett’s wedding some years ago:
“That feller?” Klud chews on his pipe.” I remember ‘im. Little fella, quiet, wore an ‘at made of rabbit skin. Noice bit o’work, I remember thinkin’. He stayed mebbe three, four days? Room at the inn, kept to ‘imself, di’n’t talk to many folk. Left soon after th’ wedding if I r’member.”
Grigg Bisker is Altraam’s next potential source:
“That one?” Grigg smiles as he deals. “Yup. Quiet sort. Didn’t talk to anyone much, just showed up at the wedding and left. Had a strange little religious symbol too. Not much else in his pockets though.” He eyes Altraam, smiles as he rakes in the winnings from their impromptu game. “Want it? Yours for a silver.” Altraam agrees; Grigg comes back soon after and hands him a little tin box containing two items: a tiny bronze mace on a chain, and a silver-coated mouse skull.
Cian seeks out Gord Bisker, nominal leader of the farming community, and gives him the jar of seeds. Gord is curious as to how such plants could grow in the depths of winter, and asks sharply whether some dark enchantment was involved in their growing. Cian assures him it was not, and Gord thanks him for the gift, seemingly mollified.
Hoping to address SS’s cash flow issues, Altraam approaches Keeper with the substantial quantity of salt looted from the hideout. Keeper’s greed gives way to suspicion, before he falls back on the even more familiar timidity.
“That’s a lot of salt, Atraam,” he says. “Is there…did someone die for you to get it?”
“We took it from our enemies, yes…”
Keeper shakes his head. “It’s too much! Were I to put this on my shelves, word would quickly spread that I have it. Someone out there, someone who knows…whoever used to own this…will make the connection. It would be risking too much to put this in my store!” He settles on buying two ounces for a silver each, and Altraam hides the balance.

The enemy of my enemy…
A chance to share the danger facing the Valley’s inhabitants arises with the monthly meeting on the bridge. Tomas goes, taking with him two of the messages and a note concealed on a food wrapper. Degan meets him as usual on the bridge, sharing with him food, wine and simple news of his home (“our stores are well-stocked with pickles and smoked meats, we have enough grain to see us through the winter if we are careful”). Tomas wastes little time with small talk, other than to mask the moment he surreptitiously shows Degan the two messages and an explanatory note:
We have recently found these two messages.
The first message was found in an underground area. In that same underground area an individual asked me to deliver a message to Fallon.
The second we captured from a person called Walker. We believe the ‘’A’ in the message refers to the same person, and is high up in your temple.
What more can you find out?
These forces are obviously trying to play your Temple against Cathorna. We wish to work together to stop this.
Be careful of these people.

Degan remains calm as he reads the message, but it is apparent he is alarmed. He shares a few brief pleasantries as he gathers his thoughts and his belongings, and bids Tomas a safe journey home before heading off at speed, leaving his two travel companions to pack up.
Second Skirmish gather and make the cold trek back to the village, portents hanging heavy in the air.

Session 16, 1 Aug 14

“Join me now, friends, in the prayer…the prayer of prosperity.”
Devon fumbles for the first words. You briefly see the whites of his eyes; some people are looking up by the time he begins.
From his side on the little stage, you can see the reactions of the gathered worshippers. The children are paying no attention, variously sniggering and playing their idiot games. The farmers have noticed little; Gord Bisker looks upward, hands clasping his ragged straw hat and begins intoning before Devon does. The Porters are right behind him, the Coopers joining in with their usual vacant expressions. Stonefoot and Crowherd are at the back; neither reacts, and they begin mumbling along as best they can. But Vflynn looks slightly bemused, Kotlas looks worried. Dellaran watches, silently, as Devon goes through the motions of the prayer.
At its end, Devon offers the sign of the hunter. “Our strength is in ourselves,” he says distantly, “and in our belief in each other. Thank you, friends, and…yes, thank you.”
Everyone files out. Most of the attendees seem untroubled, though as Seela Davon exits with Millie Danica, you hear her say “Well, that was a little off-colour. Devon’s heart didn’t seem in it today.”
As you file between the empty benches, gathering discarded slates, dropped toys and the inevitable food scraps, you hear briefly raised voices from Devon’s retreat. You listen, but all you catch is what sounds like Dellaran’s voice, saying something like “…the voice of Orome in this place! You have…”
Devon replies “Orome speaks when HE chooses! Closer to him you may be, but I have given…<he>…has not chosen to speak to me. It will pass, it will pass.”
You hear Dellaran speaking quietly. You catch “…might think something was troubling you, Devon. Something was giving you case to QUESTION your…”
Mumbled voices. Then you hear Devon shout, “There is nothing! There is NOTHING!”
The door opens. Dellaran leaves, quickly, casting only an unreadable glance at you.
Devon emerges, catches your eye. You see something odd in his expression; something close to self-conscious guilt. It passes, and he comes to your side to help.
“Some days the river is in flood,” he says “The fishermen return with full nets and lifted hearts. Other days it is sluggish and dank and they return with no more than a few carp. It is not my place to question why Orome looks elsewhere some days. Don’t worry, Altraam. There are ways to serve our home that are not at the mercy of a fickle Valar.”
Your mouth feels dry as you step into the circle of stones. The gathered tribe snarls as you look about; you feel their contempt, know they are here only to see the usurper put back in his place. The snarls become lusty shouts as the champion enters opposite; even your one-time friends calling his name as he stretches, crouches, beats at the ground with his huge gloved fists.
Your feel the gauntlets tighten in response, the fingers flexing and curling. Fear leaves you, the coldness you felt at your friends’ disregard turns to contempt for their weakness. You remain still while the champion prances and leaps and cavorts like a fool, his scarred belly sagging and swinging in time to his ridiculous dance. He slows after a minute of this, his face red, his breath short.
The chief stands. He raises his club. The gathered warriors fall silent; in the distance you briefly hear the inane chatter of the womenfolk, the wailing of their hideous brats.
The chief’s club falls. The warriors bellow; the champion charges, head low and arms out. The gauntlets move before you do; your hands are suddenly raised high, clenched in a single iron fist. You sidestep, but he catches you in a meaty arm, sweeps you up and locks his hands behind your back. Though fat and ageing, you are reminded why he has been champion since before the orc war as the breath is squeezed from your lungs.
But your hands are free. They are suddenly locked on his head; tips touching, you feel their strength tell, your fingers binding, your grip tightening. His own hold tightens; you feel a dull pop as a rib surrenders, but you maintain pressure. He groans, relents; you breathe, press tighter, locking thumbs beneath his jaw, fingers across his scalp, pressing, squeezing, crushing until
His skull yields with a sound like a cleaverbeak egg cracking. You press harder, the gauntlets sinking through the sundered remains of the champions head, blood and gore coursing down his back as you growl low, feel a soul-deep satisfaction as your palms meet where his life once was.
He collapses to the ground. The warriors look on. They say nothing, but at a warning snarl they lower their gaze and speak the words of acknowledgement. YOU are the champion now. YOU will lead the next battle. And you will hold on to your new-found power with an iron grip.

“No, no, no!”
Elesse’s voice is a whip; you flinch at her tone, see the flickering light in your palm waver and fade. Her eyes blaze; you swallow nervously, look back to your cupped hands and hurriedly whisper the words she taught you. The light rekindles, a tiny glow almost invisible in the warm sunlight of her turret sitting room. Dellaran looks up from his book; there’s no smile this time, just a thin-lipped disappointment that’s harder to bear than Elesse’s anger.
She sighs. “You see the other side. But you clutch at it as a child clutches at a flower. You must grasp it, BRING it to you, OPEN yourself to it, and shape it to see your will done. You said this, you know this. Your words that day showed you understand: the light is the flood, and your mind, your skill, is the millstream that contains and shapes it. Now show me…”
Her voice recedes. She’s still speaking, but you can’t make out the words. Another voice whispers quietly in your mind; you feel your lips moving, shaping the words that are appearing to you, feel them binding to your memories as if they had been a part of you as long as your own name.
The light flares suddenly. Elesse stops mid-word, staring as it brightens to cast hard-edged shadows on the walls of the room. Dellaran shields his eyes, peers at you between his fingers.
You let it fade. You feel the words, close, accessible, that will bring it back, and the shapes you must learn to channel the power you are tapping. Elesse nods.
“Good, Erfiren. Good. Clearly you have been practising without telling me.” She studies you curiously. “That will do for today I think. Next time we speak, we shall consider how you might harness this power.”
As she recedes from you and the room lenses inward, you catch a last glimpse of Dellaran. His hands are lowered. He’s leaning forward. There’s curiosity in his gaze too, but there’s something more. As you find yourself in the cool darkness of your room, you stare into the glass sphere and wonder if what you saw was suspicion.

“You must go, tonight.”
Three tense days have passed since you chose freedom. You’ve seen flames flicker in the homesteads nearby, known that they were lit by your neighbours, your friends, as they gathered their possessions and fled. They came to see your father, in ones and twos, armed and accompanied; the question was never asked, but each time, your father said the same thing: “Living under the king’s gaze no longer makes us safer.” Their homes burned behind them as they left.
And now the stranger in your home. He came at sundown, alone on a black horse. Fifty or more, he is powerfully built, with long, dark hair, his stature unbent by age. You were surprised to see your father offer a respectful bow at the gate; your mother drew you away with talk of chores and study.
You were at the curtain soon enough, listening closely to their words.
“Tonight.” Your father sounds worried. “Our friends…some of them remain. If we were to go before them…”
“…then you will live where they will perish.” The stranger’s voice is strong, insistent. “I have heard the king’s intent. His scribe is in my confidence; he sent me word the moment your son declared, and he has heard more since. His bandits ride at dawn to surround and imprison you.”
The stranger’s voice softens. “Gel, you think you are safe here. Your walls are strong, your larders are full. But your men number less than a dozen!”
“A round dozen,” your father says. “The hostler, Budych, joined us last night.”
The stranger sighs. “As you say, Gel. But frightened hostlers and saddlers are no match for thirty or more of the king’s cutthroats. And once you are done, they will ride for your neighbours’ homes. And they will die as surely as you, if you stay one more sunrise.”
“He’s right.” Your mother sounds resigned. “We’ve done what we can, Gel. Of all our friends, only the Tarns and the Baxels remain, and they’re too blind to see what’s happening.”
There’s a pause. You hear your father tapping his pipe in his palm, the way he does when he has to punish a man, discipline you, or to make some other hard choice he would rather not. “I know,” he says. “I know. I’ve known since this morning when I saw the patrols return to the city. He’s mustered his men. They’ll ride at dawn.”
You hear the creak of his chair. “We go, now. Lausanne, give the word. As we planned.” You hear her footsteps recede as she heads for the servants’ quarters.
“So,” says the stranger. “My offer stands. I could use you. With my men and your horses, we could keep the orcs and brigands a hundred miles from our doors. You would live well, live safe. Live free as men were made to!”
“No, my friend,” your father replies. “I break one oath this day. I’ll not break another. I promised my uncle I would go to Cathorna. And so I shall.”
You hear the swish of chain armour, the soft clatter of greaves. “As you say, Gel. But should you change your mind, there will always be a place for you in Enotar.”
“My thanks, Gerd. Ride safe.”
You hear the door open. By the time it closes you’re in your room, slinging your pack over your shoulder and buckling your sword at your side.

Celebration, interrupted
Second Skirmish have returned from the mountain, leaving it unravaged by fire. Cian’s tale is ending and his Free Beer power is kicking in when a breathless Lim Ward makes her way through the crowd to Tomas’ side.
“Klud told me to find you,” she pants. “It’s the dwarves. They’re leaving!”
Tomas thanks her for the news and hastens to the gate.
“Six of ‘em, master Tomas!” Klud informs him. “Ol’ Grim among ‘em! In a bit of an ‘urry too!”
Twenty minutes’ fast walk sees him catch their party as the near the turnoff to the Low Paddock.
Discussion ensues…
“This is dwarven business, Tomas,” warns Durgan. “Don’t interfere.” Grim speaks, confirming Tomas’ suspicions regarding the Hill: there is mithril there, and “it is no thing to be in the hands of their kind.” Tomas agrees, and offers what aid he can. “To what end?” asks Grim. “To see mithril on your anvil? Or to see Cathorna’s children safe?” Tomas assures his friends the children are his first concern.
“Well,” says Durgan. “We could use a distraction. Can you build a fire?”
Agreement is reached. Towitts change hands. Tomas quickly returns home and summons Second Skirmish. Everyone attends, though Vflynn begrudgingly for some reason, and a plan is hammered out. Preparations begin the next day. Altraam suggests Tomas recreate the torch used in the Huz ambush, but the plan then shifts to the manufacture of ‘Cian’s Faggots’: kindling bundles soaked in coal oil. Tomas gets busy with the smelly process of making coal oil while everyone else gathers and assembles. A good dozen are ready when they set out early in the morning.
The barge Is iced in, and needs to be broken out. Only a narrow (fifty metre) channel remains in the middle of the river; it is as cold a winter as anyone remembers for many a year. Altraam, Cian, Erfiren, Tomas, Vflynn and Yeld dip their oars and set off downstream.
Frost silvers everything and everyone within half an hour, crackling and glittering in dim moonlight as it flakes from limbs, beards, cloaks. The river is silent, sluggish, only the grind of ice floes competing with the rhythmic splash of the rowers. A place to land is found just past the cliffs on the northern bank; the barge is tied off to ice spikes and the journey continues on foot.
Little shares the night, and the flank of the Hill is made in quick order. The snow is deeper, the grass sparser, but little else has changed since the recent scout.

Earth to Dellin…
The promised signal does not come.
The Towitt is inspected, tapped, peered at. Questions are asked as to whether it still works, how to test it, whether there is some magical interference across the Hill. Without means to check, Second Skirmish realise they have no way of knowing whether the dwarves are dead, dying or sharing a mug of brandy at the inn. Uncertain how to proceed, they fall back on the familiar, and start a great big fire.
Cian’s faggots prove a roaring success. A carefully timed exercise sees several trees burning from root to tip in short order, the blaze surely visible from miles away. Nobody comes. Second Skirmish retreat from the light and heat of their efforts. Nobody comes. An hour passes, and the flames die to a flicker, sparks rising from heaped embers.
Somebody comes.

The Two Unknowns
Erfiren hears voices. Two, male, close; he stalks nearer, listens, hears only the occasional word about ‘traps’, ‘distractions’ and ‘them, the Skirmishers’. Deciding they need information, Second Skirmish steal closer and spring to the attack, surprising two armed men bearing an axe and a sword.
Things do not go well. Cian barely misses an early opportunity to neutralise one of the two fighters, and they do not relinquish the initiative thereafter. Cian’s attacks are evaded, Erfiren’s are blocked, and it is minutes until Tomas arrives. “Run,” snarls the swordsman. “Run while you can.” His offer is rejected, and the struggle continues. One crouches, utters a few words and drives something into the ground; Cian feels it cling at his feet, upsetting his balance, spoiling his attacks. Erfiren seeks for the focus of power, but sees nothing. Tomas puts his all into the attack, but is unable to penetrate their defences. Cian suffers a grazing blow that exposes ribs and muscle, then the swipe of an axe near-cleaves Erfiren in two. He falls back, blood pouring from a deep rent across his chest. As the clinging spell thickens and Cian near-loses his balance, the two back away. “Leave,” they say. “There is nothing for you here.” Then there is a brief, low conversation; one looks to the stricken Erfiren, utters something about “the heir” and “destiny.” A decision is reached; the swordsman pulls a small flask from his belt, tosses it. “Drink this,” he says. “Then go.” Erfiren drinks. His chest feels cold, then warm. The bleeding ceases, and there is a pale pink line across his chest where the wound was.
Undaunted, Second Skirmish decide not to pursue the two, instead circling north to the cave where they once hid. Neeshka’s ‘ladder’ is found; gear is checked and the climb begins.

Up, then across
A tough-looking ascent proves easier than expected. Climbing stakes, recently emplaced, offer a fast route up. Made of good Cathorna steel and spaced for dwarves, conclusions are quickly reached. Almost as quickly reached is the end of the stake ladder, just past a narrow almost-ledge. Second Skirmish backs up, moves along, finds a stake. There is a nerve-wracking swing across a broad gap between handholds, then an acrobatic crouch to enter a thigh-high opening in the wall. The safety rope proves its worth when Erfiren misses the catch; he is quickly reeled in, pale and sweating from the near-tumble from fifty metres. He crouches, shuffles inside and everyone begins crawling down the dark, cramped passage.

Stonefoot’s end
They are not the first to use it. A goblin, run through, is found near the entrance. A second body is felt, soaked in blood. It is only when Erfiren enters and activates his light crystal is it revealed to be Stonefoot Gainson, apprentice smith. His throat is cut, and he has been dead some hours.
The tunnel opens out onto the inside of what is indeed a broad volcanic caldera. Near-vertical sides and a concave floor enclose trees, grass, a small pool, a broad, dark tunnel entrance large enough for a cart on the western side. To the east is the cleft observed from without, a track leading across the floor to the tunnel mouth. Four circular wooden hatches are visible, as is a metres-deep timber-lined circular pit

The caldera
Goblins patrol the floor. Rag-robed humans chained to runners pick listlessly at rows of flourishing vegetables and trees. A switchback path trails twenty metres up the walls, offering access to half a dozen sheltered watch houses. Second Skirmish are behind and above on, and descend silently behind the cover of the tall trees before skulking to the pit. Evidence suggests it is used for fighting, by animals or humanoids or both; regardless, it offers no ingress.
The hatches are more interesting. They are warm, and wisps of stem emanate from the perimeter. The lid is lifted to reveal a vertical shaft. Cian descends via slippery moss-covered handholds cut into the stone; Second Skirmish follow close.

Down, down
A complex system of caves sprawls beneath. Methodical exploration reveals living spaces, cooking spaces, what might be a crude hospital, storage for food, timber, metal ores. Occasional goblins are encountered and quickly dispatched; a spidery humanoid seen skulking near the ceiling is dispatched by a swift arrow. More shafts are discovered, one with a windlass, guarded by two more goblins. The party descends, find more caves, more storage, a cave full of food barrels swarming with rats. Close by, two enormous wolves trapped in a barred cave watch them silently, a daunting glint of intelligence in their eyes. An underground amphitheatre is discovered; in it, three goblins watch a bear fight a wolf. Erfiren attempts to steal closer, but is seen; they flee, locking themselves in an animal cage and releasing a huge grass cat. Acting quickly, Second Skirmish slams the gate shut, trapping the cat within. It ignores them, instead heading into the pit to feast on the dead bear. The goblins are treated to a volley of arrows and left to die.

Muncher (rug)
The explorations are not without hidden dangers. All seems quiet; too quiet in fact. A head count show Cian has vanished from the rear. Backtracking illuminates what appears to be a large wriggling grey roll of carpet. D&D instincts kick in, and the thing is gingerly attacked, Erfiren attempting to slit it open from within like a fish. The thing is horribly murdered, and a bewildered, slightly squished but otherwise unharmed Cian emerges from the clutches of the terrifying RUG MUNCHER. The light fades from its tiny slitted eyes as the last breath hisses from the circular mouth lined with vicious triangular teeth.
Realising the goblins are absent from their home, Second Skirmish seek a way down. One is found, but it is guarded by four men. Two are familiar: axe and sword guy from the earlier fight , now accompanied by mace and flail guy. They are fit, lean, armoured and disciplined, speaking quietly and paying close attention to their surroundings. The party retreats, deciding to test the double doors seen earlier.

