Chapter One of Under the Goblin Trees
Campaign adaptation by Thomas Kelly and sequel to Against the Cult of the Reptile God.
In the year that Prince Thrommel vanished, the news of his disappearance did not reach the court at Hookhill until winter. I know this to be so because, when the news did arrive, I happened to be at the court of His Most Resolute Magnitude Commandant Petros Gwalchen of the Gran March to deliver a report about recent affairs in the neglected Barony of Farvale. Rumors abounded, and, as everyone now knows, the strange circumstances around the kidnapping of the prince have never been satisfactorily resolved. The disappearance of the prince and the handsome reward offered for his return inspired many Knights of the Watch and heroes of Gran March to set their hopes on errantries. What is more, the arrival of the news was shortly followed with a specific summons recalling heroes loyal to Furyondy, including two of my companions, those respected veterans of the Troll Wars on the borders of the Pale and also Emridy Meadows, the half-elven brothers Llywain and Dorian. Fealty to the fifth of the Seven Families of the house of Furyondy obliged them to depart at once.
Now this turn of events I took sorely because I had hoped that they might accompany me back to Farvale and Orlane, guarding me for safe passage through the hazards of the Dim Forest. They assured me, “You have nothing to fear Father Tabor. You have the mighty sword of Sir Bruin and the competent dweomers of Myron the Glamorer. What is more, we are sure that the commandant will provide you a company of doughty knights back to Orlane.”
In the Court of the Commandant
My appointment with the commandant came on Freeday the last day before the week of Needfest. This unfortunate piece of timing forced me to keep the report and its corollary appeal as brief as possible, for the court was eager to dispense with business as preparations for the festivities were already well underway and the everyone was already swept up with the spirit of the holiday.
I summarized the dramatic events of the previous summer, how the church at Hochoch sent me to investigate a strange rash of kidnappings and disappearances in the Barony of Farvale and how our investigations brought us to uncover a conspiracy and evil cult dedicated to the worship of the foul naga witch, Explitica Defilus, who kept a hidden lair in the Rushmoors. I told of how her cult had operated from within the hallowed house of our Lady of Changing Seasons, the benevolent Merikka, and how the lizards of the Rushmoors venerated the serpent-woman as a goddess. Many of the good and simple farmer folk of Farvale had fallen under the naga’s bewitchment and secretly served her, and I told how my companions and I had gone into her very lair in the Rushmoor swamps and slain her, and how Felligan, a young ranger from Derellion had perished in that horrid place. I made mention of the missing children of Farvale and our concern for their welfare, and how we hoped to find some rumor of them in Hookhill. Finally, to the chief matter of the tale, I explained how my companions and I had discovered, in the serpent-woman’s possession, certain maps and documents which indicated alliance between the serpent queen of the Rushmoors and a secret goblin lord of the Dim Forest.
Having recounted these things, I made my appeal: “And now my Most Resolute Magnitude, I beg you to consider your people in the Barony of Farvale, those farmers who live in that narrow strip of country between the forest and the marshes, keeping the road to Geoff open and free of bandits and goblins. For we are a barony without a baron, and when trouble arises, your loyal subjects must rely on help from the Geoffmen. Send us, we beg of thee, knights to patrol the road and protect our farms. And if there be no other lord more worthy of the title, I speak on behalf of the people of Orlane and the temple of Merikka, let my lord consider our own worthy Mayor Ormand for the title.”
Commandant Petros praised my report and our service to the March, and he offered to bestow a boon upon my companions and me in the form of some token of compensation from his treasury, but I took courage and spake again: “Let your Most Resolute Magnitude be pleased to grant us no boon except this one we ask: Send with us a detachment of your brave Watch to patrol the road between Hochoch and Foredge. Let them escort my companions and I back to Orlane and protect our good town. And if there be no other lord more worthy of the title Baron of Farvale, let our own worthy Lord Mayor Ormand be considered. Moreover, if it please your Magnitude, let your servant be named for the priestly office in the Temple of our Lady of Changing Seasons in Orlane.”
At that the commandant rose from his seat and spake: “I regret that I cannot, in these perilous times, grant this boon in such measure as is fit, but I send with you two of my noblest knights to escort you back to Farvale. I send you under the protection of Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful, both of them stout men of the Watch, a Radiant Vigil and Ramping Manticore. Let them serve your worthy Lord, Baron Ormand of Farvale, and let him show his grate and be ever loyal to the March. For Zakarias Ormand the woodcarver is well-known to me, a veteran of the Troll Wars and a fine sculptor. Though he be a man of no great means, let him pay his dues in loyalty and fealty to the March and see to the taxes.”
At these words I did bow low, my heart swelling with gratitude, but still the commandant spoke more, saying: “Only do for me one more service Father. As you make your way back east, take the road to Ironwall Keep and deliver these maps and documents you have presented before us into the hand of our servant, the Baron Wulurich of Collinae, for the March of the Dim Forest falls under his barony, and these tidings concern him foremost. I shall send with you a letter of recommendation that he receive you and hear your tale.”
