Chapter Four of Under the Goblin Trees
Campaign adaptation by Thomas Kelly
The morning light dawned on a scene of horror. Blood splattered the walls and washed the floors of many cottages. The afflicted resumed their human forms with no memory of the terrors of the night. More than a dozen villagers were dead, some slain by the wolves, some slain as wolves. Others came wandering into the town, naked and confused, unable to say why they awoke to find themselves alone and unclothed out in the woods.
Myron is never above sarcasm or gloating, “So what is your diagnosis master priest? What do you think? Is it merely the winter fever?”
I spent most of the day dressing wounds and invoking the gods for healing. Both Bruin and Mercifcul nursed ugly bleeding wounds. Cirilli and I treated their torn flesh. We exchanged knowing glances. At the next full moon, both men might be howling to one another.
Myron scolded Bruin, “Use your head instead of your brawn next time. What are we going to do with a werewolf your size? How are we supposed to deal with you this time?”
Bruin smiled sheepishly and explained, “I didn’t think I would get bitten.”
The afflicted were again restrained before sunset lest the affliction remain upon them under the waning moon. At sunset we burned the dead according to the custom of the villagers, and I entrusted their souls to hands of the gods.
As Luna rose, we stocked the bonfires and prepared to face the beasts again, but all remained quiet in the village. I fell into bed at midnight, utterly exhausted. I slept until late into the following morning, my sleep beset by nightmares the entire time.
The Investigation and the Mission
When I awoke, the others were already up and finished with breakfast. Cirilli sat with the daughter of Micksallicks, speaking to her about herbs and cures and how to dress her wounds. The girl showed absolutely no symptoms. If not for the torn flesh and rope burns on her wrists and ankles, I would not have believed it possible that this fair girl might be the same as that snarling, twisting creature from the previous night.
Myron took me aside, out of the girl’s earshot, and said to me, “Today, priest, we will get to the bottom of this insanity.” He proposed visiting every cottage in the village and taking inventory. I saw sense in this plan and agreed to accompany him. He put on his best face, so to speak, and we made the rounds. At each cottage we asked a series of questions, cross-examining and double-checking as best we could, and we took careful note of the answers. Was anyone here afflicted? Did anyone shift into wolfen shape? When did symptoms first manifest? Was anyone bitten? Does the afflicted possess any memory of the incident? Does the afflicted remember being bitten by a wolf or dog in the past? The investigation put me in remembrance of the diligent work we did in Orlane to solve the riddle of the naga witch’s enchantment.
None of those afflicted had any memory of the previous night, nor did any of them report a previous encounter with wolf or lycanthrope. Some described nightmares of a phantom that descended on the village like a shadow at night. A few suspected their friends had fallen under the affliction months ago and may have undergone transformations during previous moons.
By the end of the day we had a list of everyone under the affliction known to have transformed by the full moon, and we compiled another list of names that included everyone who had suffered a bite which might render one vulnerable to lycanthropy. We put the name of Myron’s own adopted brother brother, mighty Bruin, on this latter list, along with the name of Sir Mericiful, for both men now stood in danger of the infection. Then we assembled the people of the village together in the square and reported our findings.
Some of the more excitable among the folk, speaking out of trauma and fear, frantically called upon us to put the afflicted to death at once and burn their remains. I argued, “Tut, tut! Surely not, good people, for these pour souls are your own brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives. But let a cure be sought.”
The village smith announced that he was prepared to fashion weapons edged with silver alloy if only the people of the village would collect their silver belongings and turn them over to him. I said, “Silver weapons are not a cure for this affliction. But there is a certain herb which has been known to help.”
Cirilli spoke to the assembly about the medicinal benefits of wolfsbane, a certain flower which yields a deadly poison, but might also be pressed to a tincture to cure the afflicted. She spoke of where it can be found, how it must be prepared, and how it can be administered. She called upon the villagers to bring out any supplies of the precious herb that they might have in their possession, and one good wife did have some, dried and powdered among the elements she used for mixing potions. But it was plain to all that we had not nearly enough for the host of those under the affliction.
Old Micksaliscks told them, “Father Tabor has an errand in these woods that leads him and his companions to travel to the hall of Lord Baron Wulurich. My son Ivan will accompany them there and gather what they can of the herb from the stores of the Lord Baron and bring it back to us. But let another party make all haste to the herbalist in Carern and purchase for us all that he will sell us of the same herb.”
To this counsel, I added my own word of advice, “Let a third make all haste for Hookhill to fetch a bishop of Pholtus or the high priest of Heironeous, or if none of these can be spared or persuaded, let a priest of Pelor suffice. Prevail upon that holy man to return with all haste and remove this curse before the next moon.”
