Chapter Six of Under the Goblin Trees
Campaign adaptation by Thomas Kelly
I latched the door of my bedchamber behind me and opened my psalter, praying fervently to the Lady of Ever-Changing Seasons for protection through the night. I laid down, still fearful. As drowsiness closed my eyes, a soft knock at my door startled me to full consciousness. I got up and lifted the latch cautiously. Cirilli entered with a candle, and Myron trailed behind her.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“You need to hear what she has to tell,” Myron said.
Cirilli sat herself down on the edge of my bed and began her tale. “Last night, after the household had fallen quiet, I spoke with the baroness. She stealthily sent word to me by the hand of her maidservant, inviting me to meet her atop the tower. I went as she requested, and in the privacy of the night air, she told me her tale. I have spent much of the day today in her company as well. No elf-lady nor one of olven blood, but rather, she is a nobleborn of the forest, queen of oaks, stolen away from her great tree which grows not far from this place. She is no willing wife to the baron, either. He has brought her here by force, and he keeps her imprisoned at his side in this house. She dares not flee nor resist, for he holds her life in his hands. The false-hearted baron has made a hostage of the great oak to which her soul is tethered, and he has left strong axmen to guard it, ever ready to strike. They keep the blades of their axes sharp, and they are prepared to drop the tree if she should resist the lord baron or flee from this place. And here is the treacherous design he has devised. Each day, he sends a certain messenger to the axmen who dwell within a tower that rings about her sacred tree. The messenger instructs the axmen to let the tree stand for another day. If on any day this messenger should fail to arrive at the tower by the designated time, the axmen have been instructed to fell that mighty oak, and she will perish from the earth.”
“A horrid arrangement,” I muttered.
“Yes,” Cirilli agreed. “But there is more to the story. The lord baron is not as he seems, nor is he a loyal nobleman of the March, but he himself is a lord of werewolves. Not only he, but all the men and women of the house as well. Except the lady Nyssa’s maidservant, who is herself a nymphmaid from the forest, all the servants and court are under the curse. From the lowest washerwoman to the noblest knight, they are vile werewolves within, and they are all under the control of Baron Wulurich. Moreover, the lord baron is the very one who set that same curse upon the village Roanwood, and he alone can lift the curse. All these matters I learned from the solemn-eyed baroness, the lady Nyssa, who is most cruelly imprisoned here against her will.” Tears of empathy moistened Cirilli’s eyes, and she choked upon a stifled sob.
Myron added his conclusions, “I have ascertained that our Lord Baron Wulurich is indeed the head of the pack, but not only that, I believe he is also the king of the goblins with whom the naga witch Explitica Defilus had entered alliance.”
“These are strong allegations to make with no evidence,” I warned Myron. “The commandant considers the lord baron among his most loyal servants.”
“I have not been idle all day. I have gathered all the evidence I need,” Myron retorted. “The question now is, ‘What shall we do, and how shall we escape with our lives?’”
“What shall we do? If all of this is true, we are not at all safe here!” I observed.
Cirilli whispered in a hushed voice barely audible, “The baroness has a plan.”
The Solemn-Eyed Lady of the Tree
Later that night, when all the house had fallen still, Myron and cloaked himself and also me in spells of invisibility and silence. We crept through the house, guided by the lady Nyssa’s nymphmaid. Unseen and unheard, we passed by men sleeping in the great hall and past the guards that watched the way to the baron’s tower. I observed that one of the guards sniffed suspiciously at the air as we slipped by. A low, guttural growl escaped from this throat, and the hair on the back of my neck stiffened.
Following the light of the nymphmaid’s candle, we passed by the open door of the master bedroom in which the lord baron slept—at least we hoped he slept. From inside the room came the heat and warm light of a great hearth fire. We hastened on our way.
Another flight up and at last we emerged into the cold winter air atop the tower. The square tower stood at the south end of the hall. It had been built of hewn timbers of a rougher cut than the rest of the hall, and I suppose it was the older part of the house.
The nymphmaid turned back and left us standing under an open sky blazing with stars. The baroness awaited us. She stood tall and slender, clad in a rustling gown of clinging autumn leaves, shimmering beautiful and pale in the soft fairy light. Not even in visions granted by the gods had I imagined such fearful beauty. With a wave of her hand, she dispelled the cloak of silence and invisibility Myron had draped over us. Tumbling auburn hair fell forward as she lowered her gaze to fix burning eyes upon me. I felt quite beside myself, and most bashful in her presence. I bowed and said, “My lady, we have come at your summons.”
She reached out and touched me on the cheek, “Do not be afraid.” Likewise, she took Myron’s hand in hers, “You have been brought to this terrible prison because Ehlenestra has heard my prayer and sent you to me.”
“My lady, we are utterly at your service,” Myron sighed dreamily.
She said, “I am Nyssa, daughter of the forest, and I dwell here against my will, trapped in this cage for two years and some several months. Every day I have prayed to the gods that they might send me a deliverer, and now my prayers are heard.
“A day’s journey from this place stands a great oak tree, my home and my true form. The goblin lord who holds me here guards me within the walls of a tall tower, and he has left two enchanted lumberjacks wielding cursed axes in that place with instructions to fell me down unless a certain messenger comes and tells them to delay for another day. Each day the fiendish Wulurich dispatches this same messenger from this house, but if ever the messenger should fail to arrive, their axes will fall upon me and bring me down to the ground.