I gladly agreed to these terms and took my leave of the commandant, well-pleased with the outcome, though he did dismiss without mention my over-ambitious bid for the office of priest over Merikka’s house.
I took my leave and prepared for the journey back to Orlane by way of the Dim Forest.
A detour through the March of Dimwood posed an additional travel time of several days, but it promised compensation for the inconvenience in the form of hospitality and a comfortable bed for a night or two with the Lord Baron of Collinae. I learned what I could of the baron, a retired Knight of the Watch, a reclusive hero, who now spent his days beneath the sunless wood, taming that wild place lest the goblins from beyond the Realstream overrun the woodsmen and the villagers at the forest’s edge. “If anyone can make sense of these documents, or help you recover your missing children, it will be the Lord Baron Wulurich,” they told me.
We did not set out while the holy days were upon us. My three remaining companions and I spent the festival in high spirits, exhausting much of the coin which we had brought with us for the journey. I will speak briefly of each so as to establish their persons in the mind of the reader.
Our spell caster, Myron the Glamorer, learned his craft in a school of illusory arts. Though he lived among the Rhenn-folk, “raised on the rafts” as they say, he is not of their blood or easy manner. He is a blasphemer and a repulsive creature in most every respect. Indeed, his malformed visage inspires a natural revulsion from halfling, dwarf, elf, and man alike, but I testify that a man of quality lurks below, cruelly imprisoned, hidden behind the disagreeable disguise. Myron’s manner of speech and interaction seem calculated by his immense intelligence to reinforce whatever foul impression his appearance creates, but behind the bulwarks of rude speech and cutting remarks with which he defends himself, I have found a loyal friend, a brave soul, a brilliant mind, and a quick wit. For the most part, Myron conceals his phizog either behind cloth scarves or under clever magical illusions. The latter grant him a handsome and winsome appearance (quickly betrayed whence he opens his mouth), whereas the former have often resulted in his being mistaken for some type of ambulatory corpse, still wrapped in funerary shroud. Along with the scarves, Myron wears the pretentious garments of a scholar, such as remain popular among the academics of the Marches and Keoland, and he certainly thinks himself of such a station. Prior to our association, he and his brother made a modest living on the docks of Hochoch as investigators for hire and solvers of crime, especially in such inquiries as involved the Rhennee.
Myron’s nephew, Bruin, is his kinsmen not by blood but through adoption. He may be another stolen child of the raftmen or a halfblood. He is in every respect Myron’s opposite. The gods favored him with a strong athletic body, twice the size of the Rhenfolk. The features of his square face show no drop of rafters’ blood unless it be his head of dark curls. Yet he has the easy and affable manner of those folk. He bore the sheer strength of a bear and something of the same build, and so from his youth his companions called him Bruin. He walks as a giant among his friends, full of laughter and jests and fights as a fierce bear against his enemies. Clad from head to toe in heavy armor, few blows can wound him, but his own mighty giant sword deals out deadly wounds to any who might try.
Also travelling with me came my acolyte and spiritual daughter, Cirilli Finla, that same girl of Orlane which we rescued from the clutches of the cult in the Temple of Merikka. When first I met this daughter of men, I found her kept as a caged animal in the chambers of that holy house, cruelly imprisoned by a priest under the corrupting enchantment of the naga witch. Her own mother and father had been snared in the cult, and under the witch’s spell, they had abandoned her to it. She was one among many children of the menfolk of Orlane stolen away by the cult, and indeed, one of the very few to have been recovered, although one cannot say that a childhood so stolen can ever be recovered. Whence set free, she begged that she might be admitted into our order, a turn of events I found most unexpected under the circumstances. I received her and took her as my own apprentice, and I have found that she does indeed possess a generous measure of the divine grace, surpassing all expectation for the mere daughter of a human shopkeep. She also begged that she might accompany me to Hookhill, for she desired to learn the fate of those disappeared children of Farvale she had once known, herself once having shared a similar fate.
Already, the winter had been colder than one feels accustomed, and many mornings I awoke to find a thin layer of ice over the washing bowl. The last day of Needfest came with an enchanting snowfall and frost on the panes. Ordinarily, snow from the mountains melts on the ground at Hookhill, but the severe temperatures allowed it to collect, turning the world white. Our party set out the day after Needfest, despite the omen of the calends and a chill wind from the north. Had I foreseen the perils into which we travelled, I should have delayed until a more propitious day.
The commandant graciously supplied us with horses and provision for the way back to Orlane, and also he provided two men at arms, both Watchers who owed him fealty, and these were to provide our escort: Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful, Knights of the Watch.
This then formed the order of our company as we left Hookhill: Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful at the head in shining armor and polished gear. They rode on proud coursers, war horses with braided tails. Following the noble hindquarters of those knightly horses, I sat perched high up on a small pony. My acolyte, Cirilli Finla of Orlane rode on a pony beside me, and a third pony carried extra provisions and supplies. Behind us came Myron the Glamorer, bouncing about on an unruly mare which continually tried to shed him from its back. Last then came great Gypsy Bruin, decked in plate armor like any Knight of the Watch except for the the long dreadlocks of matted black hair which trailed from beneath his helm. Under his saddle trotted a stout warhorse large enough to carry his weight.
