Friday, September 3, 2021

#1: Stirrings

Throughout history, the Greypeaks have been home to all manner of creatures—goblinoids, orcs, giants and worse.  And throughout history, these creatures have struck out against encroaching towns and villages; sometimes these attacks are repelled, and the creatures sent back to their mountain lairs.  Sometimes, however, these onslaughts are successful and villagers are forced to either uproot and seek sanctuary elsewhere or die by the fangs, claws and swords of those that would do them harm.  The High Forest is littered with the remains of such battles, the soil fertilized by the blood of man, skeletons of abandoned huts and houses overgrown and consumed by the waxing and waning borders of the High Forest. 

The bustling camps, homesteads and buildings of Pelanor form one such village, and it is here where our tale begins.  Pelanor is not large enough to demand a proper inn—we are given area in the common mustering grounds east of the village where we can set up our tents and build our fires.  There are perhaps a dozen other tents, though not all are currently occupied—most are used by transients passing through, mostly tradesmen and travelers. 

As we arrive in Pelanor, the environment is tense with rumors of evil humanoids and creatures seen along forest paths or viewed from afar in the mountains, and the remote villages along the River Delimbiyr have become relatively crowded by the comings and goings of those seeking fame, wealth, and adventure.  We are one such band, and as I look to my companions, I am hopeful that we will make a reputation for ourselves in this harsh, unforgiving land.

Ged of Arabel is a priest, a Windwalker in service of his god Shaundakul.  He is the seniormost member of our company, older than me or Khadhras by nearly a decade.  More so than fame or wealth, this wandering priest seeks converts among the rough folk of the Delimbiyr Vale and seems most comfortable when out under the open skies.

Bungo Proudfoot is a halfling whose skill and agility belies his short, pudgy frame.  He is accompanied by his faithful hound, Furryfeet.  Little more is known of this halfling or his past, but I’d wager that we’ve run in similar circles.

Contrary to Ged, who seems at home in the wilderness, Khadhras is a traveling wizard and academic who appears completely out of his element.  Similar in age to me, he is well learned in the arcane arts and a historian of some sort, knowledgeable of the High Forest and its history.  Such knowledge and power could prove invaluable as we enter uncharted lands.

Our goal is to push through to the forest camp of Aryen’s Hope, established a year past, which lies a hard day’s travel through forest and hilly terrain north of Pelanor, along the River Delimbiyr.  The trails leading from Pelanor are rough, though should be easy for us to follow as long as we keep the river within earshot to our west.  The leader of Aryen’s Hope bears the title Lord Forester, and it is he with whom we seek audience.  Trade and travel through this dangerous terrain demands guardians with special skills, and we intend to perhaps apply ourselves profitably to such efforts.

Our preparations for camp are interrupted as Bungo tugs at my arm, pointing to a curious exchange occurring amid the village.  A tall, aging man stands near a bedraggled woman in filthy robes.  He passes something to her with a few words, perhaps a coin, and we watch as she draws a small knife and runs it across the flesh of her arm.  It has the trappings of some kind of occult ritual, and we look to Ged for enlightenment.  Ged shakes his head though, unfamiliar with rite—it is likely either a local custom, or something completely foreign to his knowledge.  Khadhras mutters something about “a backwards custom of an uncivilized village.”  The man takes his leave, and we return to our duties.

I ask those in the mustering grounds if other bands of adventurers or soldiers have been through Pelanor, either heading towards Aryen’s Hope or back from it.  A tanner is willing to share words with us, recognizing that we are new.  He shares the recent village news that a supply cart was sent north to the forest camp several days ago with two armed guards, and no one has yet returned.  This is longer than typical for traffic between the settlements, considering that there are no known human settlements beyond, and concern is rising.

As we are finishing our preparations, we witness a pair approaching our small camp with purpose.  We recognize one of them as the man from the ritual—he wears a broadsword at his hip, perhaps nearing fifty, though otherwise dressed in plainclothes.  His companion is a female, garbed in a suit of chain and armed, younger than the man—perhaps soon encroaching on middle age.  She carries herself with the air of confidence of an experienced warrior.

The woman introduces herself as Sere, field marshal of Pelanor.  The position is nominally in charge of security and safety of Pelanor, and her companion is Kayd, the village horsemaster.  We can tell that they are interested in hearing our business in town and they welcome us.  She reiterates the tanner’s news of the lost supply cart and asks if we might return word of any findings.  “The village would be in your debt,” she explains.