Later that night, Ivan confided with me, “My good priest, surely you alone hold the key to heal this affliction. Remember how the Lady Ehlenestra appeared to me in a dream and told me to seek you out? Do you believe another priest will accomplish for us what you cannot do or that ingesting a mere herb will accomplish the cure?”
I did not answer the woodsman. The same questions had been vexing me, and I had put them to Myron earlier in the day. He had replied sharply, “Of course not priest! Don’t be a fool. A strong dose of your herbal quackery might possibly save Bruin or Sir Merciful from the travails of lycanthropy by neutralizing what poison now doubtlessly flows through their veins, but the people of this village do not suffer from the venom of a werewolf’s bite. They have fallen under some sinister and unnatural curse of lycanthropy. Evil magic is at work here, and only a stronger magic will reverse it.”
No Laughing Matter
At first light on the fourteenth day of Fireseek, Ivan sent a troop of his men to make the journey to Carern, and a messenger left for Hookhill. For our part, we began to prepare for the journey to the hall of Baron Wulurich, but we did not set out that same day, for it was a day of ill omen. Instead, we spent the day preparing gear, packing provisions, readying the horses. We had one more night in the home of Micksalicks, his sons, and his ill-fated daughter. While at table, Myron asked her to hold up her hand, and he showed her brothers how the child’s index finger had grown longer than the other fingers. “A certain sign of the curse,” he warned. He further embarrassed the girl by pointing out thick hair of her eyebrows and how they had begun to grow as one above her eyes. She buried her face in her hands and would not look up at us for the rest of the night, but Myron scarcely noticed the distress he caused the poor girl.
He turned his unwanted attention to Bruin and observed, “The problem with this big oaf is that his eyebrows have always been a thick bushy mass like this. It indicates nothing at all, does it? But if his index finger grows out, well, then a fearsome big wolf he will make.”
“Don’t get your fingers near my mouth when I am eating,” Bruin laughed as he shoveled chicken porridge into his mouth.
Old Micksalicks scowled, “Hardly a laughing matter.”
Into the Dim
We set out before midmorning on a cold day with frost in the air and the breath of the horses steaming. Ivan rode on a fine Backluni charger, the type which a lord of Ull might ride into battle. Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful eyed the steed jealously. One did not expect to find a lumberjack mounted upon a horse of such breeding.
The forest closed in around us. Sir Belvenore spoke his mind as we passed from the edge of the clearing and into the night-like darkness of the Dim Forest, “I should be glad to leave behind that cursed village if it did not mean passing through this cursed wood.”
Neither did I relish a journey of six days into the heart of the Dim, but Ivan assured us that the lord baron’s men patrolled the road. He said, “We will not likely encounter any dangers between here and there.”
The road was not a road but merely a narrow path cut through the forest, just wide enough for a single ox cart. The branches and heavy leafy foliage above our heads created an impenetrable ceiling which daylight could not pierce. Only pale light makes the difference between day and night beneath the heavy crowns of the Dim Forest, especially in the winter months when a blanket of snow covers the leafy crowns still clinging to their branches and vines in the canopy above. We used torches, lanterns, and even Myron’s magical light to make our way in the middle of the afternoon. The silence of the forest weighs as oppressively as the darkness. At times one hears wind scraping in the boughs above, but scarcely does a breeze move below.
In some places, the trees grew closely together along both sides of the road, creating such a narrow passage that no wagon or team could easily pass between the trunks. We felt as if we travelled through a darkening tunnel, and when this happened, we rode single file. At other times the walls of that tunnel seemed to fall away into vast yawning expanses of darkness between widely spaced trunks of trees, some of enormous girth. The dark open spaces seemed the more foreboding. One imagined all sorts of wicked things lurking in the darkness, watching us make our way with our torches and lanterns. We felt as if we made easy targets for ambush from goblins, orcs, or ogres.
No ambush beset us, but Ivan warned us that beyond baron’s hall, beyond the Realstream, the goblins have grown bold. “Some new lord has arisen whom they fear more than us, a goblin king, but whether he be orc lord, sorcerer, or devil, we have not heard. We hunt the goblins when their raids cross the Realstream and stray too close to our homes. Then we drive them back to their holes under the Goblin Trees.”
“What are the Goblin Trees?” Cirilli asked for the benefit of us all.
Ivan gestured in the direction of which he spoke, “Far to the west, at the center of the forest, grows a copse of towering deklo. Beneath the roots of those massive giants the clans have dug their dens and made their lairs. But we are far from that place and safe from their reach so long as we stay within the barony.”