Where’s the chief?
A huge goblin is within. The room is lavish, hung with carpets and curtains and furnished with a large bed, a table, wash stand and wardrobe, all jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the caves. The goblin sits, wrists shackled to a stake driven into the stone. He eyes them warily as they enter.
Discussions ensue.
It transpires that the goblin is Burog, one-time chieftain of the tribe. He ruled when they were forced to join the attack that became Fourth Cathorna, though his people call it ‘The Great Wasting’ (on which occasion he admits that Cathorna’s children were taken). He says ‘the elf witch’ and her man-slaves came from the north when mithril was found in the mountain, they demanded his obedience, and chained both him and his shaman when they refused. He refuses to help, telling them they will all die if they attack the four men. When they speak of fighting the elf witch, Vflynn looks uncertain; “She’s really bright,” she says.
Further conspiring is cut short by an imperious voice from without: “I think that’s enough. Come out now.” Yeld seems disinclined to walk into captivity, but agrees to go along. As the doors open, Burog throws a curtain across the prone Cian, growling “Not move!” Mystified, Cian complies.

The lady Edhril is not amused
And elf woman stands at the head of a troop of fifty armed goblins. A man, tall, thin and well-dressed in travel garb stands beside her. “The Lady Edhril is disappointed by your intrusion,” he announces. “Her patience is limited; you would be advised not to test it.” After a brief and condescending soliloquy, she directs them to march down the slope. They grudgingly comply. Cian meanwhile witnesses one of the four men speak briefly to Burog before clubbing him unconscious. Cian carries the injured goblin to Carpet Muncher Corner to consider his next move.
The lower level is a prison. Second Skirmish see the dwarves in one of the cages, two greatmen in another, a tall strangely garbed goblin in a third. They are ushered into their own cage, still fully equipped, and the door is locked. Yeld seems to be taking it all rather badly, and has a few harsh words to say about Second Skirmish and their talent for getting him locked up. Tomas produces his trump card with a flourish, pulling out a key that will unlock the cage.
Things do not however go to plan when the door is opened. Other prisoners shout for them to return to their cells, just as large familiar centipedes begin to fall from the darkened recesses above. They retreat to their cage.
Shortly after, Erfiren is removed from the cage and taken before the Lady Edhril. She speaks of the voice he hears; when he is not forthcoming, she says, “The voice is no friend of yours.” He asks questions, but she simply sighs and acts disappointed, then says “I have a message for you to give him.” Next thing, he is dragged into the cage.
As they throw Erfiren into the cage, Second Skirmish make a break. Altraam sweeps the leg, then charges out, nets the dog and runs it through, stopping it opening the troll cages. Tomas kicks their jailer unconscious, then they quickly ferry all the dwarves out while the goblins Shaman laughs. “She will eat your minds!” he mocks. They head up the ramp
She is waiting for them as they ascend. Undaunted, they attack the her on the ramp. The charge is rendered ineffective by her sleep spell, which leaves Tomas insensate on the ground. Altraam stabs her, but some ensorcelment protects her; it is the dwarf Ougan who is pierced. Seeing his chance, Cian charges. Those who see him coming feel a powerful compulsion to warn the Lady; they resist and he grabs her, bearing her towards the lava. She latches on to his mind as he squeezes her, and mental shenanigans ensue. She seems to turn into Fina and mind controls him into thinking the lava is rising. He falls to his knees, gripped by the searing pain and fades out.
Tomas recovers. Seeing a chance, he makes a break, climbing up the shaft, where he meets the four. He bolts between them, making it to the surface, where his is surrounded by goblins in the tomato garden. Cut away…

Altraam and the dwarves nearly make it out, but are also surrounded at one of the holes and marched back. Erfiren is still out, seemingly in some kind of dreamland with Yeld and Vflyn. They sit on a grassy hill talking. Vflynn and Yeld tell him not to say anything stupid, then the goblin shaman appears in their dream. They talk to him briefly, and there are attempts to persuade him to act. He demurs at first, but Yeld and Erfiren say they can make a difference. The goblin shaman is noncommittal as he leaves them.
In the real world, the goblin shaman starts chanting. The red glow from a tunnel in the prison level intensifies, and the smell of sulphur worsens. Altraam joins in his chanting. Elsewhere, Yeld say “It’s time.” He rises; Vflynn and Erfiren follow. They enter a cave beneath a tree, follow a dark tunnel, towards a table set with a flickering candle. The Lady sits at it, reading a book. She looks up, places down her book and rises as they approach. They attack. She fends them off effortlessly, her bored expression persisting, until once again, Erfiren hears the voice. He utters the words it speaks; flames begin to ripple and dance on his hands. As they grow, the Lady’s expression changes, and she turns towards him, just as he raises his hands and looses a blast of fire at her.

A curse
She vanishes. Erfiren finds himself back in the cage, alongside Yeld and Vflynn. He is in time to see the Four throw everyone else back in the cage. Altraam hurls a curse at the four as they retreat, angrily swearing that it will be THEIR souls that he will drag into blackness. The one with the mace pauses, looks back wide-eyed at Altraam as they leave before the advancing lava.
A chance to escape comes unexpectedly when Cian begins chanting, calling for aid from his indifferent gods. The ground unexpectedly shifts, snapping the lock off. He frees the dwarves and one of the greatmen , who frees his buddy. The goblin shaman stays in his cage, ignoring their entreaties. Cian frees the girls, who attack him viciously when he drags one of them by the hair, and everyone flees for the surface as the lava rises.
They are greeted by the four at the entrance. “Make it a good fight,” growls one. They raise their weapons
Just as a crossbow cracks, and a heavy bolt pierces the axe wielder. Goblin arrows hail down on the four, then there is a roar as the host charges, weapons drawn.
The chief eyes Tomas fiercely. “Deal done,” he growls. “Leave us. Our hill!” Second Skirmish flees, dwarves, greatmen and children in tow.

Home again
There is brief and largely unsuccessful communication with the greatmen. They are given water; both are entranced when Altraam makes a little music to entice the girls closer. It is ineffective in its intended purpose however. Durgan says he is troubled by the idea that men and elves are pursuing mithril, and wonders at a creature like Edhril coming to such a place in search of it.
They head southeast and stop at the edge of the forest. Altraam casts his spell when Erfiren claims the elf witch has been banished, based on his experiences beneath the tree in the strange otherworld.)
The greatmen make their way east, parting on seeming good terms. The two rescued girls are less trusting, and stalk the party at a distance through the night. With time and patience, Erfiren and Vflynn manage to lure the girls to the anthracite mine, where lighting a fire and playing hopscotch brings them in. Altraam crosses over and brings Dornas Volker back; once he shows them a couple of old straw dolls, they come in close and sit with him. He says one is his older daughter Dimi, the other is the younger Alantar girl, Clea.
On their return, Cian gets his wound treated by his cousin Teagan.
Time passes…

Hunt them Huz?
Deciding to forcefully investigate the Huz stronghold seen earlier in the year, Second Skirmish set an ambush at the log crossing on the Laska. There are signs of humanoid activity: footprints, old campsites, wear on the log crossing. A cold and uncomfortable night doesn’t bring orcs, but it does bring the sound of something huge, moving south to north on the far side of the river. Discretion wins out over curiosity and they stay put. The next day, enormous footprints, almost a yard long are found. Branches are snapped from trees several metres up as if something large passed by. Following them to the swampy banks of the Firen, they find ruined cleaverbeak nests. The ambush is abandoned for the moment.
The tale of the men of Dunlostir is discussed. A connection is made between the tale they were told in the temple, and the features of the Valley. They realise there is some connection between the Temple of Belial and the Kine priests…
Tomas and Palanto talk about Osomer, confirming that he is the priest of a 500 year old king. More than anything, Palanto is curious as to Osomer’s motivations. The question of the identity of ‘A’ (Androd? Arnos?) also troubles him; he says the kine priests are less of a threat, but he does not like the idea of them being in any way involved with Osomer.
Second Skirmish leave the log crossing and its terrifying giant frequenters for another day, deciding to investigate the old Huz camp, destroyed on Long Patrol some years ago. The ground is familiar; they stalk close and watch from a distance, observing two men sitting beside a small smokeless fire. Barrels and boxes are close by, and there seems to be a large pit dug where the old palisade was. They close in, and get the drop on the two men.

The pit. The animals. Walker!
Neither seems inclined to die for the cause. They say they are Tel and Argus of Cillien, and are simply paid workers, feeding the animals in the pit. They claim they work six week shifts, feeding the food that is brought to them by others. Inspecting the food reveals it is enchanted with growth magic.
The two men are taken to Cathorna in ropes and locked in the tower. On discussing their punishment, Palanto says they should be fed and kept and given prostitutes. Neither seems particularly troubled by this fate.
Second Skirmish return to the site, hoping to follow the magic back to its source. Disguises are effective enough to trick two bearers close, and they are captured. They seem equally inclined to talk, and say they are Ted and Beleg, the former seeming a little dim, and unable to do more than grunt and say ‘hello!’ when struck a firm blow to the head. They seem mystified by Second Skirmish’s concerns; they insist it is just food, treated with a preservative provided by Walker to keep it fresh for the long journey. They are troubled by the prospect of Second Skirmish spoiling a good, easy job.
Meanwhile, back in Cathorna, Tel and Argus petition to stay. Tel scrawls a simple and direct note for delivery to his wife, simply stating, “Come to Cathorna, you stupid cow.” They say they are a hunter and a leatherman by trade.
Returning to the earlier plan, Ted and Beleg are released. Second Skirmish stalk them, the pair heading straight past a darkened Cillien to a homestead some ten kilometres beyond. They wear simple peasant disguises; nonetheless, archers watch them closely as they pass the town. Confusion ensues at the homestead. Second Skirmish gain access via a rear door, terrifying the seemingly simple family therein. They demand to know where ‘Walker’s elixir’ is, and are shown a barrel beneath a table in the scullery. They take it and head out after securing the family long enough to give them a good start. Altraam leaves them a silver by way of apology.
Erfiren takes the time out to venture into Cillien and buy himself half a yard of new silk for ten silver. While there he hears gossip about Walker, confirming that he has visited, has been busy, and is well-regarded by the people of Cillien. He also takes the time to completely forget the oft-given advice to call himself ‘Tannerman’, announcing proudly to the guards on the bridge that his name is Erfiren Erendoor, and his favourite colour is blue.
The walk back is hard on everyone.
Ninety kilometres in the space of 36 hours is a lot, and Second Skirmish are tired and sore and almost unable to move by the time they make it back to the old fort at the bridge. With the help of the day’s patrol they make it home without incident.

A late visitor…
It is late evening. Tomas is writing in his journal when there is a rapping tapping at his door. He opens it, sees no one. Until he looks down…
At his feet is a tiny black figure, leather-skinned and bat-winged. It looks up at him with cloudy oversized eyes, then hands him a scrap of vellum. On it there is a note, inked in a florid hand:
The creature looks to Tomas, holds out a tiny hand. A coin is rejected out of hand; only when he hands the tiny creature a scrap of meat does it seems satisfied. Without another glance it turns away, chewing on the morsel, and disappears into the cold Cathorna night.

Session 15, 14 Apr 14

“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.

Militia men
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…

Aquahulk smash!
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 Stranger
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.
Time passes

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.

Silver Hill?
Time passes. Silver Hill is visited. Second Skirmish return. The dwarves leave. Tomas promises to build a fire…

Session 14, 19 Dec 13

As the tree fell, they rose in a black cloud from its branches, uttering no sound as they took to the air. You dropped the axe and ran, seeing their glittering eyes turn to you, seeing talons outstretched as they swooped, their wings a rushing wind. The crows claw at you, peck for your eyes, beaks scraping bloody gouges across your scalp. You beat at them, trying to protect your face, you run for the shelter of your family’s hut, only to discover it is a burnt-out shell strewn with charred corpses. With nowhere to hide you grab a scorched and stained blanket, wrap it around your head and shoulders. You feel them grab at you, pulling at the blanket, clinging to you, the weight of them growing. You fall to the ground, unable to move, unable to breathe for the weight, the smell, the violent, struggling mass atop you. At the last you call for your nan, seeing dead grey moonlight as they tear through the blanket and
You wake up. You’re home. It’s cold; your blankets are twisted tight around you. Silhouetted against the door is a lone figure, a man you think, heavily wrapped in furs. You smell smoke, see the faintest glow of an ember on the extinguished torch in the figure’s hand.
He shakes his head. As he turns away, you hear him utter the words “Our time,” before his footsteps recede into the night.

Everyone enjoys Devon’s parables. And this morning’s was no different. The incident with Elesse beforehand left you unsettled; her talk of choices and blood and souls frightened you a little, but hearing Devon speaking confidently on the benefits of unity against the dangers of outsiders reassured you. Beckett was there, but he had left his ears at home as Devon says; he spent the whole time looking and smiling at Ella from the moment she walked in with her family. Mason Cooper didn’t notice straight away, but he caught on quickly. And you couldn’t help thinking Beckett did it on purpose, waiting until Cooper was looking before smiling and mouthing something to Ella across the chapel. At one point you’re sure he winked at her father; the scowl on his face made it clear it was not well-received.
You listen as always to people’s inane gossip as they file out. You hear snatches of unflattering talk about Cillien, about the haughty Deanna, master of the Healing House, about Stenner, their stern uncompromising militia captain, no friend to the Cathornans who occasionally deal with him. You also notice people watching Beckett and Ella’s ill-disguised flirting, and see the smiles and nods that just last week would have been frowns and unflattering gossip. You realise that was exactly what Devon intended.
You’re gathering the wooden toys set out to distract children as Devon talks with you. Most of it is the minutiae of the day. Not all of it is trivial.
“Elesse’s words troubled you, Altraam,” He is reassembling an often-broken model of one of Seela’s boats as he speaks. He shrugs. “She may be right. We may be heading down some dark path. But that is so of all our actions. When you see two strangers fighting outside the inn, do you intervene? Whose side do you take? The weaker? The stronger? Do you know who is the right and who is the wrong? They are closed books to you; who do you aid, and who do you restrain? You’re forced to guess and there is as much chance you help evil as good. But when you see a Cathornan struggling with a stranger, what do you do? Myself? I would stand with the basest among us before I would stand with a king I did not know. And so it is with Beckett and the Cilliener; the least part of his happiness comes before anything I might think to do for a stranger from Outside. Elesse is a servant of powers greater than all Cathorna. The sweep of her gaze sees far beyond our walls. And I fear that she would sacrifice us all for some greater good we Men cannot conceive. I’ll not have that Altraam. I’ll not see a single Cathornan sacrificed for another’s protection.” He shrugs. “Perhaps that is the choice she wants you to make.”

The tumbling, roaring chaos of the water is behind you. A little food and a rough blanket restored some life to your feeble limbs, some clarity to your clouded eyes. You look out, knowing that the things you see are distant, too distant to be YOUR memories, yet you know it is you that experienced these things.
Four faces peer at you. Hoods, hats, travel cloaks mask their identities; you feel no threat, only a wide-eyed wonder at the attention they lavish upon you.
“You are certain?” says a voice. It grumbles with encroaching age, but there is quiet strength behind the words.
“Without a doubt.” The second voice is young, strong, resolute. “I feel the weight of the ages behind him.”
“And the tragedy before him.” A third voice, soft and comforting. “We place a burden on his shoulders by our actions.”
“Not his shoulders.” The second voice again. “The one who follows him shall bear the burden of which you speak.”
“He must not know.” The first voice. “All of this, all that has brought him here, it must be kept from him. Or his own knowledge, his own quest to discover his past will be his undoing. And ours.” You feel a cool breeze spring from nowhere, then feel a soft hand upon your eyes. You hear a gentle whispering: the second voice again. The words are there, you feel them wash through you, but they are gone as quickly, and they take the memories of the past with them, leaving you new and empty and innocent of horror.
The second voice speaks. “I will prepare the boat. The village is not far; their loggers will be near the rapids at sundown. Help me with the sail…” You hear a name, but it slips away like silk between smooth fingers.
Two of the faces vanish. You hear the first voice again. “He will need warmer clothes. Give him to me, I shall fetch a blanket from…”
A fourth voice speaks. You turn instinctively to the speaker; his voice is like honey stirred through fresh cream, smooth, sweet and irresistible. “I would have a moment with the child.”
“Alone? But what…”
“A moment.”
A moment passes, then sky above where two faces had been.
“You will remember this moment, little one.” The voice is soothing, relaxing. “It does not suit me that you blunder unprepared into your future. Remember the night that has passed. Remember the things that went before. Know what they mean, when the time comes for you to know. And remember ME; for I shall guide your eye, and show you secrets others would keep from you. Trust in me. Trust in yourself. Remember. Now sleep.”
You drift, feel a gentle rocking, hear voices, the quiet slap of waves on timber. A familiar voice close, then a hand on your face, a gentle touch, suddenly firmer, suddenly painful.
Your eyes snap open. Vflynn’s face is mere inches away. She grins, lets go of your ear, then kisses you on the cheek, rolls away and stands to look down on you reprovingly. She shrugs, smiles. “It’ll never happen.”
You ask her what has happened, how you came to be in her bed. “You were drunk,” she tells you. “Came stumbling in last night. I think you thought this was your house. You started wittering on about your…density? and pawing at me. I was tempted to see how far you’d get before you lost your way, but then you called me Leah, so I kneed you in the fork and dropped you on my bed.” She grins, shuffles a pan atop her stove. “Eggs?”

The quiet of the day
Altraam speaks to Beckett. He tells him there have been whispers at Defiance Hill about THE DEAD RISING FROM THE EARTH! EVIL THINGS COMING FROM BELOW! Altraam suggests to Beckett that telling people of such things serves nobody. Beckett denies doing it. Altraam does not pursue the issue, simply telling him not to do it again.
It’s a fresh cold morning. The wind is down, the snow is light on the ground and everyone is feeling good. Autumn’s furs are cured and on people’s backs and beds. The shops are full of winter produce and people are setting out with travel sacks, tents and backpacks on their own personal missions. The on-duty militia are training in charges, crashing into the wooden shields and falling laughing in heaps as Dorrigan bellows reprovingly for them to take it more seriously. Neeshka bounces into the circle around the fire you’ve built and says “So. Second Skirmish. We’re free of duty for the next week: let’s do Stuff!”
Discussion ensues. A vague inclination to investigate the world north of the river hardens to a determination to see what is in store beyond the range of hills northeast of the Misty Fens, at the confluence of the Firen and Bethe rivers. The rumoured mines and towers and tunnels of the Milden Hills are put on the itinerary too. Cian speaks to his family, looking for hints and tips about these places, but is simply told they are too far west to be familiar to the O’C clan. Talk with Dellin over rats and possums barbecued above the forge coals is more fruitful; he informs Cian that dwarves did indeed mine the Hills, at the western end. He speaks of gold and perhaps other metals coming up from short-lived workings there, later reworked by Men and perhaps orcs, confirming words spoken by Skavik during caravan some time ago. Dellin adds that he doubts any dwarves would have remained in such a small place, so far from their brothers.
Altraam takes advantage of preparation time to give an oration…
“We are the voice of those gone before us; without us their legacy is lost. It is a simple idea and one I think we should all support, but like most things in life there are challenges.
For the closer we are to loss, the harder it is to accept. Grief can silence the strongest of us while anger with no outlet can become a blinding rage. For some self-pity and resentment will lead to despair and a loss of hope.
The solution lies within us all: in how we support each other. The words of friends and family will ease the pain; they will allow fond memories to return and in time a person can find peace.
If was like this for me when my friendship caused a woman to be tortured and thrown to her death. For too long the pain of that silenced me, but time and the support of friends has given me the strength to overcome my grief.
Now I wish to share what she did for me: for us all. Her name was Sala…”
Afterwards, he speaks to Dornas, tell him not to give up hope and claiming he may be able to find the children lost at Fourth Cathorna. He tells Dornas he will return to speak with him of his children.
Turning to matters commercial, Altraam manages to sell his caravan tobacco stash for a solid twenty percent profit.