Speaking for the group, Bungo says that we will do our best.  With our destination obvious, I ask if there are any other services we can provide, perhaps other goods to deliver.

“One of the men guarding the supply cart was my son,” the older man reveals, “and I would like to see him returned to safety.”  The cart was carrying tools, dry goods, rations and a small assortment of arms.  We empathize with him, and with that knowledge, we convene as a group to discuss our plans.

Ged asks if there is anything we should be aware of, knowing the forest and region to be dangerous.  Sere explains that nothing outside of the ordinary has been reported.  “There are always going to be dangers,” she replies, but has no specific leads.

I ask if they would send a runner with us—we’re not likely to turn back if we find something just to report news, so having a runner seems a smart course of action.  She is amenable to the plan.  When asked about compensation for our efforts, the man steps forward.

“You may come and go as you please through our village,” he explains.  “We ask nothing of those passing through, and grant shelter and what services we can.  If you return my son safely, you will always have a place at my table.”  It seems reasonable given the meager wealth of this small village.

Reading the skies, Ged informs us that the weather ahead will be clear.  With that in mind, we agree to the terms of the arrangement, and we alert Sere that we intend to leave the next morning.  “Well met,” she agrees, and thanks us before turning away with Kayd to return to Pelanor.

* * *

We awaken early the next morning and head towards the northern edge of the village.  There waiting is Sere, accompanied by a younger man, perhaps three years my junior.  He is outfitted with a small blade on his hip and some ill-fitting leather armor.  He is introduced as Nulwen—he knows the paths near Pelanor and is knowledgeable of the forest but obviously green when it comes to combat.  She trusts our judgment in directing Nulwen and seeing to his well-being.  “We will take good care of him,” I tell her. 

“Don’t worry about me,” he chides Sere sheepishly.  She wishes us well, and we head north from the village towards Aryen’s Hope.  As the sun rises, we pass through the outlying farmsteads quietly, hugging the River Delimbiyr as we travel throughout the morning.  As we approach midday, the woods become thicker and the path more treacherous—the rising sun becomes obscured by the dense tree cover.  The difficulty of traversing this path with a small cart or wagon becomes apparent, and we keep a careful eye for any signs of recent passage, Ged surveying the path carefully at varying intervals.  Nulwen proves an able companion, if a bit shy in our presence.

I take point as we travel, with Khadhras and Nulwen behind me.  Ged follows them, and Bungo with brave Furryfeet guards our rear.  All is well until we descend a small, tree-covered hill.  Ahead, we see an overturned cart with a mule standing peacefully nearby, tail swatting at flies.  We’re not close enough to make out much more detail from this distance.  Bungo and I take point, relying on Furryfeet’s keen senses to alert us of any danger, and the others follow several paces behind.

The cart is tipped on its side, one of its wheels entangled in some large tree roots that cross the broken path.  Supplies are strewn about, racks of tools and small barrels.  Furryfeet’s ears lie back as the scent of death wafts towards us, and ahead we see a bloated body covered in flies.  Bungo & Furryfeet approach the corpse as I watch over the area—scavengers have done their work on the decaying body, but it does appear as if the skin is torn by claw or blade.  We call the rest of the group forward, asking if Nulwen can identify the body of the deceased as Kayd’s son.

Nulwen pales at the sight of the corpse.  “No,” he replies.  “It’s not his son, but the second guard.”  It doesn’t look like the goods or rations have been picked over, nor any of the weapons.  The mule, largely oblivious to our presence, is still bound to the cart and is wobbly with fatigue or malnourishment.  It looks like it has been stuck in the same spot for days.  Khadhras moves forward to cut the mule loose and care for it, trying to give it food and water from the mess of supplies available.

While he does, I scan the area for any signs of prints, especially any leading away from the cart towards Aryen’s Hope but am disappointed to find no discernable tracks.  As we are perhaps halfway or more to our destination, there’s as good a chance as any that any survivors may have continued ahead.

Ged speaks with Nulwen about returning to Pelanor, and Nulwen responds that he will do as we ask.  As he can likely make it out of the forest before nightfall, we decide to send him back to Pelanor with news of the cart and the corpse, in the case that Sere desires to reclaim the goods.  Nulwen pauses to express that he doesn’t have any news of Kayd’s son.