“But you—heroes sent from Ehlenestra Ehlonna herself—if you were to go first and cut down the axmen before they can lift their cruel blades against my trunk, then I will be free to do as I will and slay this false husband of mine. In that hour, the curse will break, and all those afflicted under it will be set free. Moreover, those trees yet loyal to me shall be at liberty to make war against the Goblin Trees.”
Under the pure enchantment of her charm, neither Myron nor I had the fortitude of mind to resist her suggestions. Had she told us that she needed us to leap from the top of the tower and dash our bones on the ground, we might have done so at that very moment, just to please her. I knew from experience with enchantments that we were quickly falling under the sway of her voice, but it did not bother me at all. Instead, every word she said seemed to make perfect sense to me, charmed or not. I was eager to fulfill the quest, and, apparently, her words afflicted the Magnificent Myron in the same manner. He dreamily inquired, “How shall we find the tree?”
She said, “You need only follow the messenger. He departs from the small blue door at the back of this very tower every morning before the sun rises. Leave in the morning. Raise no suspicions as you go. If you should lose your way, the forest will guide your path. Many of the trees between here and there are yet loyal to me. Once you have completed the task, I will know of it, and I will at once strike the lord baron down.”
Making a Plan
We took our leave of the baroness and returned to our chambers where we gathered Bruin, Ivan, Belvenore, Merciful, and Cirilli for a clandestine meeting. The men were not pleased to be woken in the middle of the night, and it took some time before we could collect them all and wake them sufficiently to understand our words. As we explained the quest to them, Bruin stood up to pace about the room. He exclaimed too loudly, “Why not strike down the baron ourselves? Wouldn’t it save time?”
“Hush you fool!” Myron hissed. “Do you want to bring the whole house down on us? The baron is no mere man, but a werewolf lord in a house full of werewolf servants and knights. We have no silver or enchanted weapons, and we have no wolfsbane. If we strike him and fail—we fail, indeed. We will all die here, and the lady Nyssa will also perish needlessly on account of your folly.”
Cirilli added, “Unless the baron daily sends his messenger to stay the hand of the axmen, they will topple her tree and she will perish.”
Ivan snapped his fingers, “This can only be the lady of the Witch Tree. My father used to speak of it. A dryad spirit dwells within it, but I have never seen the tree. I thought he concocted the tale.”
Ivan did not hesitate to swear his fealty to the Lady Nyssa. Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful needed further persuasion. The knights of the Watch are suspicious of fey magic and no friends to fairy folk. We had to repeat the tale several times before they seemed to understand the matter and accept our judgment. Belvenore snorted, “Why should we trust this wooden bitch?”
Merciful concurred with Belvenore’s unmerciful assessment, “The Lord Baron Wulurich once rode with the Watchers, and we are still bound by our fraternal vows. We cannot breach our oaths and vows of fealty. Is the baron not a trusted servant of our lord commandant?”
“We shall not ask you to transgress your fraternal vows,” I assured them, “But merely to accompany us on an investigation. We shall seek out the lady’s tree and determine if there be truth to her words or not.”
Cirilli added her own persuasive argument, “Surely, as noble knights, loyal to Azmarender’s Twelve and Seven Precepts, you are bound to defend the honor of an innocent and a lady, a noblewoman. If ever it happened that one of your number should transgress, you are bound to correct and punish the transgressor for the sake of the reputation of your noble order.”
Cirilli’s wise words did the trick. “Wise beyond her years, this one,” I observed. When at last we all agreed that there remained nothing else for it but to find the dryad’s tree, we made hasty plans for our departure the next morning.
For the rest of the night we remained crowded together in my room and took turns at guarding the door so we could all taste a few hours sleep before dawn. At one point in the early hours before first light, Sir Merciful woke us all to report that, just a moment before, he had heard the sound of something sniffing and snuffling at the door. As no further sniffing or snuffling sounds occurred, I drifted back to sleep and dreamed of a shimmering tree beneath a starry sky.
An Early Departure
Early in the morning, before the sun had even risen, we informed the lord baron and the baroness that we would depart immediately after breakfast. I told him, “Now that I have concluded my mission, I am eager to make my way back to Orlane and to my duties in the holy house of my lady Merikka.”
Likewise, Ivan bowed low and excused himself, “I too must depart and return to my village and prepare my people to welcome the priest from Hookhill.”
The lord baron objected, politely begging us to stay but another day, but to me he seemed relieved at the prospect of our departure. His tamed goblin servants brought our horses, saddled and tacked. They loaded us with stores and provision for the road and filled our saddle bags with grain for our horses. We mounted our steeds and said farewells to the lord and lady of the house, for they came out into the yard to see us off. The cold morning air steamed about the horses, and our breath took shape in the air like steam from a tea pot. The solemn-eyed baroness never spake a word, and I scarcely dared glance in her direction lest my countenance betray our conspiracy.
The lord baron assured me, “We are grateful for your service to us, father. With the evidence you have provided, we shall certainly bring a quick end to this wretched goblin menace and take back that which belongs to the March.”
I nodded an affirmation, but before I could reply, he added with a menacing tone, “Only mind yourself in these wild woods. If it be true that there be werewolves about, they might fancy the taste of a hobniz.”
With that warning left hanging in the chill air, we set our horses to a trot and made for the line of the forest at the edge of baron’s clearing. A dark and yawning opening in the trees, roofed by intertwined branches, indicated the entrance to the gloomy tunnel-like road through the Dim Forest. I felt immediately relieved to be away from the house of Wulurich and back under the comforting boughs of the wood.
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