North. A crossing. A cave. A glutan!
It is deep winter, and the prospect of crossing the river unaided worries everyone. Deciding to take advantage of one of Cathorna’s rare winter caravans, SS wait for the departure of a butcher, a disappointed glazier (Anika Helesto, the recently rescued glassblower, is providing all the village’s glass needs) and a jeweller who trades with the many who cannot afford Sulkana’s wares. Together with the traders’ four guards, they roll out an hour before dawn, walking alongside the sturdy drafthorses.
A stranger is seen in the creek at the bridge across the little Tarel stream from the Kine. Some short distance down the creek, he seems to be digging in the bank, perhaps shovelling mud into a receptacle, perhaps looking for frogs or grubs or molluscs frozen in the river mud. He sees the wagon and gathers his chattels, then heads southwest, quickly disappearing from view. Soon after, a fox is spotted moving with the party. Some small effort of stealth and shadowing seems to suggest the fox is following them; it is summarily dealt with where the forest nears the road, using Cian’s proposed broken-wagon subterfuge. The soldiers play along with the deception, but seem little invested in anything but keeping warm and keeping up.
The party sees the stubble of the first crop grown in the cleared ground on the western margins of the Kine. None of the locals are in evidence; the ground is empty and barren. There is evidence of a fire at the ford, but it is days, if not weeks old. Everyone prepares for the crossing, nervously eyeing the ice floes tilting and rolling in the steady current. Prior to crossing, Cian leads a party to gather wood and kindling for a fire upon crossing back.
Gear is checked, clothes are secured and the shallows are braved, a rope joining everyone as Second Skirmish head into the Firen. The cold bites deep and hard, Altraam calls on the strength of the Gorilla to resist its numbing effects. The soldiers help the wagons, putting shoulders to cartwheels where the sand clutches at them. Erfiren falls behind; he feels his strength failing, and succumbs to the river’s clutches despite two valiant rerolls. He gains the far bank only at the end of a rope hauled by a shivering Neeshka, and revives only after an hour or more at the edge of a fire hastily built at the campsite on the far side.
Dry but still chill, a smoke-rank Second Skirmish set off for the southwest corner of the <fill> Hills. Different in character to the Milden Hills, their western flank is a tumbledown maze of boulders, some larger than a house. Hollows and clefts between them are overgrown with vines and grasses, winter-withered and dead. The south-facing prow of the range is steeper, more solid, a challenge even to a good climber. Dark forest crouches at its base.
The western flank is scaled, more a matter of picking a path across the boulders than climbing. Occasional slips on sandy stone are the only impediment; four skirmishers reach the crest in watery afternoon sun and see the top of the <?> Hills for the first time.
The range is a broad shield, rising gently from the flanks and southern cliffs to the centre. Sparse dry grass covers it; there are no trees. Looking east they see a mound some hundred metres across, rising to perhaps five or so in the centre. There are vague trails through the feeble grass, perhaps animal tracks. A cursory inspection of the first mound shows nothing untoward; with the early sunset encroaching the decision is taken to leave further searches until the next day.
Investigating the safer-seeming western side reveals a good-sized cave. Sandy-floored and dry, it offers protection from the wind. Scorched stones, scratches and sooty marks on the walls show where others have used it for shelter in the past. A waist-high tunnel draws Cian’s curiosity; he clambers down a gentle dip to discover a large ball of golden fur sleeping at the end, the rotting hindquarters of what might be a wolf in front of it. Deciding not to disturb what looks suspiciously like glutan fur, he retreats, then decides to set fire to some dry vegetation in front of it. The glutan fur seems little troubled by this affront, and goes on sleeping. Second Skirmish retire in good order to look for a less glutan-occupied cave.

Kelp wolf…?
The southern slope offers a smaller but less glutan-ridden alternative. A boulder blocks the entrance to the metres-wide space; everyone ducks inside for a look. Therein they discover two bodies. One, seemingly draped across the boulder, has a knife in its back, the other, lying on a rotting blanket, appears to have had its skull smashed in. Hypotheses abound as to their fate, but there is consensus with Cian’s proposal that they fought each other and died in the little cave. Two Cathorna short swords are taken from their bodies by Altraam.
A quiet night is disturbed pre-dawn by a strange snuffling, dragging sound outside. The keener-nosed smell wet fur, like a dog recently out of the river. Fearing glutan, everyone is woken, the fire is built up and weapons are drawn. Neeshka is troubled to notice sand falling from above, doubly troubled to note that Erfiren’s foot appears to be entangled in a thin, withered vine growing from the back of the cave. The vine is quickly cut and burnt; another tendril reaching down from above is cauterised, and all other vegetation in the cave is dispatched. Erfiren briefly handles the vine, and feels a faint itchy burning sensation across his palm as a result. Nothing intrudes, nothing disturbs the boulder, but nobody gets any more sleep.
Outside the cave, wolf tracks with drag marks behind them are found in the morning. SS follows them to the edge of a strange hundred-metre wide pond. The water is cold, still and clear, with no ice. Trees grow on islands therein; five islands are visible, one tree per island, but one island has two trees. Erfiren drinks the water, and immediately feels ‘good’, the weak-tired sensation induced by the river crossing vanishing immediately. The itching sensation across his palm fades. Tests reveal the water radiates Life Support magic. Erfiren takes a skin of water.

A throne
It is early morning. The party heads eastwards, coming to the crook of the cliff where it turns from east-west to north-south. Neeshka and Cian make the relatively easy climb to the top.
The southern margin of the Hills extends beyond the bluff like the prow of a ship. Overlooking the plains to the south, they spy a throne on the headland of the hills some few hundred metres east. They cross the exposed hilltop for a closer look.
It is stone, rough-hewn, chisel marks evident in the granite. Carved for a tall figure, its back is high in the manner of a master’s chair. There are no markings on it. Feeling a little tired from the climb, Cian divests himself of duffel bag and weapon and sits in the throne.
The air around him changes. He sees smoke rising from Silver Hill, he sees trees filling the kine. He hears the clash of steel. Troubled by a notable lack of chaos, he takes the eye patch off. Looking behind him, he sees five figures. One of them comes forward and says “That chair is not for you.” He steps out of it, realises he is in bright sunlight. The trees are denser, and reach from the hills to the river. He looks around. Neeshka is gone
Altraam and Erfiren are surprised by a wide-eyed Neeshka descending the cliff at speed. “Cian is gone!” she announces breathlessly, mentioning a great stone throne. Concerned by the loss of their meat shield, they climb up, Altraam wrenching his left wrist on the way.
There is no sign of Cian. Reasoning that if sitting in the chair made him vanish, perhaps sitting in it again will make him reappear, Erfiren sits in the chair. He too sees five figures; tall, clean-shaven, muscular and strong, dressed in the manner of Edain nobility preparing for battle. They speak:
“The Boy!” says one.
“The progenitor!” says the next.
“The Heir!” says a third.
“THE FOOL!” cries the fourth.
The fifth reaches for him, and he leaps away. When he sits again, he is grabbed and a voice says “This task is not for you, boy!” and hurls him roughly from the chair.
Altraam sits. He too looks back and sees the five figures, but they simply regard him impassively. One of them says “Your friend lies yonder,” and they all point at the easternmost mound.
They head over, finding no tracks on the way. Erfiren tries and fails to detect magic, forcing them to resort to the mark 1 eyeball to search.
The latter approach is fruitful; they find a hatch hidden by an illusion. Erfiren detects magic on the magic illusion, and confirms that it is magic. He then analyses the magic illusion, determining that it is an illusion. Fumbling about through the insubstantial image, they find a padlock, unlatched. It is removed and the hatch thrown open to reveal stairs leading downward to the south.

Into the dark…
They bottom out some eight metres down on a long straight corridor, small stalactites and stalagmites scattered about. The floor is water-slick and slippery. The familiar black beetles with white markings appear out of the walls, scurry between dense spider webs filling the echoing space above them. After ten straight metres across the rough-cut stone floor, the find more stairs down, the ceiling receding as they descend. Webs hang in curtains above. An armoured orc skeleton is sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. Spiders the size of a fist hang from thick silk strands, unmoving.
A clanging noise echoes from ahead. From the space above, fragments of rusty armour clatter to the floor, draped in webs. They seem harmless, and are left. As they proceed, the same noise sounds behind; worried for their retreat path, they head back, to discover the orc skeleton now hangs from webs, and moves forward jerkily like a poorly-handled puppet. It slashes at them with a black scimitar as they approach; torches are brought forth and the webs holding it are burnt away, sending it crashing to the ground.
They press on, discovering the oversized spiders attaching silk to the pieces of armour that fell from above. There is more clanging, more armour falling from the roof. Deciding not to wait for more puppet warriors, they run through it at Neeshka’s suggestion, seeing several more pieces of armour as they charge.
The tunnel ends. They enter a chamber fifty metres across, dark and hemispherical. Erfiren sees a plinth in the middle. A figure appears beside it, familiar from his moments on the throne; he tells Erfiren “This is not your task!” and ushers him out of the chamber. Altraam and Neeshka see only a rock in the centre, and head in, only to discover it is a cave troll.
It rises, growls low and swings huge fists as it approaches, seemingly fixated on Erfiren. Battle is joined, Altraam intercepting the troll and sending Neeshka to look for Cian.
Cian wakes. He is in a small space, coffin-sized and stone-lined. He feels metal armour on his body, a swords clasped deathlike on his chest. He explores his surroundings as best he can, discovering there is a stone lid that moves with some effort. Cian does what Cian does best, and the lid shifts, falling free despite Neeshka standing on top of it calling for him.
The battle with the cave troll is brief and violent. The beast’s hide is thick, its blows powerful, but Altraam sends it crashing to the ground with a fast sweep. It does not rise again, succumbing to a flurry of stabs and slashes from longsword and trident. It shudders and collapses to a man-shaped pile of ash as they watch. Cian eyes the remains askance, wondering whether a true cave troll would have fallen so easily to only two assailants…
Cian looks different. He is bearded and hairier and slightly sallow as if time has passed. He wears plate armour, bears a longsword and a finely wrought Dunedain dagger that glowed blue while he was in the coffin. The usual frenzy of detecting and analysing follows:
A well-made Dunedain longsword (DC/levels)
A finely honed Dunedain dagger (DC/levels)
A simple three-pointed metal crown (usable by others)
Quality plate armour (ranged DCV)
A heavy gold medallion with a quartz crystal set in the middle (range)
All the while, the clanging noise from the corridor continues. In the doorway, a poorly-assembled suit of armour swings and clatters, suspended from a skein of silk.
As they prepare to leave, Erfiren scans the walls of the chamber. On the far wall, he finds a giant Kul face. It radiates clairsentience magic.
They head for the stairs, the suits of armour swinging away before them. The three-Pronged Candelabra Of Doom plays an important part in keeping the webs at bay. Runners return bits of armour to the chamber, where they will not be able to threaten the party. Cian bears the artifacts in which he awoke; as they proceed, he feels himself weaken, seeming to age before the party’s eyes. By the time the reach the stairs he is barely able to stand. Reasoning that the raiment form the tomb is the cause, they decide it must remain, and return it all to the stone sarcophagus set in the floor. The ashes that are all that remain of the ‘troll’ are gathered and placed in the sarcophagus.
As the lid is dropped back into place, a wind circles the chamber, stripping away the Kul face daubed on the wall. Beneath it, a door appears. It opens to an ossuary, with skulls and other bones stacked in dozens in niches on both sides. On the floor are two dead orcs, clutching almost half a pound of assorted gold ornaments, and several bones removed from the piles. The gold and disturbed bones are returned and Second Skirmish leave by a passage beyond the ossuary.
They reach the end and emerge behind a waterfall splashing down at the inside corner of the southern cliffs. The opening is small, the descent tricky, but everyone makes it safely to the small pool at the bottom.

Kelp wolf!
Relieved to have escaped the barrows, attention returns to the slightly less terrifying elements of the journey’s discoveries to date. Returning to the broad, still pond, an ambush is set for the ‘kelp wolf’. Hours of darkness pass uneventfully, but soon after midnight, it appears from the west. Erfiren puts an arrow through it; seemingly unharmed, its vines/fronds/tentacles grasp the nearby trees and it ascends into the canopy. Cian leads a retreat to the edge of the pond where the canopy is thinnest, but when something drips on Neeshka’s shoulder, everyone bolts, running in Cian-led circles until they emerge from the trees at the western side where they first approached the hills. There they discover it is yellow goo with black seeds in it, familiar from the corpse vine encountered in the mines of Thror’s Hills. It is hastily washed off, and everyone is checked for further contamination.

Roll twice on the random whore table
Satisfied that sufficient chaos has been wrought at the <insert name="true"> Hills, Second Skirmish head across to the Milden Hills, crossing the horns to the western flanks. They ascend the gentle slope southward, looking west to the next ridges and across the river to Cillien. Nothing disturbs their passage, and they come across the deeper southern range top to the fallen keep. They quickly find the tunnel to the south that Yeld said he used to escape the falling tower. It’s buried under soil; a brief interlude of digging with inadequate tools exposes it as the sun sets.
Come morning, snow has lightly blanketed the hills, but left the stones of the fallen keep exposed. The tunnel is exposed, its ice-rimed floor posing a challenge to passage. They reach the end, only to find it has been blocked by huge fallen stones. There is no passage through, so Second Skirmish retreat disappointed.
The next destination is the glaarg cave. Cautious exploration reveals recently used trails, humanoid tracks, signs of intelligent activity. Despite an even more cautious approach, the cave itself holds no threat. Instead there are two prostitutes, Iris (short ‘I’) and Lal, and the latter’s child Torren. Goo relations are established when Cian bribes them with food; they say they were travelling with their pimp Gord with the caravan when it came to the hills, but were left behind when Lal was injured. They hope to make their way north, but know they cannot travel alone and ill-equipped in winter, and so hope to wait out the season in the cave. Struck by their plight, and by Cathorna’s lack of cut-price whores, the party offers them refuge in the village, and passage back when they head home. Iris and Lal readily accept. Altraam takes the time to tell them of Cian “Hope of the Daen” O’Conchubhair; they are awestruck by the revelation, and bimbo-draped Conan fantasy poses become the session’s meme. Altraam also offers them his home when they return, assuring them it is not only safe, but also sexy.

Cian smash glaargae! Then conduct rigorous experiments on glaargae!
Telling their new-found friends to remain in the cave, Second Skirmish head out, looking for trails. One is quickly identified, leading to the cliff face looking south. Careful stalking around the cliff face leads to a precarious lookout, on which an orc is perched. Close and careful inspection reveals it has been ‘glaargaed’, a heavy grey blanket covering its lifeless body. After lengthy discussions, the best plan of action is decided and quickly abandoned; instead they rope it and pull it out, sending it tumbling down the mountain, shattering the frozen glaargae coating it and sending bits cascading in all directions, but at least partially in the direction of some people who might be enemies yeah take that you stupid MFPs
Bits of glaargae are gathered and experimentation ensues. As feared, the frozen bits melt and reform a tiny glaargae that tries to escape the pot. It is promptly dispatched with fire. A goat is killed for bait, then a vole is killed and a fist-sized lump is placed nearby in the sun to test the glaargae’s meat-seeking tendencies. The plan is abandoned when it doesn’t melt, so they eat the goat.
More tests with a fist-sized lump in a simple maze show it seeks out heat, approaching torches and stopping a metre away. They kill it with fire when it tries to sink into the sand. It makes a horrible squealing, wheezing sound, smoking and steaming as it burns away. Explorations continue…

Nice cave. What’s that smell?
Heading to the eastern face of the Hills, another cave is discovered looking out east across the plains. It is a huge dark alcove, with five tall, straight trees growing across the face, the gaps between covered with roughly-nailed planks. An iron gate bars entry at the northern end. It is at best a palisade rather than a fort; the planks extend only a few metres, and are easily scaled to provide a view of the interior, where disturbed tables and chairs are scattered across the floor. There are two more iron gates at the back of the space.
Neeshka is pleased to play a unique part, picking the lock to the first gate. Inside, there are signs of orc habitation, furniture and household chattels carved of wood filling the space. Moving cautiously, the party discovers a glaargae at the entrance to the cages when they notice the ground beneath them glistening and sticking to their boots. The residue is cleaned away with fire. Investigating the smaller right hand cage reveals a picked-clean dwarf skeleton near the entrance, clutching a ring with a single key on it. The key fits the large cage adjacent, but not the small cage. Cian surmises the dwarf reached around and unlocked the larger cage. Nothing else is found within, so attention is turned to the larger cage.
It smells powerfully of glaarg. A dark figure seems to lie at the back; Altraam surmises it is the creature he encountered in the cage some time ago. Choosing discretion over getting eaten by the dangerous beast, wood is fetched and an enormous pyre is built. They ignite it and retreat with the prostitutes and child to the ford. The fire is large and spreading…
Until it vanishes at midnight. Come morning, there is a black scar on the hill, larger than the original cave. Cian or possibly Erfiren guesses the blaze was hidden from sight rather than extinguished.
Satisfied with their work, Second Skirmish cross the river by poorly-constructed raft, drifting several kilometres downstream with each crossing. They return to the wood pile at the ford and dry out.

That’s not a fire…
The return is safe and quick; on arrival they acknowledge praise for their efforts in starting an enormous fire visible from near Cathorna and report to Palanto. He is surprised to hear they went up the <who> hills, and indulges in a brief Who’s on First moment when he tells them the range is called ‘Witchmount’. He offers no insight into the nature of the magic pool, or the identity of the five figures, other than to say they are probably Cardolan, and are probably not kings. Neeshka mentions the six hundred year old coin she saw there. They also mention the glaarg(oid) encountered in the Milden Hills. Palanto thanks them for discovering this threat to Cathorna, and asks how they plan to deal with it.
Everyone seems to have surmised that Second Skirmish were responsible for the fire. Nobody seems particularly troubled, but all are curious as to exactly what they set fire to that with would burn so brightly in midwinter, and how they made it go out so suddenly.
Cian tells his family about his adventure, embellishing the tale a little to explain the beard. His les credulous father gets the truth out of him. He also learns of the glaargs.
Altraam asks Fina to ‘help’ Cian. She seems utterly clueless as to what Altraam wants, and leave with the impression he wants her to help him count things. She goes over and counts his rabbits, then tells him not to be afraid to ask her to count things.
Altraam talks to Yeld and says they screwed up and need his help more. Yeld says he will always be available to help should they need him.
Erfiren talks to Amrik about the barrows. Amrik offers no help whatsoever, and suggests maybe Palanto knows more?
Altraam talks to Dorrigan about getting the lost children back. Dorrigan tells him to talk to Palanto, but to talk to him if Palanto says no. Altraam says he has to wait until the solstice.

Mysterious mists of mystery
Troubled by the idea that a square mile of the Greater Firen Valley might yet be untainted by glaargae, Second Skirmish head out again in the morning. Yeld joins the party, and they take the barge downriver, deciding to risk the horror of the Misty Fens and the Bottomless Vortex of Whirling Torment. Things take an ominous but not entirely unexpected turn as they enter the mist, the voice of Finduilas Breghaus calling for help echoing eerily through the mist. The voice of a child is heard next, but it too is duly ignored. A gradually building roar of water to the right is heeded however, and the barge is steered left. The unfamiliar waters and near-zero visibility prove treacherous, and they ground on a sandbar. Tall, dark skeletal shapes emerge from the chill water and reach quietly for them with clawed hands. Neeshka is pulled into the water by one, Yeld hurls a knife and drives the second away. Altraam leaps from the boat with trident and net, Erfiren tries to reach for it with an arrow, while Yeld and Cian pull on the rope to try to bring Neeshka back aboard. It proves strong, but not strong enough to either escape with its prize, nor survive a brutal trident-and-net assault; thick, dark blood oozes from its wounds as it slips beneath the water, dead. Altraam and Neeshka get back aboard, but the freezing water has soaked through their clothes, and they are shivering uncontrollably. Erfiren shares his magic pool drink; it makes them feel better, but seems to do little to restore them.
The journey resumes. Landfall is made at the ford, and a fire is quickly started to restore life to numbed limbs. While they wait to thaw out, Erfiren brings forth his newest spell, binding a crystal to his forehead and peering into the distance to spy the hill above the black scar. He sees a ‘rock’ sitting on the top of the burnt-out cave, but when two figures approach from the north, the rock moves, revealing itself to be a crouched figure. There is a brief exchange, and two of the figures move off. Warmth and vigour restored, the party moves off, taking the barge to a landing south of the Milden Hills. The barge is crudely hidden and the southern slope is scaled in time for night camp amongst the trees past the haunted keep.

