“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.