“Kayd’s son is secondary to the news that the cart has been found and one of its guards slain,” I explain.  “We will continue our search and send what news we can.”  He nods, and we send him on his way.

I take a few minutes to bind some of the weapons found, bows and swords, knowing their value and not wanting them to fall into the wrong hands.  Others do the same, and we decide to press on, wanting to arrive at Aryen’s Hope before nightfall.

Our pace is slowed somewhat by our burdens and by the mule, which Khadhras has seemingly adopted.  The forest feels like it’s getting darker as the afternoon wanes, but after several hours alone, we can’t help but jump at shadows and personify what’s likely the natural occurrence of the setting sun.  We trudge on until suddenly Furryfeet stands rigid, hackles raised, and even the mule seems to sense something unnatural, and I start to regret dismissing the darkening wood.

Bungo slips into some nearby brush while the rest of us form a circle, standing silently as we wait for any sign of threat.  Furryfeet seems focused on one of our flanks towards a nearby ridge, and in the shadows we see the silhouette of a large four-legged creature, perhaps the size of a wolf, that moves with an unnatural gait or limp.  I raise my bow, knowing of no benevolent creature that fits such a description.  Before firing, I send a questioning gaze to the others in the group, but Khadhras shakes his head.

He begins to chant, his hands making the complicated gestures of an enchantment as we wait patiently.  The air fills with the scent of ozone as he finishes the spell, but it seemingly has no effect.  Not wanting to let it approach, Bungo and I loose a pair of arrows, each one finding their mark.  The creature lets out no sound, neither cry nor growl—only the dull thud of arrows striking their target.  It begins to approach in earnest, silhouette more clearly now that of a wolf, as Bungo and I send another pair of arrows over the creature, missing their mark.  The others brace for its attack.

I put myself in the path of the creature as it rushes forward, Bungo letting loose another arrow and Khadhras slinging a heavy stone which crunches into the creature.  As it pierces the shadows of the forest, charging towards us, we see that one of its front legs is hanging impossibly by a few lengths of tendon, the bone shattered.  Its hide is ragged from open and decaying wounds, and there is an odor of death not dissimilar to the corpse we found at the cart, its eye sockets empty, but jaws full of sharp, gnashing teeth.

I swing out wildly with my sword but miss as it bears down on me, jaws tearing through flesh and armor as it nearly brings me down.  Ged flails at it with his mace, unable to land a telling blow.  Desperate to escape lest I suffer another attack, I spin around and bring my sword level, cleaving the creature in two, cutting through spine, hide and flesh to spill its guts on the forest floor.

Mule Lives Matter
While the others scan for other threats, Ged rushes forward to tend my wound, offering some slight relief.  The creature is a true horror, having defied a normal death, and lest there be other creatures like it in the shadows of the forest, we decide to continue hastily on.  There is some discussion over whether to leave the mule and what supplies we have gathered behind, but deciding their value outweighs the danger posed, we press on with our burden.

Eager to put the horror of the encounter behind us, we move as quickly as seems safe, eating our evening meal on our feet so as not to lose any more time.  The welcome sound of the Delimbiyr gives us comfort that we are still on the correct path, but the remaining sun quickly fades and before long, we are forced to pull out supplemental light sources.  Ged, calling upon Shaundakul, conjures a globe of divine light.  Perhaps by virtue of the light or even the presence of Ged’s deity, the forest seems less shadowed than before, and once again we can hear the natural sounds of the forest.

After an hour, the light from Ged’s spell fades and I pull out a torch and strike a small flame.  It is then, however, that we notice the scent of a campfire on the wind, though no light from such a fire is visible through the dense forest cover.  Bungo examines the nearby trees, choosing one to scale up nimbly, hoping that the increased height will grant him a vantage we are denied.

Over the next ridge, Bungo sees what appears to be a roaring bonfire behind a wooden palisade.  Having no reason to doubt that this is Aryen’s Hope, we press on as quickly as the light from my torch allows.  We discover the ridge that Bungo spotted and ascend, and once atop it we are able to discern multiple bonfires, tents, and lean-tos, and can hear the sound of voices and activity from within the walls.

We approach and hail those that guard the palisade, and are granted access to our destination.  A dark-haired and bearded man approaches us, sword at his hip and bow slung across his back.  He introduces himself as Iphan, Lord Forester.  We exchange his greeting eagerly, glad to be behind the walls of Aryen’s Hope.

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