Erfiren goes invisible and…
Erfiren’s navigational acumen leads the party to the back side of the ridge behind the burnt-out cave. The crest is bare of trees or other cover, a forty-metre wide dust-and-stone ridge before the sharp drop to the ledge before the cave. Erfiren goes invisible and shoots off on his own. Ten minutes pass, he does not return. Worried, Second Skirmish negotiate over who gets his stuff, then decide to ensure he really is dead, heading off at speed around the ridge to the path down to the cave.
It is scorched and bare. They enter, striding through inches-deep ash and char. Investigation of the larger caged tunnel reveals a grate at the back, where the glaargoid would have covered it. There is a shout, the voice recognisably Erfiren’s; pausing only long enough to light torches (several minutes, tragically), Second Skirmish charge in.
Erfiren is bound, blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back to a post. He hears a voice close by, male, indeterminate age, cultured and Cardolan accented. The stranger says “Second Skirmish again! WHY, do you continually thwart my plans?” He asks who started the fire. Erfiren equivocates. “I know the answer,” the stranger informs him. “So you lose nothing by telling me. Should you fail to answer however, you lose a finger.” Erfiren feels a sharp pressure against the little finger of his left hand. “Who started the fire?” the voice asks. He refuses to answer, feels the blade bite. “No more chances, boy. Who started the fire?” He tells his interrogator the question is pointless if he already knows, then feels dull, heavy pain as his finger is shorn away. Blood flows freely. He feels the blade pressed against the next finger of the same hand. Still he equivocates, and the threat is repeated. Before it is carried out, he hears voices calling his name. The stranger curses, barks something in a harsh, unfamiliar language, then says “Take his tongue.” Erfiren manages to shout when they try to open his mouth. The attempted surgery proves more difficult than expected, and his interrogators abandon the idea, shoving something hard and cold in his mouth and replacing the gag. Erfiren hears running footsteps receding…
Meanwhile, an orc delays Second Skirmish’s headlong charge, striking at them as they attempt to feel their way forward by inadequate torchlight. Altraam calls upon the light of Orome, and it flees in pain. Another orc looms in the dark; Cian hugs it death while Yeld and Altraam charge past and get to the gate. The first orc is through the gate, but it flees before it gets the lock on; they pursue, finding an room with orc weapons and equipment within. Morning stars are grabbed from the wall by Altraam and Yeld and used to smash through a trap door in the floor. Cian drops through blind, finding Erfiren tied to a post. Erfiren’s attempts to shrug off the gag have failed; Cian frees him and Erfiren spits out the softening, burning thing in his mouth. His hand throbs heavily, his tongue is seared as if by a hot coal, but he is able to press on.
A rough-carved tunnel leads south out of the room. Orcs fight to delay their headlong advance; Altraam knocks one down and presses on in pursuit. Erfiren and Neeshka arrow it then Yeld finishes it with a brutal morning star blow. They run on, find a 20’ long tunnel. The floor is grey, smooth and cold. A torch burns in the middle of it. The floor seems to be softening, glistening, moving around it. The prospect of crossing twenty feet of wakening glaargae proves too perilous, and the party turns around to seek another way. The exit is not found, so the party decides to head home.

Home, sans finger. An orb. A voice…
Erfiren goes to Elenril for healing. She numbs his mouth with purple spitter and binds his hand. He hallucinates enthusiastically under the effect of the anaesthetic, and she takes him home.
Altraam reasons that a seeing orb atop the Hills would be ‘accessible’ by the largest stone. Cian persuades Second Skirmish and three of First Heavy to enter into a plan to take the big orb to the ford by cart to test this theory. Alwyn Gedult declines to join, for which Cian bribes Budych not to empty her bucket for a week. Some fast and effective negotiations are undertaken by Cian and Altraam to secure the necessary food for the journey.
It works. Erfiren tunes in to an orb; he sees the road to the south. A little triangulation implies it is somewhere atop the Milden Hills, probably at some height, looking southwards. With some effort of will and magical acumen he manages to steer the view slightly, but it cuts out almost immediately. Now certain there is an orb in the Hills, everyone heads home.
On returning to Cathorna, Erfiren steers the orb back to the original view. As he does so, he hears a voice say “I see you there boy” in tones frighteningly familiar from a cold, chaotic night some years ago.
Before he can break away, he finds himself atop a tower at night, facing into a fresh wind with an old robed bearded man at his side. “Have a care, boy,” the old man says. “You may keep your… trinkets. But you are too useful to take such risks. I do not wish to warn you again.” He returns to the here and now, and sees the orb is reset to Defiance Hill.
Bereft of equipment since the events atop Witchmount, Cian goes to the dwarves to ask them to make him a new seax. Dellin agrees for a price of two silver. The blade is ready three days later when Cian returns, finding Breen Kelhaller (Durgan’s daughter) finishing the leather bindings on the weapon. There is a brief phrase in dwarven runes hammered into the thick edge of the blade. Cian stays long enough to share the tale of the mewlips before leaving with his new weapon.

The long-standing question of manbearpig island is the next to be considered. Deciding on a smaller, stealthier group, Erfiren, Altraam and Cian set off by boat, reaching the island amid gentle rain. Yeld comes along to act as boat anchor. Thick thorny acacia covers it, dense spider webs festooning the branches. Insect carcasses by the hundreds are entangled in the webs close to the water. Sleeves and cuffs are bound against the invasive sleep ticks, Cian’s delrean cloaks are donned and they head ashore.
Several clearings are found along the low tunnel-like paths wending around the domed island. Evidence of fires, camps, humanoid habitation are found. The ‘entrance’ at the northern tip is guarded by a weeks-dead goblin, its neck broken. At the peak of the island is a clearing with a sparse canopy of foliage. Crouching there offers concealment and a 360 degree view of the lake.
The final clearing appears to be a campsite of sorts. Rags and cloth flutter and dangle from the acacia ringing the metres-wide hollow, sheltered from wind and rain by the rise of the low peak to the south and acacia elsewhere. Thick acacia trunks, stripped of their branches, rise from the thin soil. Bones are scattered and piled about, as are ragged remains of various beasts. Fish, sheep, goblin and human remains are evident. Tufts of black and grey fur are everywhere, and the space smells of animal. There is no sign of life…
Brief discussion ensues. Erfiren reasons that the beast poses no threat, despite the human bones. It has clearly been killing (or at least eating) goblins, and thus acts as a surrogate guard to the western extend of Cathorna’s domain. Manbearpig is left to its own devices, and Second Skirmish return to their boat.

Session 13, 14 June 2013

The tree trembles. You step back, knees shaking, hands slick with blood. Little more than bark and splinters keep it upright now; one good swing and it will fall.
But you feel accusation in their eyes. Canawnan is there, his family close; you feel his implacable strength in your arms each time you swing the axe. But from the others, the older ones from before your time, before the enemy…you feel something close to hate. A dull growl of anger builds behind you as you grip the handle, fight through fatigue to raise it again.
“The dead have power, Cian.”
You know the voice. Behind you, seated on her old tree-stump stool, is your Nan. She smiles and gestures you closer.
She takes your hand, looks to the symbol she scribed into your palm long ago, now merely a pale tracery of white scar. “When you wear this symbol, your enemies will know our strength, and they will fear you. You are a man now, Cian. Our clan’s future is entrusted to your strength, and your brothers’ strength. We retreat from this land as we look to the tales you tell of our history. Our past is entrusted to your words. Honour no king, worship no idol.” At this, she glances at the teetering tree. “We must be free to seek our destiny.” She looks back to where the voices whispered, where the dark eyes watched. “And it grieves me, but the freedom to seek it will come at a cost to you. The dead have power, Cian. There are those who understand, and will march at your side, but others…others cannot see. They feel only abandonment, betrayal. And they will seek to punish you for it. But…to be reborn…”
“First we must die.”
The chorus of whispers chills you. Uncle Canawnan’s voice is amongst them, as are his children’s, others you recognise, but many you don’t. When you look back, your Nan is gone.
You raise the axe, tense, and strike…

You know Beckett’s been spending time with the Ella woman. You haven’t been able to understand why: she’s nice enough, pretty enough, but she’s promised to Jolan Fornas from Cillien. Everyone knows it. But you’ve listened to how Beckett talks about her. He always talks of his success, his prowess, his ability to master, to conquer, to show his strength to the world. It’s bluster, it’s the talk of an insecure and frightened boy seeking the praise of his betters, and most folks smile when Beckett turns away. You’ve always thought it was harmless, but hearing him talk of ‘conquering’ the Cooper girl strikes you as disrespectful. He never speaks fondly of her, speaking much as he does when he tells a tale of tracking game through the Valley.
And now, standing on the steps of the chapel, you see him emerge from his hut, hours later than he usually rises. Cian smirked when he told you last night that he’d seen Beckett heading home with Ella, that the brave hunter had bagged himself another porker. He’d made light of it, but you remember Elesse’s conversation with Devon. And you wonder if it’s as harmless as everyone seems to think.
“You feel it, don’t you Altraam?”
You jump at the sound of Elesse’s voice at your shoulder. She stands beside you, watching as Beckett fetches a pail from beneath his steps. “There is…something, a wrongness, is there not? It goes beyond a stupid boy and his need to show strength by spearing the heart of a chattering tavern girl. Do you sense it?”
“There is…something not right.”
“There is hope yet. The girl is still swayed by her father, and by the whisperings of beery gossip at the inn. The shame of betraying her betrothed may yet stop this. When she is seen scurrying home in her crumpled evening finery, the unspoken voice of Cathorna might break the hold Beckett has over her. So long as…”
She’s looking past you as she speaks. Her face suddenly freeze and she closes her eyes. You look. Devon has appeared beside Beckett. You wondered where he was; usually he is in the chapel at this hour. You watch silently as the two speak briefly, then Devon gestures towards Carmick Ridge.
“Your master’s faith is ill-placed, Altraam. He truly believes the love of Cathornans for each other is our greatest weapon. It is powerful, yes, but it is not love that Beckett feels. His heart is as weak as his body is strong, and he seeks to hide his cowardice by conquering the hearts of others. She is a trophy, and a greater one for wresting it away from another.”
She fixes you with an intense gaze. “Listen to me now, Altraam. If we cannot prevent this fool claiming the girl, it will cost Cathorna dear. It…I cannot…”
Her face clouds. Distantly you hear Devon’s voice as he speaks to Beckett. Something tightens Elesse’s expression briefly; from another you would think it was fear.
“I cannot see my own path in this matter, Altraam. I know what needs to be done, but my efforts…I am failing! Devon will not listen, he will not heed me! It is too soon for you, but we witness the beginnings of something that will bring a terrible choice upon you, that I know.”
She looks back to the hut, where Beckett is heading for the cistern with his pail. Devon is nowhere to be seen. When she looks back to you, her expression is drawn, almost despondent.
“For now, trust Devon. Trust Beckett, if you must. But see their frailty. See the hand behind their actions when they are driven by that frailty. Choose carefully when it comes time to pay for their weakness. For pay we must, in blood and in souls.”
She turns and glides quickly across the field towards her home.

The raiders came out of nowhere. You heard the alarm and leaped from your bed, your blade in your hand before you even knew why you were awake. Smoke tainted the air, fire glittered outside; you threw the door open and rushed into the cool night air.
Shouts and screams greeted you, almost drowning the clanging of the alarm bells, the desperate rally cries. Over it all the rasp of orc voices, hundreds of them, more than the few who remain could hope to overcome. You see their blood-red torches, crude blades sparkling in manifold reflections, hacking and beating at the thin line of defenders between them and your homes.
You know what has to be done. You turn, run back to the house, hoping there’s time enough to make it before the dock is overrun. You’ve rehearsed it a dozen times: fetch the child, find the mother, collect the precious bundle of heirlooms hidden beneath the floor. Then run for the dock and hope that…
…your thoughts are interrupted by a snarled challenge close by. Out of the darkness an orc looms, huge and threatening. It raises an axe, the blade dripping with the blood of your kin…
You’re woken by a thudding impact against your shoulders. Darkness and silence surround you, then a dying flicker of blue light dances across your hand. You look down, see the longsword clasped in your hand, the scabbard discarded across the room. You grip it tighter, the desperate fear of the dream following you into the waking world.

It’s become a nightly ritual to steal out of your room and listen to your parents talk. They send you to bed far too early anyway; you’ll be twelve next month, and as able to stand the walls as most of the tired old men your father hires these days. You settle back in your hiding place behind the curtain and listen as your mother relates the minutiae of her day to your father.
You almost nod off as she relates the details of your food situation; kilos of meat smoked, boxes of fruit dried, vegetables pickling in vinegar. It seems a little early in the season to be preserving quite so much instead of keeping it fresh, but she’s organised and disciplined where most women are too caught up in hair ribbons and flax dresses to think clearly, so you’re sure she knows what she’s doing. You hear your father share some words of praise at her efforts, then you hear the clink of glass as he pours a drink.
“We have to decide. Soon.”
It’s your father’s voice. He sounds serious, stern, worried. You sit up, start paying attention.
Your mother sighs. “Yes. We’re ready. But if we do…”
“I know. The cavalry is strong and swift enough. And the king is vengeful enough. There’s little left to him now but spite. And we’ll invite it. He’ll not see our loyalty, our persistence when others have fled. He’ll only see oathbreakers, and he’ll have our heads if he can.”
“But if we don’t…”
“I know. It’s next week. He’ll call on him, he knows it will bind us closer if Tomas chooses the oath.”
“And he’ll feel justified in levying his ‘taxes’ if Tomas refuses.”
“Our fate’s in our son’s hands.”
“He’s strong, Lausanne. Stronger than a boy has a right at his age.”
“But cold! There’s love there I think, but…seeing him kill that hostler in the yard, hearing Waldeck’s tale of the orc hunt – you heard what he said; ‘a killer’s instinct, cold and measured.’ An eleven year old boy!”
“One faced with an order to find and kill an orc. Our son is only what we have taught him to be. You showed little mercy to that trader in the market not two weeks gone.” Your father’s voice is not accusing, simply matter-of-fact. “Hard times harden the spirit.
“And when the king calls on him, how will his ‘hardened spirit’ decide? Will it be his heart that leads him? Or will he weigh us up too, seek the profit and loss in family and balance it against the largesse of a failing monarch? You know the king has hopes for him! Seer Karmin is old, his apprentices all gone! Tomas would make a better apprentice than any of the dull-headed muck-shovellers the Seer teaches now, and it would take a strong boy to turn away from the power and influence due a king’s Seer.”
There’s a brief silence. You hear the tap of your father’s pipe, smell the rank tobacco that seems to be all he smokes since the hobbits stopped trading. “We’ve made the boy,” he says solemnly. “Soon we must trust the man. And do what we must when the time comes.”
“Your oath…”
It’s not a question, but you hear it behind your mother’s words. “No Volento’s ever broken an oath,” your father sighs. “But no Volento’s faced times like these. Come the day, perhaps I’ll choose to live as an oathbreaker, not die as a fool.”
“Profit and loss.” Your mother lets the words hang. “He’s his father’s son.”
Your hear her chair creak and quickly scramble to your feet, darting back to your room. As you listen to them preparing for bed, you can only wonder what the next week might bring.

Hark! A laboratory!
Exploration of the tower proceeds apace. The ‘alchemist’s lab’ is searched to no avail; an alembic is still slightly warm, and appears to contain a thin, colourless fluid. The adjacent space holds big vats and a simple wooden crane, but nothing more. The smell is sharp, but weeks old; Tomas guesses nobody has used it for anything in some time. Finding a dead end, Second Skirmish reverse direction and explore the mould-carpeted ‘study’.
Other than mouldy carpet, it yields no secrets. Terrified nonetheless by the prospect of being turned into green slime in 1-4 melee rounds (no resurrection possible), little time is spent investigating this space.
The ogre corpse proves much more interesting, and comes in for closer scrutiny. A stain surrounds it, suggesting it died and decayed there. The most unusual feature is a hole bored into its forehead, at the thickest part of its skull. Nervous examination does not provoke flailing brain-tentacles, bone-boring insects or similar horrors. Nonetheless, talk of mindflayers is enough to discourage any actual probing.
What appears to be an equipment room is discovered adjacent. Fair quality adventuring supplies adorn the walls, though most are too decayed to be of much use. Torches are made from the flammable materials. Of more interest than burning rags is what appears to be a magical rope (Clinging), hanging on the wall. Initial investigations reveal it is slippery, perhaps like freshly-cooked spaghetti, whatever that is. It falls to the floor and spreads out like a long damp worm; only when Altraam reasons that something would be necessary to grip it does he make the discovery of a pair of simple brown leather gloves that allow the rope to be firmly grasped.
A dusty lounge-like room follows, adjoining a bunch of other rooms, the details of which no longer matter as the whole lovingly crafted and meticulously mapped edifice is now a six-inch layer of ash on a hill. Discoveries of note:
-a metal ring on three legs affixed to a wooden base. They remind Tomas of a similar device beneath a glass sphere he once saw in the Seer’s Tower in Metriath. Though hidden beneath a cloth, he remembers seeing a hint of images moving and blurring in the sphere.
-clear evidence of recent renovations and occupancy. A rack of human (male?) clothes is found in a recently used bedroom, along with several pieces of new, rough-cut furniture made from local timber.
-a map. Much-used and heavily marked, it is beneath the metal ring and stand. It showed a slice of the southern Valley, close to the tower. The Cathornan flag marked Cathorna, the anthracite mine and the kobold mine. The gnoll village and palisade, and the Edain palisade are marked. There are also numerous grey chalk marks, seemingly indication two areas close by. Numbers and other markings are seen nearby, though their meanings are not clear. Cian wonders if the isolated symbols are the result of scrying.
-a fair-sized deer carcass, over a month old. A leg has been cut from it but the rest remains. Chunks are taken for later shenanigans.
-two books: ‘The History of Cardolan’ and ‘Architecture of Metriath’. Cian reasons they are the only survivors of the burnt-out library adjacent, a suspicion confirmed when Altraam notes singeing and the smell of old smoke on the pages.
-stairs, leading up. The staircase is again rough-hewn, clearly a recent addition to the tower. Dark stains mark the steps, suggesting something wet has been carried up or down them. A hatch at the top is secured with a padlock of Tomas manufacture, which yields to his 1337 lockpicking skillz in seconds.