Our noble Watchers felt abused and ill-used by their captain and they rued such assignment— to serve in such a backwater village as Orlane and to guard a company as ours. “What sin have we committed?” I heard them grumbling one to another. The men of the Watch have little affection for what they call the exotic races. Their hatred for the Baklunish is legendary, but they also especially discount Halflings and dwarves. They despise the Rhenn-folk; they dislike wizards and wielders of magic. Moreover, they are devoted to the martial gods and they pay no heed or obeisance to Our Lady of Changing Seasons. Those unhappy knights, obsessed over their Twelve and Seven Precepts, thought even less of the girl, Cirilli. They supposed her to be “the midget priest’s tramp.”
Sir Belvenore, who had obtained to the fearsome title of “Ramping Manticore,” was the elder of the two and also the more bigoted. The Vigil Knight Sir Merciful did not quite meet the quality promised by his name, but he showed a kinder face than his companion. They spoke with us as little as possible, and they kept to themselves.
Cold Nights on the Road
As I have already mentioned, by the time we left Hookhill, an early snow had fallen, laying a thin blanket of white across the whole of Gran March. We shared the road with many travelers from the surrounding countryside who had come into the city to celebrate the festival. These revelers now returned to their respective farms and villages. The further east we travelled, the less people shared our road. Estates, farms, and villages became fewer and further between.
On the first night from Hookhill we took lodging in a small village which had little to boast other than a traveler’s way-station, a tavern, a comfortable inn, and a warm meal. My companions and I retired early, but our escorts stayed up late into the night, talking of matters of local interest.
We hoped to make the distance to a certain village of the March on our second day of riding, but our horses fatigued, and we found ourselves resigned to pitching camp in the cold and dark night of winter. We had no readily available fuel for a fire, so we ate a cold and miserable supper, set a watch and bundled ourselves tight in our cloaks to shiver until morning. The horses seemed equally miserable, unaccustomed to the cold.
The circumstance made my companions cross with one another.
“Of what use is a wizard who cannot make a fire?” Bruin snapped at Myron.
“I have magic plenty enough to start a fire,” Myron sniffed and huffed. “I can burn anything you like. Perhaps we should start with your bags and bedding,” he suggested. My illusionist companion preferred to keep his talents, spells, and charms a guarded secret, not because he feared that men might guess at his craft, but rather because he feared they might guess at his relative inexperience in the craft, for he was a young man and, although exceptionally brilliant by all measure, he had only begun his studies in the magical arts some few years ago.
In the morning, Sir Merciful said, “Now we have fallen short of our goal and it remains to be seen if we will reach Ironwall before the daylight fails.”
“Moreover,” I observed, “The air has the bite of snow again.”
We packed quickly, saddled the steeds, and made for the keep with all haste, but after some hours the snow overtook us, falling heavy and thick and wet. Many a time it seemed we might have wandered from the road for the snow made all the road and land about seem as one. The depth of it slowed the pace of our horses. Wet and heavy, it clung to our cloaks, our raiment, and armor, giving us the appearance of frost giants cutting across the open plains.
As darkness came we all agreed to continue as best we could in hope of reaching the keep rather than spending the night in the cold and the wet. We urged the horses on and made our way in the dark, but that proved to be folly on our part, for we lost the way for some time and had to retrace our path back to find the road again. When at last we saw the light of a watchfire from the battlements of the keep far in the distance, better than half the night had expired.
The watch did not want to grant us entrance, for they said that no one may enter by night. Sir Belvenore prevailed on the captain at the gate, “By Cuthbert’s bristling beard, we are half frozen already and shall be fully frozen by morning, and what is more we come on the Commandant’s own business. Moreover, we have this young girl in our company shivering most pitifully.”
With these words, and other entreaties, the captain saw fit to open the gate and we gratefully passed into the keep where we found lodging until morning.
Frightful as a Watcher’s Title
When morning came I made inquiries after the Lord Baron Wulurich of Collinae that I might present him with the maps and documents I carried and thereby discharge my obligation, but I was told that the Lord Baron had returned to his lodge in the Dim March for the celebration of Needfest, and he would not return to the keep until spring.
The castellan told me, “You may deliver into my hand whatever documents you carry, and I shall have them sent to the Lord of Collinae straight away.”
I considered this possibility, but replied, “Nay, for our Lord Petros, his Most Resolute Magnitude, has bade me deliver these items into the hand of Lord Collinae, and I have pledged to do so myself. More than that, my way home lies along the same road that will bring me to edge of the Dim March. Then I will have opportunity to call upon the Lord Collinae.”
Now the castellan chuckled and said, “You may please yourself father, but you might not find Wulurich’s lodge a comfortable place for shortfellows.” This I understood in reference to the bigotry of the knighthood, for the Baron Wulurich was said to have obtained the formidable rank of Reliant Father Griffon. I later recounted all these things to my companions, and Myron sniffed and sneered, “Frightful as a Watcher’s title! Who is this Lord Collinae who makes his home beneath that wood?”
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Read the first story in the series, Against the Cult of the Reptile God.