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!”
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.
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.
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.