The beasts, caged…
Something akin to a menagerie is discovered beyond. Wooden cells with barred doors surround a central space. The ceiling is a broad timber lattice; eight-inch beams with eighteen inch gaps between them. The two-metre high cells have a walkway atop, with a hatch into each cell, an assortment of food containers, a water trough, a range of simple tools and several simple fifteen-foot long spears. The cells contain:
-an enormous pig, over a quarter ton, with jagged tusks and thick, bristly hide. It patrols its filthy cage restlessly, unable to settle in the small space.
-a hairy long-armed primate the size of a small child. It sits in the centre of its cage, playing with a bag of teeth. Anyone who watches closely will note it is arranging piles of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, then scooping them into the bag, tipping them out and starting again. It looks up with a face full of rage at them in between each iteration
-three possums. One is dead, torn to pieces on the floor. The other two watch it intently from their perches. Its mangled corpse seems to shiver and shift periodically; over a few minutes it seems to show some progress towards reconstituting itself. The possums look up occasionally, but their attention always returns to the twitching corpse.
-a fifty foot long snake. It has a moderate bulge in its middle, and a rope tied to one corner of the cage runs into its mouth. There are two listless pigs tied to the same corner.
A creature like a huge leathery worm, perhaps six feet long and a six inches across. It rolls and creeps quietly around its cage, its toothless mouth gaping and closing, its grey leathery hide rubbing quietly against the walls
-what appears to be a child, perhaps a ten year old boy, with overlong arms and finger-like prehensile toes. It hides in the shadows, then leaps to the front of its cage when they approach, watching them intently as they move about the room, reaching and clawing and shrieking when they come close. It wears a filthy loincloth. There are human bones in its cage, heavily gnawed. The steel bars are scratched. Its fingernails and teeth are broken and bloody, and there are whip marks across its back and shoulders. If they come close enough it flies into a rage, biting and hammering at the bars until teeth break and skin splits.
The timbers of the central arena are scratched and dented and darkly stained in places.
Attempts to communicate with the small child prove fruitless. Deciding it is better off dead than captured, it is thrown poison. When this fails, it is clubbed and dispatched, then its body dropped into the worm-thing’s cage. The worm pays it no attention, continuing its writhings.
There are stairs leading up…
At the top is a small ante-chamber. The door is securely locked. Initial attempts to subtly manipulate it open are abandoned at the sound of a screaming daen performing a devastating flying kick on the door after a ten-mile run up. The tower shifts a few millimetres on its foundations, but despite taking a ten-body blow, the door is untroubled. Cian’s knee is in worse shape, and tingles for some time thereafter. Erfiren finally gets round to investigating whether some magic is involved, and discovers the door is an illusion upon a wall, the real exit being on the opposite side. Brief shenanigans ensue, and everyone enters the next level.
It appears to be a garden. Several long stone planter boxes are filled with earth. Two are broken. Two contain what appear to be food plants, including smallish onions. One contains mushrooms, of similar varieties to those found around the ‘ant circles’. The last contains three kinds of plants, of a variety vaguely familiar to Cian. One has red berries, one has black berries, and one has purple berries. Tiny white ants crawl slowly through the soil around these plants. Erfiren notes they radiate some kind of magic (Drain). Samples of both food plants are taken whole by Cian.
Reasoning that sunlight would be required by the plants, investigation reveals a series of simple rope-activated shutters above. Ascending to the roof, a variety of simple siege-repelling accoutrements are found, including stones, buckets, iron pots and decaying arrows and crossbow bolts. Atop the central column is a crucified figure, who has clearly been there some time.

The pit
Inspection of the map reveals a ‘dead zone’. Investigation of the walls around it yield no secret entrances; detecting magic reveals a single spot on the ground floor, beyond which is the faintest hint of something magical. Unable to penetrate the wall by subtle means, a battering ram is fashioned from the boom am of the ‘crane’ from the lab. The tower booms and echoes to the crash of the ram, and the wall gives way to reveal a dark space stretching to the floor of the menagerie level. The penny drops, and Cian ascends: in the floor of the ‘arena’ he discovers a hatch into the pit. Not that it matters now; finely crafted, meticulously mapped pile of ash yadda yadda. . Bodies can be seen at the bottom; dressed, armed and armoured, and clearly there some time. A decision is made to let them rest and everyone retreats from the breach.

Orcs. Fire. Tunnel. Not in that order.
Deciding the tower has no more secrets, fire is called upon to deny it to the enemy. The shutters are opened, doors are wedged, and kindling piled against the timber walls. Before the first match is struck, it is discovered that the front door is closed. Investigations reveal it is wedged from the other side. Erfiren heads for the roof, spying at least twenty orcs without. He lobs arrows and stones at them, then retreat to the interior.
Discussion ensues.
There is talk of throwing snakes, possums, pigs and Cian at the orcs. There is talk of jumping from the tower. There is even talk of pelting them with magic berries. There is, surprisingly, no talk of dumping the contents of the alembic on the orcs. Eventually, the door is wedged shut from the inside to provide some security against an attack while an escape plan is formulated. The ant tunnel is selected as the best way out, though its small size makes it impossible for anyone except perhaps Altraam to squeeze down. Before he is buttered up and hammered into the vertical hole however, Cian thinks of tunnelling through the wine cellar wall to reach the tunnel, a much more practical and direct route. Digging begins…
…and end under an hour later, the combined Awesome of mining, artificing and earthworks skill levels rendering the problem simply one of the application of force over time. After breaking into the ant hole, Cian’s lamp is filled and Erfiren’s crystal is lit to provide some meagre illumination for the escape. On hands and knees, Second Skirmish make their way out…
…only to be stopped by the sight of a giant green ant-devouring horror. Fully eight feet high, the creature occupies an open space barely large enough for its segmented body, triangular head and chitinous snipping appendages. Standing above a pit full of split-open ant pupae in several inches of ant-pupae goo;, it clacks its pincers aggressively as Second Skirmish prepare to fight. Aggressive posturing serves it little however; despite raking Cian’s flanks with its barbed snippers, it is summarily dispatched by a stabbing blow from Tomas’ Sword of Comparative Pointiness. Both snippers are summarily excised and claimed as souvenirs/future armaments and Second Skirmish press on.
An exit is found. Unfortunately it is a vertical tunnel, freshly dug, emerging some fifty metres from the encamped orcs before the tower. It is decided to wait until night to attempt the risky escape through the sparse dry cover atop the bluff. Returning long enough to set fire to the base of the exquisitely designed and meticulously annotated tower, Second Skirmish make good their escape, returning to Cathorna via the High Paddock from the south. Neeshka is later recovered from the kobold mine, along with some arocca mushrooms and slurm goo.
On returning to Cathorna, Cian immediately takes the opportunity to frighten Amrik with the Marbles of Exploding. Altraam meanwhile de-magics several evil cursed items. Dissatisfied with the dearth of evil ancient artifacts in the village, he encourages Yeld to scout for the black mace he and Beckett buried in the valley some months earlier.

Defiance Chill
Time passes…
…though not much of it. The militia roster turns, and next day, Second Skirmish are notified that it is their turn to head up to Defiance Hill. After some discussion, it is decided the land route poses too much risk of meeting something that might earn them XP, so a boat is taken out one cold clear morning. Sul Baric comes along for the ride, declaring that she has decided to make the move up to the Hill. Yeld accompanies the Second Skirmish regulars on an icy boat ride to the fort.
On arriving, SS find the fort in good shape. Sul immediately seeks out Kotlas, and there is a heartfelt reunion. Flowers have been planted on the glacis of the fort, the interior of the redoubt has been rearranged and some effort has gone to making the place more homely. Turk looks thinner but happy, and talks enthusiastically of the future of the herd and the fertility of his cows. He asks Cian about the effect runoff is having on the glacis; managed plantings are proposed as a solution to controlling erosion.
Worried about Beckett-sourced rumours of ‘The dead rising from below!’, Caralyn talks with Altraam. He promises there is no danger, reassuring her that he would not have allowed them to go to the Hill were it not safe. She is comforted by this.
Altraam asks Turk if he has seen anything of the “Metriath Four” who spent some time near the Hill during construction. He says he has not seen them for some time. Altraam asks him to give them a message about ‘skill at arms and a meeting every year and being watched by the Kul.’ Turk is mystified, but agrees to convey the message.
Vflynn pops up, informing the group that she has been at the Hill for a few days. She says she likes it there, and that ‘he can’t see us because of the little man.’ Respect is paid to the little figure in the gatehouse.
With pleasantries out of the way, Turk tells the group he is glad to have Skirmishers on hand, as he believes the fort is being stalked. Several guards have reported seeing ‘someone’ approaching in the dark of the night, at times coming right up the glacis to the walls. Kotlas says he has seen something, but that the stranger is crafty, and ‘lighter of foot than Beckett.’ Second Skirmish take up the challenge, Erfiren propping a scarecrow at the wall to act as bait for the stranger. Erfiren proposes marking the intruder; Cian comes up with a wax/delrean concoction to do just that, though the plan comes to naught due to expense and the impracticality of covering enough area.
It is December 22nd, the night after the winter solstice. While Cian hears bats in the night, nobody else sees or hears anything. Reasoning that perhaps the stalker would not come every night, another attempt is made the following evening. This time Cian removes his eyepatch, and sees a silvery trail, leading from the southern forest bordering the Swath all the way to the glacis. He also sees a dull red glow to the southeast and a column of silvery light reaching to the skies in the southwest. Second Skirmish immediately venture forth, following the trail.

The pursuit
Nothing is seen for some distance, but when Cian flips the patch close to the edge of the forest, he sees a lone figure standing at the tree line, feet apart and a sword held across his body. A big dog/wolf sits beside him. The figure turns and runs when spotted, Cian setting off immediately in pursuit. He also senses something bad watching form the southeast, and sees a faint blue light close by in the forest to the west, quickly identified by Erfiren as the site of the eternal battle between the orc and the soldier. Vflynn catches up and pleads with him to “stop it! He can see us!”
The pursuit leads across the Swath to the steep upslope near the lake. Flipping the patch to get another bearing, a seemingly invisible wolf attacks him with very tangible teeth. Seeing Cian knocked to the ground, Altraam casts his light spell, revealing the beast; Tomas and Yeld kill it after Cian effectively grapples it.
Footprints are found at the snow line, accompanied by traces of blood. They follow it to the lake, where it disappears into the narrow band of snow-free ground around the lake. It leads up, past a waterfall near the Kul camp; a hasty ambush is set, but the sound of trickling water reveals a trap set near the creek using piled rocks and ice as a trigger. The ambush is abandoned and the trail followed west, turning up the body of a big dog, suffering stab wounds and a cut throat.
Some kilometres east, a figure is spied atop the ridge. A path is chosen taking the gully east of the ridge, but the mountains serve a reminder that winter is a dangerous time to travel, the cold biting deep as they ascend the snow-packed, windswept gully. After a warning from Yeld about the possibility of an ambush, discretion is chosen over bravado and Second Skirmish turn back. Overnighting in the hunting lodge, life is returned to cold limbs by a fire and some of the provisions stored in the hut, much-improved since they first built it. Kotlas is informed about the stranger; he agrees to try to follow him next time he appears.
First Skirmish reach the Hill the next day, ready to take up their duty when Second Skirmish leave. The boat is brought out and SS float on home.
Amrik’s shop is the first port of call. Cian brings him a thatch of the wolf’s fur instead of exploding balls, an offering readily accepted. He offers that it is simply a wolf, though a large one by its coarseness. Amrik has nothing to offer on the question of interesting herbs in the forest, stating that he prefers others to bring him things of interest from places of danger.

Search for the searchers
Troubled by the ominous portent of the grey-chalked map, and encouraged to surreptitiously investigate by Palanto, Erfiren and Tomas set out late at night to investigate the margins of what has been identified as a search pattern through the forest. On heading into the forest, they happen across what appears to be a small-scale mining operation. Six or so dwarves sleep in a small hollow, mining tools and weapons close at hand. Camouflaged spoil is piled near what appears to be a braced portal dug into solid rock. Tomas approaches and attempts to deal with the dwarves, but his approaches are rebuffed: “We’ve nothing to say to you, Cathornican.” They leave the dwarves to their business.
Placing themselves on the path of the search pattern, their suspicions are quickly confirmed: while hiding in trees they spy ten or more orcs moving through the trees, stabbing the ground with spears as if looking for something buried. Erfiren’s invisibility cloaks him, while Tomas is forced to rely on the tourmaline crystal. The discomfort of the tree is almost forces him to move at the wrong moment, but a gorilla saves him just as the cramps are becoming too much and he remains unseen. A lone human accompanies them, as does at least one FHOD. An orc is seen to encounter something hard and buried; when digging reveals it is a rock, it is discarded and the search continues.
Meanwhile, Altraam, Cian and Yeld go deeper in the woods, seeking out the other tower marked on the map. They find trails leading downslope towards the location; closing in, Cian espies an orc propped in a tree. It seems likely it has seen them too, a possibility reinforced by the sight of three orcs tracking fast behind them to their right. Heated discussion ensues, and Cian is talked down from nuding up and charging into the heart of the unseen orc stronghold armed with nothing but a small knife for peeling fruit. Second Skirmish withdraw to the west, bearing new intelligence and a bagload of marron.
Erfiren decides that two people in the forest is far too safe, and decides to venture near the orc search pattern alone. Going invisible and shooting off on his own, he picks up the trail and once again finds the ten-plus orc party and one human, asleep around a months-old excavation site. A hole has been dug amid square flagstones, seemingly of Cardolani slate, perhaps confirming Erfiren’s suspicions that they were searching for a structure, not minerals. The orcs and human rouse and set off, returning to the line they were searching the day before. Erfiren decides discretion is the better part of valour and withdraws back to Cathorna.
Questions have meanwhile been asked about what the orcs and human might be searching for. Old Roric offers little, simply saying the forest once belonged to Cardolan, until some two or three hundred years ago when the daen pushed them out of the area. The daen were themselves later forced into the mountains. As to whether the Cardolani might have built something in the forest, Roric says it is more likely to be a remnant of the Great Darkness, when men hid deep in the forest. Bran has little to offer on the question, but Galen suggests that it may be a Cardolan burial tomb they seek.
Connecting Erfiren’s mention of a lone dwarf digging a pattern of holes, the sight of several dwarves the night before and the discovery of a pattern of small holes dug across the exact same area months ago in the Laska PBEM, Cian realises the dwarves might know something of the tomb/temple. If not where it is, perhaps where it is not. Tomas speaks with Durgan, who agrees to speak with them. Soon after, Durgan returns and draws a symbol in the dirt:
It is the symbol of Belial, lord of lies, servant of the darkness and god to tribes of men in times past. Altraam is aware of Belial but nothing of the blight he brought to civilisation has been known for centuries.
It is enough to prompt a large-scale response, though whether it is in fear of the return of an ancient and evil power or the prospect of killing fifty, maybe sixty orcs is debatable. Plans are immediately made to prepare a large-scale ambush. First Skirmish and several archers are co-opted into joining the affray, planned for the next night…

Session 12, 26 Dec 12

“The Beckett boy? He’s harmless. Stupid and selfish, but there’s a fear of ostracism that keeps him from being a danger.”
Altraam sweeps a little closer to Devon’s little retreat at the back of the chapel, listening to the words Elesse shares with Devon…
“He is a threat. His union with the Cooper girl…there is something about it that feels wrong. There is an inevitability to it that worries me. She was promised to that Jolan boy from Cillien; what do you know of him?”
“The Fornas lad? No great threat. Strong, a good fighter, but weak-spirited. He lacks the respect of his fellow men, yet feels he deserves it without earning it. But he is Deanna’s only son, and the lords and masters of our villages would see us brought closer by this contrived union.”
“And somehow, for some reason, Beckett chooses to fall for her. His pursuit may seem like a simple infatuation, but think of the effect; if it sunders the arranged union, it drives a wedge between Cathorna and Cillien. It weakens us both. And now of all times, with the Kul gaining strength, goblins stalking our fishermen, and ogres! Ogres in the forest! There is a darkness coming, Palanto knows it; he sought to strengthen us with this union. And suddenly Beckett takes an interest, and threatens all his work!”
“You know my feelings on this matter, Elesse. Cathorna’s strength grows from its freedom from such court chicanery, it grows from the hearts of its people. A man will stand the wall that much longer if the woman he loves is with him behind it. Would a man forced into a political marriage fight as hard?”
She laughs gently. “Devon, you are a romantic. I respect the sentiment, but given the choice of a love-sotted Beckett on the wall, or a dozen Cilliener archers, I would take the latter. But we stray from my point. I feel a dark hand upon Beckett’s actions; he is perhaps unwitting, but it is the outcome not the cause that I fear. Nothing good can come of Beckett’s love for that wench. And come the day, I may look to you to protect Cathorna from whatever may spring from it.”
“You will be disappointed that day, Elesse. I protect Cathornans. Not Cathorna.” You hear a chair scrape. “Altraam! Could you fetch the Lady Elesse’s cloak please?” He’s got his forced smile on, the one he wears when he’s been asked to do something by Palanto that he doesn’t want to do. Sometimes he does them. Usually he doesn’t.
Elesse favours you with a distant smile as you see her out. “Your master will face difficult decisions soon, Altraam. Think carefully on your own path beyond the day he makes them.”
The deer comes close. You smell it on the faint breeze, rank and musty. The dim starlight is barely enough to see its outline; you tense, prepare to spring. You feel your fingers tremble, the gloves thirsty for fresh blood.
The deer strays closer. Breath held, you prepare, then spring from your hiding place, reaching for the deer. It barely has time to tense before your fingers are closing on its throat, the gauntlets ratcheting tight.
It’s over before the creature even has time to thrash. Its throat is crushed, the bones giving way as it slumps to the ground. You feel the gauntlets squeeze tighter as blood flows across the fingers; with an effort of will you force them to release, letting the deer fall to the ground.
You pick the deer up, sling it over your left shoulder and draw your mace with the other hand. The others will seek to claim your prize when they see you return, but they will soon learn that your power is not to be trifled with.
You will eat well tonight.
You don’t much like going to Metriath anymore. It used to be an adventure, seeing the stores and the big houses and the stables where the king’s cavalry kept their mounts. But since captain Argus took his troop of a hundred riders and their families and headed south in the dead of night, it’s felt like the city has crossed some tipping point. The three dozen or so riders left are out all the time now, patrolling the homesteads and farms non-stop, only straggling back every couple of weeks for supply and repairs and a night’s rest before setting out again. It’s only been three weeks and already their number has shrunk by five.
And the city seems to have slipped closer to the edge. As you headed down the grand boulevard, you saw garbage gathered in corners. Broken-wheeled wagons sat where they were abandoned in the street. Doors hung open, windows were broken and left unrepaired. A tall, proud house overlooking the canal was on fire, but nobody seemed to be trying to extinguish it. And when you got to the market square, there were a scant dozen traders set up on the shaded margins, instead of the hundreds who used to fill the space.
You are on the fringes of the market square now, inside a dusty shop, watching your mother haggling with two shifty-looking Larach Duhnan traders for some saddle blankets. You’ve watched her do it before, but things seem to be taking an odd turn. One of the traders keeps asking for payment in something besides coin; it’s only when you notice how he’s leering at your mother that you realise what he means. “Hard times for folk like you,” he says. “With the king mad and the guards all gone, it’s dangerous for a Lady and a boy to walk alone. Can’t just call on a guard and tell him to lock up fellers like me anymore. Gotta deal with us. Gotta be nice to us.” The other trader seems to be sidling behind you. The other one places a gentle but firm grip on your mother’s arm, leans close and growls something through broken yellow teeth.
“Wait, I have gold. Do you take gold?” She reaches into a leather pouch at her hip; when her hand emerges there is a simple gold ring on one finger, set with a fair-sized ruby. It seems to be glowing slightly. “Would you take gold for these blankets? Gold would take you all the way home with coin to spare. It would bring you all the young, firm, willing women you could desire. So much better than a contrary old boiler who thinks she’s better than you, don’t you think?” Her other hand dips into the pouch, emerges with an oversized gold coin. The trader stares at it, nods, then her hand suddenly flicks out and brushes across his neck. He makes an odd gulping noise and clutches at his throat; you see blood spurt between his fingers. You follow her lead, draws his knife as the second trader advances. A sharp jab to the belly shocks the potential assailant; seeing his partner’s demise he stumbles back, falls to the floor, staring wide-eyed as your mother calmly watches her victim bleed.
With one dead and the other too frightened to act, she picks up the three saddle blankets she wanted to buy and gives them to you. Before you leave, she counts out sixty copper onto the counter, then scrapes them into a fold of cloth and tucks them into the dead trader’s belt.
“Now. I believe there is a mapmaker visiting the house of seers today, Tomas. Shall we pay him a visit?”
Your knuckles sting from the sharp rap of the cane. You’re not sure how she knew you weren’t paying attention, but you certainly are now; you wonder where the cane appeared from, and where it disappeared to when she turned back towards the easel. You hear Dellaran chuckle quietly behind you as Elesse speaks again.
“Erfiren, you learned little more than party tricks in the time we spent together. I have watched you with your silken hood, I have seen how confident you are when you stalk your enemies from behind its meagre protection. But have you moved on? Have you grown in knowledge or stature since I showed you the power behind the veil of the world? Tell me: what have you done since? You have fashioned sharper arrows and a…glowing rock.
“Cathorna needs more from you, boy. The skill you have learned at the hillman’s side is to be lauded, but this place has enough bowmen. It has enough trackers and hunters. Altraam is the heart of this place, Tomas its cold, rational mind, Cian the fire in its belly. What are you? What is your destiny?”
“Uncounted lifetimes of Men I have walked these forests, Erfiren. And I fought the Enemy every day I dwelled here. Cathorna’s walls are beyond my sight now, but they are before you every day. And you – YOU are here, before me, now. Decide how you can best fight the enemy. Decide whether I can share something of my art to help you help Cathorna. Return when you are certain. And when you are more in the mood to listen.”
Your peripheral vision contracts inward, everything in the room suddenly seeming to distort like a candle flame seen through a jar of water. Elesse recedes, and the sunny warmth of her little turret sitting room is replaced by the more rustic confines of your own cabin. It’s cold; your fingers feel stiff and sore, and you wonder how long you have been sitting at your table, staring into the heart of the strange glass sphere Altraam gave you.