I pondered those words about a goblin king for some miles. When we stopped at a stream to rest the horses and nibble a bit on some bread and dried goods, I opened the pack of documents I had been carrying to present to the baron. With Myron’s help, I reread the correspondence between the naga witch and the unnamed master in the Dim Forest. Surely, I thought, this must be the same despot with whom the witch conspired and with whom she traded in the children of Orlane.
From time to time, we passed by intersections where paths and roads snaked off this way and that through the trees. Ivan would say, “This path leads to such and such a village, and if one follows that road to the south, he comes to the cottage of so and so. In that direction is a hermitage, and that path leads to Gnome Hill.”
Near the end our travel, we came under a treehouse, built in the branches extending over the road. From that perch the baron’s men kept a watch on everyone coming and going. They called down to us as we approached, and we hallooed them in return. Sir Belvenore and Ivan rode ahead to state our business, and after exchanging a few words with us, the baron’s men waved us on.
“I thought no one lived this far into the forest except elves and fairy folk,” I said. “Why does the lord baron maintain a hall so far away from any civilization or real roads?”
Sir Belvenore explained, “The laws of the March require the baron to occupy his barony not less than half the year or forfeit it to another.”
“So the lord baron is a homesteader, staking his claim in the woods,” Myron observed.
Ivan affirmed it was so. He added, “We are not yet so deep in the wood as you imagine. The villages of men cluster near the edge.”
The Baron’s Hall
We rode most of a day before we came upon the clearing of the baron’s hall. The winter sun was already setting beyond the trees, but I felt relieved to see the early stars above our heads instead of forest canopy. We breathed the cold open air of the clearing gratefully.
The baron’s hall looked to be as homely as that of any lord of Geoff. The main house was a three-story affair with snow-covered pitched roofs of cedar shingles and many gables. A tall wooden tower rose on one side. Smoke rose from several chimneys. Light streamed through glass windows, and bright lanterns hung above the doors. A small village of servant’s cottages, stables, smithy, general store, and small barns surrounded the great house. A few servants moved about the yard. A stockade fence of sharpened posts eight foot high surrounded the whole of it.
The first to meet us was a stable-boy, or so I thought, until I caught a closer look at him. Though he wore a stableboy’s trousers, shirt, cap, coat, and boots, this was not a stable-boy, but rather a goblin in a boy’s clothing. I once saw a performing monkey, dressed in a little outfit, at the Gorna Town fair. The spectacle before me reminded me of that absurdity.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Ivan said as he handed the reins of his steed over to the goblin servant. “The baron has domesticated the locals.”
“Or perhaps the baron himself is the goblin lord you mentioned earlier?” Myron sniffed suspiciously. Ivan ignored the baseless speculation.
The stableboy bowed apologetically, smiled up at me and gestured, inviting me to dismount and hand over the reins of my pony. Bruin shook his head, “It’s an unlucky business to deal with goblin kind.”
Ivan explained, “They are not allowed in the house. They only serve in the yard. He employs only the ones that have been raised by men from the cradle. They are completely tame.”
The baron received us warmly, flinging open the doors of hospitality. He apologized profusely for our reception. He explained, “Men are scarce here in the dark woods, and servants are hard to come by.”
He welcomed us kindly and as befits a lord of Gran March—a man of military discipline and courtly refinement. He had perhaps aged past his prime years, but he seemed no less hale and healthy than Sir Belvenore. Indeed, he had once ridden with the Watch and attained the title of Valiant Sphinx. He had a handsome face, grey hair and grey beard, and keen, eager eyes that flashed with enthusiasm. He wore the fine, fashionable styles of court which I had seen among the nobility in Hookhill. All that finery might have seemed out of place in such a remote and rustic place if not for the opulence of the baron’s hall.
The interior of the baron’s banqueting hall was awash with light from two great chandeliers and at least a dozen lamps. Furnishings of the most expensive variety and all the décor and artwork spoke in unison of wealth and sophistication. Here were fine things, furnishings, and works of art from the hands of elves, dwarves, and gnomes. The eye delighted in the rugs that covered the floors, the tapestries that hung upon the walls, the couches and finely crafted chairs, the paintings and vases—but the most beautiful treasure in that hall was surely the baroness. Wrapped in a finely sewn delicate dress of autumn leaf, she moved through the room with unearthly grace. Auburn hair tumbled into unruly locks that curled about the sides of her elfin-fairy face like leafy boughs rustling in the breeze. I thought to myself, A remarkable trophy for his collection! Here was no noblewoman of the March—not a human woman at all.
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Artwork: Sugarpoultry “Midnight Stalk“