Were we meant to meet someone…?

The wagon journey back to Cathorna is quiet and uneventful. The traders are thanked for their transport and hospitality and Second Skirmish return to their regular routine. Part of which is the monthly meetings with the priests of the Kine…
A table of food awaits when Second Skirmish arrive: fruit, pickled vegetables, sausages. Altraam brings trade goods, but allows Tomas to take the lead. The priest, Degan, is polite and a little supercilious; he talks about knowing about Defiance Hill, the trouble with the orcs. But when Tomas mentions the ant, there is a change in his manner. He says he knows nothing of trouble with ants, but is clearly uncomfortable with the subject. He says “I would have it known that I said nothing about ants.” As he speaks, he seems to be doing something beneath the table. Bringing forth the two minions who waited at the west end of the bridge, he quickly packs up ready to depart, though not before insisting Tomas takes the little leather roll of sausages that were part of the repast.
Disappointed, but determined not to waste a nice day in the forest, Second Skirmish search the forest south of the bend near the river. No ant sign is found until the line reaching to the log is rediscovered. Following it back, they find a column of ants heading west. They feed them sausages, at which point they discover there is a primitive map chalked onto the inside of the leather roll. Reasoning that the Moley F$%king Priests must have set up some sort of Moley F$%king Priest trap there, they make all haste for the point on the eastern margin of the Kine indicated by a cross.
An ant hole is found. Another is identified some distance south of it, also on the margin of the Kine, at which point everyone goes home for tea and scones.

Rural Idyll

As his gift for the naming of Defiance Hill, Cian swears an oath to assist Yeld. Altraam also offers a promise to Yeld, swearing that he will give what aid he can to help him find his sister.


Discussions arise as to whether it would be practical to trap an ant. Altraam suggests enlisting the skills of one of the village’s hunters, but resolves that Nan, Ward, one of the village’s few trappers, won’t be much help. Cian designs an ant trap, which Tomas improves and the dwarves make. He ventures into the forest to test it out. It works first time: a horde of ants comes from the east, led by scouts. He reels it in, but needs a gorilla dice to pull the trap in with an ant inside. It is clearly displeased with the turn of events, but is unable to penetrate Cian ingenuity, Tomas engineering and dwarven smithing. Altraam suggests detecting magic on its occupant, which reveals there is a growth enchantment over the creature.
Tomas discusses the forge as a chemistry lab. Dellin seems troubled by the idea of barrels of toxic slash volatile fluids over a raging fire in a confined space full of his stuff. Cian thinks of using the shield as a heat source. Eschewing these methods initially, Tomas makes about 200ml of Delrean extract using fruit alcohol. The resultant brew is potent to the point of impracticality; taking the lid off the jar almost incapacitates people nearby. A dipped stick kills the trapped ant in minutes.
Worried by the insectile turn of events, Altraam spends hours crouching before ant nests, observing reactions to rain, darkness, watching tiny black dots circle and scurry across the ground, seeking patterns against which he can apply his tactics skill.
Tomas detects and analyses magic on the trapped ant, identifying growth magic on it.
There is much debate over alcohol and wood spirit for making delrean extract. It is broadly agreed that wood alcohol is bad to drink, but cheaper to make. The prospect of making litres and litres of fruit alcohol as a reagent is quickly abandoned due to the high cost of fruit in Cathorna since the apple orchard fire.


Armed with the strange map, several Cian-designed ten-foot pole torches and anti-ant greaves, plus the delrean extract, Second Skirmish set out under a ¾ moon in early Nov. At the place indicated on the map, a circle of brown mushrooms surrounding a circle of black and red mushrooms surrounding an ant hole is found. On approaching the strange site, one of the big brown mushrooms splits. The others nearby do the same, until all the mushrooms have split open. Yeld claims he can hear a high-pitched keening from them, though nobody else can detect it. Nervous nonetheless, everyone acts quickly, gathering samples of the brown and the red/black mushrooms.
As the next course of action is discussed, floating heads of death appear over the trees. Spherical apparitions with stubby waving tentacles atop a brown leathery body, they move slowly, floating as if on a weak breeze. Everyone flees, pausing a few hundred metres away. When Altraam gets a sense of foreboding, everyone flees some more.
Cathorna’s healers and herbalists are summoned to discuss the find. Elenril says she feels the touch of a dark power on the mushroom. Altraam takes the hint and wraps it in his new chain, seemingly extracting the power from it. Amrik seems curious about the find, but says no more.
Altraam asks Fina about music, and the possibility of interfering with the strange note made by the brown mushrooms. They discuss discordant notes.


The party heads out again around 12 Nov. Cian stalks around the forest circle, hears voices from two (?) guards beneath the northern large tree. He sees the brown mushrooms are dead and new ones are growing. Altraam drags a branch to attract their attention. It draws out one of the guards, who tries a “Come here, it’s safe” spell that affects Tomas (he resists), though a rabbit, nightingale and some beetles are lured.
Once again terrified by some indeterminate aspect of proceedings, Second Skirmish flee in terror.
Back at Cathorna, experiments are conducted on the fragments of brown mushrooms taken. Attempting to regrow them produces similar fungi, though the grow no larger than 1.5 inches high. Touching them with Tomas’ frost brand demonstrably kills them.

sigh Ants

Another trip is planned, this one two days later on Nov 15th, the day before the new moon. Reaching the site safely, Cian stealths up to the mushroom circle and sees the big brown ones have grown back. The rest of the group head in from the north.
In the distance, chanting can be heard and fires can be seen in the Kine. Ignoring the troubling portent, everyone closes in on the circle. Tomas whips it out and makes with the cold, though he needs a Gorilla dice to ensure he successfully freezes the mushrooms without ‘activating’ them.
Investigation with magic detection spells reveals there is something magical beneath the ground. Digging tools are deployed and seven stones are dug up from the circle. Six are tumbled white quartz and seem to possess a ‘growth’ power, one is polished hematite with clairsentience. The latter is smashed, the others are taken back to the village.
The hunters are asked to keep an eye out for further ant sign. To everyone’s relief, they report that the ants seem to have disappeared.

Rural Idyll

Tomas decides to take his time fixing the sundial, having detected magic on it. He looks deeper into the question, speaking briefly with Sulkana and Elenril about them. They give him access to Elesse’s little study, where he discovers the meaning of the runes: growth, invisibility and navigation.
Altraam asks Yeld if he has heard anything of Sala. Yeld says no, nor has he discovered anything of the torturer.
Tomas retires to his workshop, armed with a sack of ore, a plan and a copy of the crafting rules. In time he emerges, clutching a white metal helm.
Altraam investigates the outcome of ill feeling between Richard Porter and Lim Ward. He learns that on returning from a hunting trip, Lim slapped Richard Porter in the face with a deer liver, then stopped talking to him. Word about the water cart is that she’s been fine about the breakup ever since.
Altraam speaks to his stepmother, Breall Nedley, about not letting Fina outside the village. She assures him his sister almost never ventures beyond the walls.
Tomas talks to Yeld about Neeshka, particularly her reticence to assume any responsibility in the village. Yeld says he understands her feelings; she is no leader, and wants to play no great part in the community’s destiny beyond the reach of her bow. When Tomas starts talking about different factions vying for power in Cathorna, Yeld becomes uncomfortable and refuses to talk about it, saying he fights for ALL Cathornans.
Troubled by the example of the Horn, Altraam discusses not using any items marked with the black speech, and cautions against using anything taken from the enemy

When Huz attack!

Late in November, everyone is tending to their daily business around the village. Cloppy Ward, recently recovered from his throat injury, bellows at the Borrett kids for throwing a spear at him. They deny it. Alwyn Gedult shouts in surprise when another one appears in her water cart. One of the Cooper lads comes down from the farm end with a rotting dog’s head. The bell is rung, second skirmish assemble, then the bell is rung again and all of Cathorna gathers. Altraam directs his rank to gather weapons and prepare.
Palanto makes it to the green, asking Tomas what cause he has to call out the militia. As they speak, flaming projectiles soar over the bluff, crashing into the assembled mass. Groat Ochoa, Ladis Tagala and Yeld are hit, though none receive more than a scorching. Palanto bellow for the spearmen to scatter and set to the buckets. On Altraam’s advice, he directs the heavies to search at the base of the cliffs for spear throwers, then shouts “Skirmishers! Get up there, knock that thing out!”
Eschewing the easy route out, SS head up the cliffs in the Cleft. Cian stealths around to the north while everyone else heads east. Neeshka disappears from sight. Closing in on the noise, Cian spots two catapults and a ballista with several attendant orcs, and a pot of flaming something close by. Setting out his sling stones, he lines up and takes a shot, nailing one of the orcs.
Before he can take another shot, some mysterious instinct makes him look around. Then look around again with the benefit of a Gorilla. A floaty head thing appears behind him; he reacts immediately, striking it square with a sling stone for 3 body. It reels back, but seems unharmed, and presses close, brown gas oozing slowly from its mouth as it approaches. It appears to be trying to talk to him. He grabs a couple of sling stones and retreats before it.
Meanwhile, Altraam, Yeld and Tomas approach the catapults from the west. They are spotted and four orcs move to intercept. Armed with spears and shields in Tomas’ case, but otherwise unarmoured, they nonetheless engage. Yeld is stabbed a lot as he wrestles with the orcs, locking a brutal full nelson onto one, shaking it like a rag doll then casting its seemingly lifeless body to the ground. He snarls challenges in elven to the others as he engages a second spear-armed foe. Altraam suffers at the tips of their spears, taking several wounds; he falls back and begins his chant. Tomas engages aggressively, killing three orcs in quick succession to turn the fight.
Reasoning that his stones are doing little damage, Cian scratches around and finds a nice pointy quartz crystal. He loads, fires, hits the FHOD square in the mouth. It tumbles backwards, rolling across the ground, then bobs up and continues its inexorable advance.
Flames crackle and smoke rises. Cian reaches the group and a plan is quickly devised: armour is stripped from the fallen foe and thrown on, then Altraam is slung over a shoulder. He is bleeding heavily, but makes no complaint.
Approaching the catapults, Second Skirmish discover the weapons are burning. They see the orcs fleeing; Tomas flings a spear at their backs, but misses wide. Inspecting the dead orcs’ weapons, Yeld’s warning is confirmed: there Is a thick, black, slightly translucent substance on the barbed tips. Oddly, nobody feels anything, other than a bit stabbed.
With Altraam in a bad way, everyone heads back. At the road, they find First Skirmish, in varying states of stabbedness. “We were ambushed,” Janis announces dourly. “They were waiting here for us.” Runners come with bandages, and everyone is patched up for the short walk back. Altraam immediately reports to Amrik for aid, and spends some time being bandaged and poulticed.
Pursuit of the fleeing orcs is mounted. The trail leads across several traps: pits, log drops and spikes, all well-concealed. It takes them to the base of Keep Mountain, at which point everyone agrees to leave. Lim Ward stays, saying she will circle the mountain and find out what she can.
Cian shares news of his encounter with the FHOD. He posits that they are a spore/fungus.
Tomas talks up his part in the battle at the inn, particularly the slaying of three orcs, but his story fails to hold the attention of the gathered crowd. People seem subdued rather than triumphant at the apparent victory.
Later, Cian searches for traces of the floating head of death and the orc bodies are burned.
Time passes…

Rural Ideals

Troubled by the prospect of the cave being used as an approach to Cathorna, Cian arranges to hammer a plate over the troll hole. He also places stakes across the tunnels through the brambles.
After the siege engine attack, there is more talk about towers and forts. Dellin tells Cian the dwarves will build his tower, Durgan agrees. Palanto listens to Cian’s proposal and agrees to permit it, if the dwarves are willing to do the work.
Tomas makes the connection between the appearance of enemies on Cathorna’s southern margin and the broken sundial. He commits to repairing it, and gets it done by sundown the following day. Deciding to test the ‘navigation’ part of the magic, he heads up onto the hill. The magic’s power is immediately apparent: he gets lost in the forest, using both a magic dice and the gorilla to find his way back.
Curious about the devastating full nelson attack, Cian talks to Yeld about his wrestling. Yeld says he once served as a guard for a local baron, and needed to be able to defend him without carrying a weapon.
When Tomas talks about discarding the near-lethal delrean extract, Cian offers to take it off his hands. Coin is exchanged; Cian buys a bottle with a stopper for it, but makes Tomas decant it for him.

Here comes the rain again

Winter hits with a sleet storm.
Investigating the recent appearance of kobolds on Flint Hill, SS discover the body Erfiren left there is gone from the hole, and some poorly-made bracing has been added to the pathetic excavation. Erfiren places sticks as indicators of traffic.

A walk in the black forest

Heading down the eastern margin of the Kine once more, Altraam finds some cold transparent slime in a tree. He reasons that something is moving through the canopy. A FHOD stalks them; better prepared this time, Cian puts a javelin through it, keeping the rather pathetic deflated remains. Erfiren detects magic on it, but can’t identify the type.
Curious about the road identified tracking south from the Kine, SS head in that direction, picking It up slightly further north and following round a short distance. The trackers confirm that it is well-used, with deep cart ruts and recent ogre-sized footprints.
After CONSIDERABLE debate, the party decides to take advantage of the remains of the day and explore east, heading down to the river shown on Palanto’s map. Knowing the Huz orcs operate in the area, they hope to find some trace of recent activity. Light rain falls steadily as they head southeast, the river appearing through the dense forest late in the day. It is deep and fast, the banks steep and near-inaccessible on both sides; animal tracks are common, though they only reach the water at a few spots. The group turns east, updating their maps and journals as they go.
Daylight runs out at the margins of the badlands, where the ground begins to slope upwards into the Misties. Camp is set beneath the eaves of the forest and guards settle beneath rain capes for a cold and wet night.

Something wicked…

Altraam is on watch when something appears on the mountains to the east. He almost misses it, only noticing because the profile of the tallest peak looks slightly different, as if something huge sat atop it. The rain stops. The forest falls silent. He feels a sense of terrible foreboding. The shape on the peak vanishes, he sees something dark in the sky to the east. An irrational fear touches him, strengthening fast. There is a sound on the air, a roaring that grows with the fear. The sky darkens as the feeling passes close, driving him to hide as something passes overhead with a rush of wind.
The stars re-emerge, peering feebly through the clouds, though the mid-December new moon offers no light. Altraam wakes everyone; camp is relocated and everyone spends a nervous few hours waiting for dawn.

Hark! A tower!

There is no sign of the night’s dark portents. Though troubled, everyone is ready to press on. Heading northwards along the scoured land at the base of the scarp brings an unexpected sight: a towering keep on the western extreme of the ridge. Built of black stone, it is round, crenelated, at least forty metres high. The ground drops away sharply on three sides, its crest denuded of vegetation. Unwilling to enter unprepared, the party press on northwest to the kobold silver mine.
Things have changed a little since Second Skirmish cleared the kobolds. The smelter has been upgraded. A drainage channel has been chiselled into the once-water-covered slope. Wood, coal and ore have been gathered and piled ready for use. Kratak mushrooms and water are available in abundance, so everyone relaxes and spends a quiet night.
Come morning, Altraam casts his bounty spell. Cian applies his tattoos. Everyone else does a few quick stretching exercises, then the party heads southeast, towards the mysterious tower.
Wary of a direct approach, SS come in from the northeast, scrambling up the steep but accessible northern face of the ridge. Now somewhat weathered and crumbly, the face would once have presented a significant barrier to access. Reaching the top, they spy piles of bones at the base of the tower: men, orcs, deer, bears, birds and others. There are no windows, no arrow slits, no doors other than the front. The approach to the latter is lined with ten foot spears driven into the ground. Bodies are staked on them: a man, a Kul orc, an eight-foot greatman, ogre, cleaverbeak and bear. All are long-dead.
The doors are large, though only slightly more than man-sized. A heavy circular handle is set into the left side. Grasping and turning unlatches the door, and it swings inwards, revealing a broad dark corridor. Second Skirmish enter, opening both doors to admit as much light as possible.
The corridor Ts. Taking the right fork, SS find a room with an earthen floor, piles of smashed furniture, and a strange mound in the centre like an ant mound with a foot-wide hole in the top. Torches are scratched together and Tomas and Altraam approach.
As if on a signal, a huge centipede appears from beneath a door at the end of the right corridor. It rears up at the sight of Cian and Erfiren. The move simply earns it an arrow in the underside and a brutal falx attack that first cleaves away legs, then cuts it in half. It emits a sharp clattering noise, then a ragged scream as its thick green blood flows. An answering sound like bone on porcelain is heard. Fearing ants, Cian calls out to block it: Altraam and Tomas quickly cram wood burning wood down the hole. It is effective; nothing emerges.
More broken furniture is scattered across the floor of the next room. Double doors leading to stone stairs down are ignored; a single door to the left is taken instead, after setting a simple ‘alarm’ to warn of the door behind being opened.
A body is found in the next room. After the usual paranoid escapades, it is searched, yielding a silver coin of some vintage, twenty copper, a rusty daen helm and a phial of red liquid.
The next rooms reveal something of a domestic character to the tower, being in turn a kitchen, pantry, dining room and dormitory of sorts. In them, the following are seen:
-a figure, seated at a table. Tomas sees him, but he is gone when he looks back
-a pile of bones on a bed in a room with a heavily webbed ceiling. A giant spider descends from above to bite Tomas, but is quickly dispatched by Altraam’s torch. There is brief discussion of burning the web, but the party moves on before they are enacted.
-rodents of indeterminate size. None are spotted for more than a few seconds.
Following the accommodation space, there is a training room of sorts. A broken shield radiates magic (ED), as does a targeting dummy (?)
Coming full circle leads the party into a wide central space. There are long-decayed human bodies scattered across the floor. A quick scan for magic reveals a soft suede pouch (Change Environment) in which there are two red stones (EB)
Satisfied that no threats or TREASURE remain on the ground floor, Second Skirmish take the stairs up.
A small space greets them: three doors, silence beyond each one. The centre one opens to reveal an ogre corpse in an open space. Wary of <pretty> that might be inside, the door is quietly closed. The right door reveals a more interesting sight: row upon row of glass bottles on shelves, most empty, some partly full. Scanning for magic identifies an amber porcelain quart bottle with about 200ml of a thin clear fluid in it (Healing)
The room beyond has the feel of an alchemist’s workshops. Three copper alembics line the wall, one warm. There is a stone trough with a vent sloping up and out of the wall. Two workbenches occupy the end of the room. Second Skirmish leave well enough alone and go back, opening the third door.
This space is in poor repair. The carpet is moulded and decayed, two armchairs are damp and rotting. Bookcases against the wall have collapsed. With Erfiren struggling to remain awake, the party decide to wait until another time to investigate the door in the far wall…

Session 11, 10 Nov 12

Session 11, Nov 10 2012

The kobold dies with a pathetic squeal; you pull your spear free of its throat with a boot on its chest. Its brother lunges in, tries to grab the sword from the ground where you knocked it from its grasp; you swat it away with a contemptuous kick and turn to face it and the only other survivor. One, still armed, circles warily; its brother pulls a tiny dagger from its belt and feints inexpertly to draw your attention.
It starts suddenly; something in its eyes takes your attention. It’s gone just as quickly, but you’re left mystified as it quickly scuttles back away from you. You sidestep, watching for the other one; it too has drawn back. Their mouths drop open and they utter a sharp hiss, then you see a brief shadow and something heavy drops onto your shoulders.
You feel hot breath on your neck, feel a heavy blow against your shoulder. You grab at it; feel warmth, wetness at your shoulder, catch a glimpse of a flailing kobold tail. It’s on your back, its teeth locked into the meat of your shoulder. You reverse the grip on your spear, think better of it, drop the long weapon and snatch the dagger from your belt. As if on a signal, the other two rush in to the attack.
Battle ensues. Two dogs emerge; Altraam crushes the kobold on his back against a tree, stabs another then gains altitude to start taking care of business. Moments later, an arrow strikes one of the two. It collapses, tumbles into the scrub. Your brother appears from the ferns, drops his bow and pulls a big hunting knife from his belt. The kobolds and dogs are swiftly dealt with.
He’s puffing and smeared with blood, but smiling. “Sometimes a brisk walk to visit the High Paddock can turn into a lot more, eh Altraam? Lucky father said you were off for a stroll. Now, I’m going to hunt out the last of this little pack. You want me to walk you back? I’m sure Devon’s robe needs ironing or something, and, well, many can hunt kobold, but only one man can get those creases he likes.” He proffers a skinning knife. “Or, we can take some souvenirs, then find the rest of their miserable little band.”
Altraam agrees and they spend the afternoon hunting down the last kobold

It’s been a good week’s fishing, with your boat coming back full to the gunnels five days straight. Fish now hang in curtains on the drying racks, the smoke boxes are darkening after days of use and Keeper Nedley has refused half the fresh fillets you’ve brought to him the last two days, his cool cellar overstocked with cod and trout. Your old man’s decided to pull the boat out and hand it to Seela Davon for a day to get the river weed scraped and some bulging timbers replaced, so you’re all free for awhile.
You’ve decided to spend it doing a little exploring on the south side of the river, without the usual distraction of a Second Skirmish quest to take your eyes from the trail. It’s been an interesting morning; you’ve found a fan of orange mushroom the size of your head on a rotting log; a quick nibble confirms it’s the tasty variety your nan once spoke of finding in the high hills east of your old home. You also found some bright purple berries on a low bush near the trail. A quick nibble confirms they’re NOT the juniper berries you’ve heard people talk about; instead they’re the sort that make your tongue swell up alarmingly and your fingers start to tingle. You feel briefly lightheaded and stumble off the trail to find a shady spot to wait for the effects to fade.
You realise your companion’s been talking for a while. “Sometimes their magicks fail them,” he says. His accent’s Colgar; his face indistinct, blurry, as if you’re seeing him beneath water. “Sometimes, a strong soul can resist the bindings. Not often, and few can keep from going mad. They become the animal; but without its experience, they soon die in the wild.” He winks, grins. “I was never far from the animal before they took me. I think sometimes all they did was free me, put me back in the body I belonged in.” The grin fades. “But know this, Cathorna. They bound me that I might see YOU. And had I not shaken free, they’d be behind my eyes now.” He reaches out, grasps your neck. “We’re no friends, you and I. But there’s the stain of the Black Foe on them. Cause enough to stand together when the day comes.”
He looks about. “Time I went. There’s food to be had and shelter to be found.” He turns back to you. “I’d wager I need not say it, but…don’t eat the purple berries. Not when you’re out alone. Stay safe, Cathorna.”
Your surroundings wobble slightly; your head spins and the ground moves. You feel damp earth between your fingers, realise you’ve slipped from the log. You try to rise, succeed only in getting to your hands and knees. As you try again, you realise your companion is gone. Bracken rustles close by; you look in time to see the hindquarters of a large brown animal disappear from sight.

It’s not often you head east. The hunting’s good enough south of Cathorna that you rarely see the need to head towards the High Spruce, towards the gnolls and the orcs and the cold winds off the Glacier. But Kotlas asked you to join him, said he was hungry for pig, and they were always more plentiful around the oaks east of Bald Hill. You shrugged and agreed to join him. It’s only a few weeks ‘til Long Patrol to Defiance Hill, and you wouldn’t mind a chance to stalk the edges of the High Spruce before you have to lead a hundred noisy Cathornans through there.
And it’s been a good trip. Kotlas is in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood; he talks of the good lands of the Swath, of curious animals fat on the long grass and rich moss of the Caradh wood.
“It’s awhile ‘til there’s a roof to hide under,” he says. “But I’ll live in a tent against the walls if it means a new start. I’ve a mind to ask Sul if she’ll come along. No mining work for her, but work enough in cleaning skins and keeping house for me if she’s willing to be a hunter’s wife. She’s a good girl. A good girl.”
As you travel east find scrapes in the soil, fresh dirt close by. Obvious tracks of heavy boots head south, crossing the creek. They are fresh. After a few more holes, you hear the sound of digging. Your ears lead you to a dwarf, dressed for travel, with a light leather vest for armour.
Erfiren emerges from the forest, gesturing and speaking in Common. The dwarf is surprised; he draws a fighting pick from his back and takes a stance. Attempts at communication prove futile, and the dwarf flees into the forest.

Your spear’s no lighter in your hands than when you wielded it in the corral six weeks ago. But you hold it with a greater confidence, thanks to your father’s lessons. The extra hour of spear training every morning before your lessons with Seer Velda is taking its toll; by evening you’re too tired to play orcs and knights with the other boys from the stables, but your complaints have fallen on deaf ears. You overheard your mother objecting to the new regime late one night after you’d gone to bed, but to your surprise your father refused to discuss it. You remember his final words, his voice uncharacteristically harsh: “We haven’t the time to give him the luxury of a childhood! He faces the king, soon, and he must do it as a man, his OWN man, not as a boy!” They didn’t speak for a day after that.
And now you’re outside the walls, searching the deep scrub lining the creek, searching for the orc your father says has been stalking the sheep. Guardsman Waldeck is at your left shoulder; his silent confidence as reassuring as the hardwood spear haft you grip in sweaty hands.
The orc tracks are clear on the sandy creek banks. One print is clear, the other is smeared out, as if it’s dragging one foot. You think you see dark spots of blood here and there. But you’re no tracker; you can’t tell if they were made in the last month or the last minute. You’re not sure whether to pursue hard or stay stealthy; you turn instinctively to Waldeck, but you remember your father’s words: “Return with an orc’s head, or an assurance the scrub is safe for our sheep. You are to lead, not he. YOU are to decide in all things.”
You find a trail. By INCREDIBLE chance, you look in exactly the right direction and see a dark shape in a tree ahead. You choose not to alert Waldeck, instead circling round to approach it alone. Your suspicions prove correct: it is an orc, perched in a tree.
A spear charge brings its life to a pointy end. It bears nothing, but you notice that its left hamstring has been cut cleanly. This orc was never going to get far. You search it, take its head and head home.
On returning, your father directs you to mount the head on the wall with the others. On returning from the parapet, you hear him speaking to Waldeck:
“Is the boy ready?”
“To lead?” You miss Waldeck’s next words. But you hear him say “the eyes of a hawk,” and “a killer’s instinct, cold and measured.”

You’re drunk. Really, really drunk. Your head’s spinning, you’re struggling to stay on your feet, but the hands propelling you along are insistent. One hand holding up your breeches, one steadying you against the wall, you try to take in your surroundings, but the dark room gives nothing away. In the distance you can still hear the celebrations continuing, and wonder if you might be able to stagger back and find yourself a woman.
A soft voice whispers in your ear: “I’m not sure you’re up to that.” You start, realising you uttered your thoughts aloud. There is a quiet laugh, and a familiar hand on your neck, steering you towards what might be a door. Moments of the last hour come back to you in a rush: a firm, full body, smooth skin marred here and there by the faintest of scars, and a talent for pleasure you never knew existed in the meagre confines of the waking world. You utter an involuntary groan as your guide reaches past you, grasps the door and eases it open.
Noise spills in from the darkness without. You feel the light peck of a kiss on your cheek, then the guiding hand on your neck tightens, producing a sharp pain out of proportion to the force of the grip. You feel warm breath on your ear, hear whispered words “Our little secret,” then the hand releases you and you find yourself outside, on dewy grass near the path. You turn, seeking one last glimpse; the door closes behind you, leaving you with only a tantalising flash of a perfect leg and the swish of long blonde hair.

The dead eyes opened

The dead rise from below. Altraam, Cian and Tomas watch as armed and armoured skeletons ascend the spiral stairs, dank black water dripping from their shields, black slime oozing from glistening skulls. Weapons are drawn and Second Skirmish leap to the attack.
The first skeleton deflects their blows almost effortlessly, barely slowing. They retreat before it, watching as fourteen more follow it up the stairs. The sight of their swords and armour stirs a memory for Tomas; he recognises the work of the Men of the West. The skeletons slow, surveying their surroundings; they seem hesitant, confused. Cian wonders if perhaps they arose, not because Second Skirmish have intruded on their domain, but because orcs are close.
Upstairs, the assault on the keep continues, Beckett, Neeshka, Yeld and Erfiren on guard as the orcs hammer at the door. The air cools. A tingling sensation touches everyone’s extremities. Sparks flicker about sword blades and there is an enormous crash. The door shakes, splinters fly from it. Moments later, another blow strikes it.
Cian takes a chance on his hunch. Slipping ahead of them, he begins climbing the stairs, closing doors and leading them on towards the exit, where Beckett, Yeld and Neeshka stand guard over the barred door. They fall back in shock at the sight, but stand clear at Cian’s insistence…
…just as Erfiren draws forth his crystal, unbolts the door and strides confidently outside, Cian, Tomas and Altraam close at his back, stopping on the narrow landing to loudly declaim:

ORC KUL! Cease this chicanery as it will avail you nothing. Orc Kull hear me! I Erfiren Tannerman defies you. We, Second Skirmish of Cathorna, defy you. All of Cathorna defies you. Your terms, we reject utterly. We shall never negotiate with you, we shall never come to any understanding with you, nor your masters, of whom you are a mere puppet. You wish something from us, then you will have come and take it Kul, for it will not be handed nor surrendered to you. You threaten us with death? (Ironic laugh) Well, all men must die eventually. It is our lot to leave the circles of this world. To where we go, we know not, (Hearty laugh) but know this puppet, it is beyond the reach, nay it is beyond the understanding of you or your masters. I am not afraid to die and if I am to die this day then I go gladly, but before I leave I shall resist your designs too the last of my strength. I shall deny your wants and hamper your plans with all of my will and with my last breath I will laugh and yell defiance at you. So come, come and take my life Orc Kull, for it is all you shall ever be able to take from me and even then it is something that I am destined to do regardless of your wants or designs. I will leave the circles of this world knowing that I died a free man, that I fought the good fight against you and your masters and rejected them and their terms. I am here Orc Kull, waiting for you. So come now puppet of your dark masters, do your worst for you shall receive nothing from me but my contempt. For I am a child of Arda, I am the living will of Iluvatar and I defy YOU! Swords and Shields and may the blessings of Manwe and Elbereth be upon us!

The enemy stand and stare at the mad boy and his little light, shouting his speech across the corral. But when he falls silent, there is no hail of arrows, no sword charge towards him, the orcs simply staring uncertainly at the improbable sight. In that moment, Tomas notices something odd about the hundreds-strong host: here and there he sees orcs holding the same pose, making the same moves. The more he looks, the more he sees the pattern repeated, until he is suddenly seeing dozens of identical orcs. Erfiren notices that many of the orcs cast no shadow…
As the crystal’s light spills in to the fort, Altraam notices that where it strikes the skeletons, they appear as hale, hearty Men with polished swords and silver-on-green shields and armour. “We fight for free men!” he shouts. They turn, mouth something in reply, vile black water spilling from their skulls. He moves through their ranks, uttering a prayer:

“Mighty Orome, I stand ready to walk he path you lay before me. I seek to carry on the work of your loyal servant Devon and bring honour to your name. Give me the strength to stand against the Dark Lord’s minions. Let the people see you still care for the lives of men, do not blame them for being unable to resist HIS temptations.
Accept my ascension; protect this place which lies between my beloved Cathorna and the land of our enemies. Let it be a bastion from which we can defend our home or strike out. Blind the enemy to our actions; deafen them to our words and keep them from spreading fear and uncertainty within our walls.”

He passes through the remains of the splintered door and takes his place in Second Skirmish’s battle line.
None of this takes Cian’s attention; he hurls aside some of his armour, most of his clothing and all of his caution and charges down the slope towards the foe, screaming an incomprehensible Daen war cry. Yeld follows him down the glacis, though he remains both clothed and silent. Moments later the skeletons follow, a shouted cry of ‘Celontir!’ coming to the ears of Second Skirmish as if carried on the wind from afar. “Your master has abandoned you!”, shouts Altraam, “These creatures fight for us!”

Battle is joined

The glamour fades. Two hundred becomes thirty. Bent but unbroken, the orcs rally around the unseated orc hero, raise steel and meet Second Skirmish’s charge.
The surviving mounted orc circles, three times the height of the crow’s nest. The air chills suddenly, and sparks spring from weapons. Erfiren feels a tingling and lightning cracks down from the orc’s outstretched hand, striking him roughly. Altraam descends the slope to join Yeld, Cian and Tomas in the uneven battle with the orc hero and his soldiers. Cian sweep-strikes several, Yeld covers his shoulder as the orc hero raises a black horn above his head. Fell words are chanted and darkness spills from the horn towards Second Skirmish. Altraam raises his horn and summons forth the light of Orome; light and dark meet in the middle and a contest begins. Tomas chooses to sway the odds in Altraam’s favour; his longsword flashes and the hand of the orc hero falls to the ground, still clutching the horn. Altraam’s light spills across the enemy, burning their flesh. Cowed by the assault, the orcs fall back toward the gatehouse as the skeletons press forward, joining the battle on Second Skirmish’s flanks.
The air chills. Sparks dance across Tomas’ helm, Altraam’s horn. There is a crash and both are struck by lightning. A rousing howl issues form the retreating orcs and they turn to meet the advancing skeletons…
…just as Erfiren puts an arrow in the belly of the circling bat. It shrieks, loses altitude; moments later a second shaft pierces its body. Its wings fold and it plummets earthward. Seeing it coming, Tomas unlimbers his crossbow, cranking and loading just as the orc hero strikes the ground in a flurry of broken wings and spilled bat guts. His shot is calm, measured and lethal, piercing the orc hero lengthwise and leaving him twitching atop the carcass of his mount.
The skeletons press the depleted enemy back towards the gatehouse. Altraam follows close, the light of Orome driving them back. The surviving orc hero halts the retreat; one-handed, he rallies his troops against their undead enemy. There is the swish of a sling, the clatter of a stone bouncing harmlessly off an iron helm. The orc hero looks, confused…
…just in time to see Erfiren’s arrow come through his eyeslit, dropping him in an unsightly armoured heap amongst his followers.

Well, that went nicely

The rout begins. Orcs clamber up the mound and over the parapet. Several are dispatched against the black monoliths of the gatehouse, more are taken down by slings and arrows as they flee. Altraam calls for some to be left to take back word of the rout; a few, perhaps half a dozen, make good their escape, running hard into the east.
The skies begin to clear. A breeze from the west brings warmth and the smell of the forest. Sunlight reaches the ground. The skeletons gather in the corral, weapons held loosely and heads bowed. They ignore everyone until Tomas approaches them. One turns to him and its jaws work silently, but Tomas hears an echoing voice from afar: “Free us!”
“Men of the West!”, he proclaims. “You have shown great courage and fought bravely today. Whatever past sins bound you to this place are now absolved. You are freed of the burden of guilt and can rest now. Your duty has been fulfilled.”
The sun emerges as he speaks, reaching through the clouds to illuminate the keep. A circle of light tracks slowly across the corral. The skeletons sag as it approaches, and with a faint glimmer of light they fade to dust. As sunlight passes across the ground where they fell, eleven pale circles of light glow brighter. Where the skeleton warriors fell in battle, the same effect persists.
Minds turn to plunder. Tomas searches the orc hero brought down by his crossbow, finding a foot-long ebony staff, tipped with silver caps and inscribed with unrecognised pale silver runes (EB). He also finds a thick black leather belt with a heavy bronze buckle (strength). The second orc hero’s body yields a magical ring (summoning)
Cloppy is hurt but alive. The bleeding has stopped and his breathing has settled. Krisha however is lost to Cathorna. Words are spoken and she is laid to rest. The stone hearth inside the keep is named Krisha’s Hearth, and her name is scribed in the stone.
Vflynn’s and Beckett’s absences are noted and a search begins. Vflynn is found inside a wooden crate on the second floor. When disturbed, she whispers distantly, “He’s still watching,” and is left alone. Of Beckett there is no sign, though Neeshka says he was with her, firing arrows from inside the keep.
The search takes everyone to the dock below. Plumbing the filthy black water reveals it is twelve feet deep, the bottom covered in something soft and icky. It is deemed too perilous, or at least too icky, and nobody enters. Until Cian does; he feels fine, soft mud, scattered fragments of something, and an object sharp enough to cut his hand. He retreats to the dry safety of the dock, smelling like Budych’s armpit on a hot day.
Detecting magic close by reveals a glimmer below the surface however; dragging the water with a variety of dragging implements turns up several objects:
-a necklace (Per – taste), taken by Erfiren
-a small wooden soldier (minus Per – placed in an alcove in the gatehouse)
-a shield slightly stained, showing a white silhouette of a human head in profile on green (untested)
-two daggers (non-magical)
-three short swords (non-magical)
-a single felt boot (Stealth)

Kotlas reaches the gate. He is admitted, and immediately asks where everyone has gone. Minds are turned to absent friends, and trackers set forth to investigate. Altraam proposes using the dog collar to track Budych, reasoning he will be the easiest to smell for some reason. Cian also takes people’s possessions to give the dog a reliable scent.
Budych, Slaine, Groat and Alwyn are found soon after, singing loudly in the eaves of the forest. All four are fairly drunk; Cian discovers they have two good-quality Colgar waterskins. One is empty, the other contains a litre of strong-smelling spiced mead. He keeps it.
Yeld reminds Second Skirmish that it is the last night they will have the fort to themselves. Deer is roasted and tales are shared.


Come morning, Beckett’s trail is followed. Prints are found outside, leading to the stream. Trackers and the dog search both sides for miles upstream, but any hope of finding him is abandoned when his scent begins mingling with days-old trails left on his hunting trips. An expedition is mounted to the orc encampment; Beckett is not found, nor are the Cardolan four. One of the huts has had several skins removed, which have been piled in one of the huts. Prompted by Yeld, everyone turns their thoughts to where Beckett might have gone. Altraam insists he was mind controlled, refusing to believe he would have turned. Tomas raises the possibility that he might he heading for the horn…
Horrified by the prospect, Second Skirmish set out with First Heavy in tow, heading for the Sonder Rapids. Neeshka is sent ahead to share the news of recent events with Cathorna, while Erfiren goes invisible and shoots off on his own to check on the horn. Hours later he discovers the hole dug up, the horn gone and the rock that encased it split and blackened, as if by fire. He heads back at speed, rejoining the group as…

…a blockade is set at the Rapids. First Heavy hold the left bank, Cian taking the first island while Second Skirmish plus Groat spread out through the trees around the loggers’ clearing. The moon rises on a warm night and everyone watches and listens.
Things quickly go bad. Groat is taken down by a poisoned arrow; Erfiren sets out to investigate, but is ambushed and brought down by two grass cats in the darkness. Altraam hears the noise and charges, driving off the cats. Another arrow strikes Altraam; feeling the poison bite, he begins chanting. Erfiren recovers, just in time to suffer an arrow himself.
Beckett appears, striding into the moonlit clearing. Cian reacts, cutting the thick, coarse rope that stretches to the bank. “Second Skirmish!” Becektt calls, in the now-familiar tones of the Orc Kul. “Come forth. Face me. Face me!” They demur. Moments later the low drone of a horn sounds, and bad things happen…
At the river, the water recedes from the island. Cian hears a wet sucking sound, then thick tentacles lash out from the water, striking him roughly. Shouting and bellowing arises from First Heavy’s position. In the trees, Tomas hears a rustling, then sees a carpet of black and white beetles moving towards him. Scattered delrean powder keeps them at bay, but as the situation deteriorates, he draws his weapon and charges. Altraam, still chanting, advances into the clearing. Once Beckett sees him, he ceases his chant and collapses to the ground.
Erfiren wakens to bright sunlight. He hears Vflynn’s voice, sees her standing over him. “Come on,” she demands. “Let’s go.” He follows. They circle the seemingly deserted clearing; emerging behind where Beckett strode from the trees, Erfiren sees a tall, heavy-set orc standing where Beckett stood. Vflynn draws her knives, gestures for him to do the same and they charge. Blades flash and the orc is felled.
Back in the night, Altraam hears Beckett call his name querulously. On the island, the water returns and Cian sees no tentacles, only thick, damp tree roots straggling down the flanks of the island to the water.
Beckett is confused. He remembers nothing of the past two days. The Horn lies at his feet, once again Second Skirmish’s problem. It is taken up and borne away.

Sad tidings, hard decisions

Second Skirmish return triumphant to Cathorna. Their arrival is darkened by the need to share the news of Krisha’s death; Cian find her sister, Sul, and tells her. Sul is saddened, but takes heart in Cian’s stirring tale of her fight against overwhelming darkness.
The matter of the horn is immediately brought to Palanto’s attention. There is some discussion; he agrees that it needs to be resolved. Dorrigan enters as it is being discussed and declares that he gat get rid of it. Palanto is inclined to agree, but acquiesces to Second Skirmish’s right to have some say in the matter. Once alone, he tells Tomas to convince Second Skirmish of the wisdom of letting Dorrigan deal with it and the smaller horn carried by the orc hero. Tomas agrees.
Discussion is robust and passionate the next day. A decision is grudgingly reached to allow Dorrigan to deal with the matter; he takes up the horn and rides out immediately.
Altraam takes responsibility for telling Lim of her father Cloppy’s fate. She is out hunting; he asks Janis Dorrigan to send her to him on her return. He is invited to join Janis, Tadgh and Seela around their fire, sharing warmed port and tales of events t Defiance Hill for a quiet hour after sunset. The next day he is woken before dawn by a banging on his door. Lim is there. “Janis told me, I am going to him, thank you, goodbye,” she blurts before heading for the gate.
Cian reminds Tomas that Beckett must have the tourmaline crystal, as Erfiren reported that the rock in which it was set was visible. He confronts Beckett, who initially insists he doesn’t know what Tomas is talking about. The eventual outcome is not positive for Beckett, and Tomas leaves with a new prize.

Rural Idyll

Worried that no evil artifacts remain in the village, Cian decides to summon forth the dark power of the gauntlets of black metal pointiness. Bringing his brother Faolan along to club him if he enjoys himself too much, he subjects the dead trees f the sandbars to a merciless pummelling. He ascertains that the gloves do indeed increase strength, but at the cost of tactile sense. He can feel nothing more than gross feedback while wearing them, and has difficulty holding weapons.

Meanwhile, Altraam visits Sulkana the elf, who he finds practising the lute with his son. He tells a tale of a metal ring with a power to control minds, a ring that is desired by all who see it. Before Sulkana’s head explodes with fear, he takes out the red ruby ring. Sulkana is relieved, and tells him the ring is of mediocre craftsmanship, and has no great power. Sulkana also informs him the now-matched boots were made by Edouard Baddeil, aka The Eternal Trickster, one-time court mage of a king of Cardolan. He says that regardless of the boots’ power, there will be some twist to them. He says Baddeil was deeply moral and never used his power for evil deeds.

Worried by the question of Cathorna’s succession, Tomas speaks to Palanto about Neeshka’s reluctance to assume any leadership role. Palanto initially dismisses Tomas’ concerns, saying Neeshka is simply not given to leadership, irrespective of her heritage. Tomas tells him of her refusal to take responsibility at the fort, and asks what might happen should both Tomas and Palanto die. It give Palanto pause. He admits that in the absence of them both, the village would likely ‘fall into the hands’ of Altraam Nedley and Cian O’Conchubhair. He does not go so far as to say this is a bad thing, but he says he will be considering its implications.

A trader’s horse pulls loose of its reins, running across the green with its wagon bouncing and rattling behind. The wagon sideswipes the sundial, knocking the table askew. Tomas fixes it over two days; while doing so he notices magical elven runes on the sundial. Amrik is consulted; he says they are runes that elves put around their gardens to make plants grow faster. Tomas and Erfiren determine there is magic there of a type with which they are unfamiliar, but nothing more. Attempts to cast analytical spells are fruitless; neither can understand the results.

Tomas analyses the curious arrowhead and determines it is made of a dwarven metal called galnin. Dellin and De re metalica are consulted; he learns that galnin is only available in Khazad Dum and the Northern Misties. He also approaches Durgan and asks him to bring him a broken metal object. They comply, bringing him a bent pick head covered in rust. He returns with it shortly after, straight and free of decay. Dellin Shieldhelm offers him a bent old iron sword and asks if he can do the same for it. Over the course of a day, Tomas returns it to its original mediocre condition. Dellin is pleased; he says the sword is of no great value, but it is the first one he ever made, and has some value to him. Durgan is clearly intrigued by Tomas’ new-found ability.

Deciding it is time his knowledge is passed on, Cian takes his youngest sister Brigh out for a walk in the forest to learn something of his trade. She is pleased and enthusiastic, and learns quickly of the connections between things, of the places things grow and the way they work, but struggles to remember he many names and tales he shares with her.
Altraam begins work on the Chain. He speaks to Beckett about manufacturing it; Beckett agrees to help and says it will take about two days to do the work. Altraam also calls on the people of Cathorna to contribute metal, thus bringing their spirit into its construction. Altraam gives a sermon in which he calls for donations of metal to make the chain. People are initially a little confused, not sure if the Orc Kul is going to attack them, Altraam brings them around and a little pile of pots and pans and tools and other ironmongery is gathered.
Altraam gives Erfiren the bubble, given to him some time ago by Elesse. Erfiren determines that it’s magical, that it has some power, but that he can’t tell what it is.
Altraam also confronts Erfiren and Beckett, telling them their gifts to Yeld for naming the fort were inadequate. Beckett reacts in Becketty fashion.

Erfiren finds a small tunnel in the orange clay at Flint Hill. Moments later its creator appears: a small, poorly-armed kobold. He maims it with an arrow, then tries to negotiate with it. His attempts at communication are fruitless, and it flees for the river. It is fast through the undergrowth, but its injuries slow it down; he catches it on the downslope of the bank and it is dispatched with arrows. He stuffs its body into the little tunnel, then collapses it.

A long-held desire to have small furry mammals close at hand is finally fulfilled by Cian, who builds a rabbit enclosure in a corner of the O’Conchubhair corral. Four rabbits are entrapped and left to do what rabbits do.

Yeld has been coming and going a lot. Nobody is sure why…

Altraam confronts Dorrigan about his attitude towards Sulkana over his lack of magical power. He tells Dorrigan that he needs to ask the elves politely and respectfully about it. Dorrigan seems impatient and dismissive about the whole thing.

Full-time patrols to Defiance Hill begin. Palanto makes the long trek part of the regular militia roster, sending ranks on three-day stints, alternating clockwise and anticlockwise routes to make use of the river without boats piling up at one end or the other. On the first trip, Altraam experiments with the ‘lightning rod’ on a warm clear day. The best he is able to muster is a mild tingling sensation and a slight cool breeze. Erfiren also makes a bow…
Erfiren had settled into life at the new outpost. The hunting on the Swath was good; a day or two would nearly always see a good sized deer brought in, rabbits were plentiful and he had found a sizable warren that he could always rely on for a couple of snared bunnies. Pheasants and other game birds were also in plentiful supply. With belly and larder full, his thoughts turned to a new project: his bow.

Erfiren had perfected his new Analyse Magic spell and had come onto the idea when checking over Seela’s bow. He was certain he know how he could replicate it; all he needed was the right piece of wood. And on today’s hunting trip, his gaze was up at the trees more than down at tracks. Some likely trees had caught his eye over near the old cabin where he had met Leah during the fort’s construction.
As he reached the dense, dark grove, he realised the best branches were high – too high for free climbing. Luckily an axe was at his belt and a coarse rope over his shoulder. Spotting one of the trees he set his rope and clambered up clumsily, his axe dangling from his belt. He straddled a thick branch high in the crown where he could see the branches more clearly, certain he would know the right limb when he saw it. There were several good branches in the first tree, one of which he removed; it wasn’t what he was looking for but it would still make a good longbow. His old one was getting tired and this would be good practice before trying to construct his “magical” bow. Dropping it to the ground, he scrambled down and moved on to the next tree.
Two more days and nine more trees were tried before he found what he wanted. When it finally appeared, he could see the future bow clearly in the branch; the grain of the wood, its shape…he could almost feel the bow in his hand when he gripped the branch. Carefully, almost reverently, he removed it and clambered down with his prize.
He spent several evenings slowly shaping the bow. The slightest misstep and it would be ruined. After nearly a week of late evenings shaping and sanding, the body was ready. The important work was about to start.
Erfiren took himself up onto the top of the tower and asked that he not be disturbed for the evening. After answering a multitude of questions, “No it would not involve fire, no he was not going to summon some uncontrollable demon, no the magic wouldn’t turn anyone into a toad”……. well he hoped not. People agreed not to disturb him. Well, not too much, Vflynn qualified. As dusk settled over the Swath he began, slowly wrapping the grip with the finest doe skin leather he could make, chanting in Elven as he wove the intricate pattern of the grip. The perfect weapon needed the perfect grip, or it would just be another very nice bow. He continued to chant and wind, oblivious to the world about him. Nothing existed but the bow, the grip, the minute detail of the pattern of the grip, the way the leather bound the wood. Six hours later it was finished.
Erfiren was mentally exhausted, his fingers sore and cramping from the hours of winding and tying the grip. He stood, stretching sore and cramped legs. He strung the bow carefully; had it worked? All this time and effort, had it been for naught? Almost fearfully he nocked an arrow and drew back, his heart beating loudly in his ears…
Elation coursed through his body, his pains and cramps forgotten, for he could hear his bow, quietly talking to him, no, quietly singing to him, guiding him to aim higher, lower, to the left a little and then that perfect pitched note, almost a sigh when it felt right. Grinning like a fool he clambered down from the tower.
Vflynn was in the common room when he entered. Grabbing some broth heating over the fire, Erfiren sat down and quickly consumed the food, feeding the loud demands emanating from his stomach, Vflynn looked up from her whittling and quiet singing, “Oh, you’re back.” She glanced at his new toy, grinned impishly. “Nice bow, Firen. Want to give it to me?”
“Not bloody likely!” he retorted, smiling back at her. “But if you ask me nicely I might make you one.”
She giggled. “Ah that’s our Firen, always the selfish one.” She shook her head and her whittling bade spun and blurred in her hand. “Nah, don’t make me one. I prefer my knives.”
Her eyes glazed softly as her mind wandered away, then focus returned suddenly as she looked to his bow and smiled. “Yeah Firen. Nice bow. Might just have to take you up on that offer one day.” Her crossed legs unwound and she stood, patting him on the shoulder as she padded past. "Get some rest. You’re beat.” The heavy door creaked as she headed outside.
Erfiren wandered to his bedroll, shucking off his clothes and clambering into the warm folds of his furs. His new bow loosely gripped in one hand and a satisfied smile on his face, he drifted quickly off to sleep with Vflynn’s voice quietly singing in his head. A final thought entered his mind as he slipped into peaceful slumber, a deep, kind voice he had heard before but did not know.
" A very nice bow Erfiren. Alas I fear you will need to use it often soon enough."
He sleeps. He dreams…

When Second Skirmish depart, they leave behind a seeing stone (one of the small eyes) with Altraam’s sister Caralyn, with instructions to use it sparingly.


While out on the trail west of Cathorna, Cian finds a human body. It has been torn apart and stripped to the bone some time in the past couple of weeks. He follows an obvious trail of blood-slicked grass and finds a giant ant, almost a foot long, cut in half by the trail.
It brings the long-simmering question of the giant ants to the fore. Erfiren speaks of first discovering the ants some time ago, and determining only that they seems to emerge from the Kine. He says he approached Palanto about going after them, but was told to respect the boundaries. Altraam discusses the question of ants with Cloppy, Cathorna’s bee guy, but he offers little insight.
Curious about the implications of all the insect action, Cian asks Erfiren to capture a couple of the black and white beetles. Liking what he sees, but seeing an opportunity for improvement, he slurm-glues handles on their backs, though he stops short of painting Luchador masks on them. Erfiren detects and analyses magic on the beetles, determining that they have HKA power. Cian and Erfiren then take a quick trip to Beetle Island, where they capture a sulphur beetle and a purple spitter.
Gladiatorial beetle contests begin. The black and white beetle charges a purple spitter aggressively, but is immediately incapacitated by its attack, and begins walking slowly in a circle. The purple spitter strolls up and begins snipping its legs off, consuming them slowly before cracking its carapace and lapping up its insides. Cian and Erfiren are slightly affected by the spitter’s attack, but recover quickly. The sulphur beetle treats it with equal contempt, turning about and blasting it until its extremities boiled away. Cian and Erfiren’s eyes smart slightly and their fingertips tingle; a quick wash in the river alleviates their discomfort. After some robust discussion, Tomas says no to bringing beetles off the island, but Cian boxes up a sulphur beetle and takes it along anyway.


Second Skirmish decide it is time to investigate the extent of the giant ant threat. Four set out on a hot, still morning at the full moon, carrying rations and equipment for a three-day journey through the forest. In discussion with Cian, Altraam reasons that scouting the western side of the Kine will be informative, as it will indicate whether the ants are being driven or directed towards Cathorna, or simply radiating out from a central source.
After a brief pause to greet the shepherds Jalot Tannerman (Erfiren’s ‘uncle’)and Dornas Volker (the quiet lonely widower of Liane Volker of the pre-Fourth Cathorna Second Skirmish), the group heads southwest into the trees. Meat is hung from branches as a test for of ant activity.
Signs of ant activity are noted. Trails are found coming within a few kilometres of the High paddock. A rabbit warren is found on the margins of the denser trees close to the Kine, dug up and scattered with torn scraps of rabbit fur and flesh. More sign is found as Second Skirmish head south, seemingly indicating the ants have penetrated three or more kilometres east of the Kine.
Passing south of Pulpit Rock, Second Skirmish begins seeing unfamiliar animals, birds, insects and tracks. Snakes and lizards are sighted close by; Altraam takes the opportunity to don the snake-ring found in the Glaaarg cave. A good-sized snake appears charmed by the sight of it; the reptile approaches, unhesitatingly slithering over Altraam and coiling itself upon his arm, head close to the ring. He gingerly uncoils it and sends it on its way.
The first night is spent far south, beyond the margins of the Kine. Erfiren’s watch is disturbed by a rustling, then a faint musty smell. Moments later there is a rustling and a brief crunch, then the sound of something being messily devoured. Morning reveals blood and traces of golden yellow glutan(?) fur on a tree.
Finding no ant sign, Second Skirmish turn west. Passing south of the Kine, they discover a road. Fully six metres wide, rutted and cleared, it evidently sees heavy use. Trackers look to the ground, seeing huge shod humanoid tracks. Everyone tries, but nobody can come up with any cause except ogres.
Night falls. Second Skirmish hide in deep bracken, keeping a fifty percent watch. It is before midnight when Cian spots something to the east: the faintest flickering of light, like will ‘o the wisps dancing in the distance. Intrigued, he watches, seeing two, then three of the lights. Everyone is wakened except Erfiren initially, who dreams on peacefully (“No Vflynn, no! Well, alright.”). Cian realises he is seeing them with his spirit eye; it occurs to Altraam that they may be seeing him. He covers it as the sound of something crashing through the forest becomes audible. Cian wonders if it is zombies…
Something passes close. Well-hidden in the bracken, Second Skirmish hold their ground, remaining still as unseen figures pass within metres on either side. The figures stop; a heavy, rasping panting is heard nearby. Second Skirmish hold their breath…
A cold wind reaches through the trees from the east, bringing a smell, dank and rotten. It passes. The figures resume their march, turning northwest and receding into the distance.
Second Skirmish sleep well afterwards, despite the ominous intrusion. Come morning, camp is broken and the party heads northwest. Of the night time visitors, little can be seen other than clear tracks through the dense undergrowth.
Hours later signs of habitation appear. Tracks and trails are seen, showing the paths of game and hunters. Arrows and chopped trees are found. Tomas tomatoes; heading west, Second Skirmish reach the edge of a clearing some three hundred metres across. Beans, capsicum and tomatoes grow across it in neat, carefully tended rows. Brown-garbed daen move about attending the crop, talking and laughing with each other. A wide trail leading is seen north out of it. Moving parallel to the trail’s east, Second Skirmish see more signs of long-term habitation, and hear occasional voices in the distance, all the signs of a lively forest community.
Swampy ground is encountered near the margins of the Kine. Cian searches, finds spiderwort and gathers some.
No further sign of ant activity is seen. Tracking the western margin of the Kine, Second Skirmish see the broad road on the western side of the Tarel stream. Dozens of people are on it, travelling slowly, camping, hanging out clothes on makeshift lines, cooking over good-sized fires. Men wear simple breeches of coarse cloth, wool or leather, women wear lonk brown smocks of similar material. None seem troubled by ants, priests or anything else; it is like looking in on Cathorna on a summer’s day. Second Skirmish move on to the north, passing stubbly fields with scattered stumps, evidence of the clearing activity from last winter.
Deciding it is time to head home, Second Skirmish stick to the forest, emerging quickly where it is closest to the road and dropping in behind two trader wagons heading east. One is driven by a regular fur trader who visits Cathorna to buy and sell, the other is a potter who sells workaday pottery and buys some of Mila Porter’s colourful pieces. Altraam rifles through the fur trader’s stock, but finds little of value.
The sun is warm and bright as Second Skirmish head for home.


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