Chronicles of Amherth

Dec 17th
AKA: "How 'bout those trolls?"

How many drunken barbarian princesses does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? I haven’t a clue! That’s not this story.

This story is about a group of friends, a keep on the borderlands, some bears, some trolls, and an annoying little woman’s Beary Bad Day. (I posted this to bring Jaevin/Ugrrha/Grant caught up to speed, but I decided it would make a good journal entry as well. It’s kind of from my characters’ point(s) of view, but that’s kind of expected, right? I’ll happily add in any specific events or words that others remember if they’ll just remind me of them.

That said, here it is again!

What did Jaeven/Uggrha miss? Buy me a drink to wet my throat and I’ll tell you, mate…

=====Our Tale Begins=======

Lobelia’s idea of involving the local forest bears in the fight against the trolls was deemed “Too likely to get us all horribly killed”, and over her shrill objections it was discarded.

(OOC: I don’t disagree with that decision, that was just the best idea I could get out of Lobelia OR Mort – he’s been busy setting up a sick room in one of the towers, along with whatever alchemical apparatus he was able to put together and bring on the journey to the keep, and he keeps telling me “I’m a doctor, not a strategist!” whenever I asked him about the problem.)

So Lobelia’s bearbrained plan was nixed, and it was instead decided that we’d try to use the trappers/werebears to help with the fight – the full moon was just a few days away. We set up a plan to meet near the cave that night, and then to do a frontal assault. Before then, Fashannen would watch the cave and alert us to any singles or pairs who left the cave so we could try to ambush them and thin their still-unknown number a bit before the main showdown.

A day later, she reported a pair of trolls had left the cave, and off we set to ambush them. Unfortunately the terrain was bad for stealth, much less ambush. They were in a clearing and digging in a fallen log. – You know, it might have been a beehive, so it’s probably good that Uggrha missed it! ;p

However, Lobelia wanted to see if trolls would avoid a skunk, in hopes of scouting their cave unmolested in that form. – So she transformed into one and waddled right past the trolls to see if they’d avoid her.
Did. Not. Work!

It turns out that trolls really will eat anything, including live skunks – they’ll even bite into one after they spray! /shudder/

especially skunks with a hidden halfling center, as it turns out. Painful for poor Lobelia, but just the distraction needed for the others to get into range and save her s(t/k)anky butt from ingestion.

A major downside of Lobelia’s time as a skunk was soon noted by Alfaren; No, not the smell, although several sets of clothing were fit only for burning afterward. No, it was that no matter how long she spent as a skunk, the skunk always turned back into Lobelia afterward. ;p

She tried to bear up under the pain and help with the fight, but didn’t manage to lay a claw on either one of the trolls with any of her roundhouse smacks. Maybe the change in size or wei.. well, in size anyway – was throwing her aim off? Fortunately Raffolk was in fine form, and his larger bearform had no trouble getting his blows to connect. He was unbearably proud of himself afterward, but with good reason I suppose…

The two trolls were finally killed, but it was a grizzly battle, and both nearly escaped at different points. All of us had bruises. If not for Charlene’s help, (Alex’s wife, she sat in on Saturday’s session), we might not have been anywhere near as lucky.

We went back to our camp to bind up our wounds, burn our clothes, and prepare for the morrow. The next day, Fashannen again rushed into camp to inform us of another single troll out of the cave – in exactly the same place that we ambushed and killed the other two.

Sound a little hinky? It was! The lone troll was their shaman, and he had several other trolls hidden in the woods all around us.

(And here I’d spent some minutes deciding whether or not to wear my “It’s a trap!” T-shirt to this weekend’s game. Rats! I should’ve gone with it!)

And then, the unexpected! Charlene’s “barbarian noble” (who was drunk enough to be friendly with Lobelia at this point) managed to start a pantomimed dialogue with the shaman! It was eventually ascertained (after much gesticulating and corny faces) that the trolls were immigrants to the area, and had been driven from their own caves by… Morlocks? Wights? Something with white faces and big claws.

The shaman’s original Onyx Claw (or was it ebony? It was black either way!) was lost/abandoned/stolen then, which is why they took Ursul’s Claw when they discovered it.

While the slow work of pantomimed communication went on, someone (Sorry, forget who, I’ll gladly write in names if anyone wants to fill in blanks!) suggested that the troll caves might be unguarded, leaving an opening for someone to sneak in and out with the Claw unopposed.

Lobelia thought that was a great idea, aannd since she doesn’t generally spend much time thinking over her decisions, (and also because “unattended claw” may also mean “unattended valuables”!), she took the first moment of inattention and scurried off as fast as her short legs and new magic boots would carry her.

I don’t think the trolls had even spotted her before she ran off, and I think everyone in OUR party breathed a sigh of relief when they realized she’d scarpered – our chances of a successful parley were greatly improved, even with our spokesman being a drunken barbarian palavering in charades!

Aaannd as we discovered a few minutes later, the shaman had the Claw with him the whole time, but there was no way to signal Lobelia to come back, and it was probably for the best anyway..

When she arrived at the cave, Lobelia transformed into a panther – pitch black, stealthy, good eyes in the dark – and slunk into the cave to search for the Claw. …Aaannd shortly thereafter she rolled a 1 on her stealth check. Only a hasty retreat saved her tail from the claws of the female trolls who’d been left behind in the caves!

She didn’t escape unharmed, and she’d be at a disadvantage in any physical activity until the bruising and strains healed, but she was alive at least. (What do you know, there IS more than one way to skin a cat! …eww.)

She’d spotted no sign of the Claw, however. Her mission was a failure – but the party made great progress with the trolls while she wasn’t there to “help”. (I am almost certain that her attempted charades alone would have gotten everyone horribly killed.)

So, uh.. Hooray?

Meanwhile, our exiled barbarian princess had come to an agreement with the trolls; We’d help them win back their original caves, and in return they’d give back Ursul’s Claw and leave us in peace. (the LEAVING being most important to us) Yay!

We went back to camp to celebrate/bathe/discuss/etc. Late in the afternoon someone remembered: The trappers!! They’re going to attack the caves tonight, and they’re expecting US to be there!

Everyone rushed to the meeting spot to await their arrival, but moonrise came and went with no sign. Best guess was that perhaps they weren’t sure of their control as beasts, so maybe they decided to attack the trolls directly rather than possibly attacking us, which made enough sense that we all rushed to the cave to try to stop them if we could!

We were bearly in time. The sounds of a bear-knuckles fisticuff were obvious from the mouth of the cave as we arrived; roars, crashes, bellows of trollish fury. (Bet you guys wished we had a bunch of extra bears after all, didn’t ya? :P)

We rushed down the passageway into the cavern, and there found 4 bears in a fight with several trolls, including the shaman.(We never did get his name, did we?) – Whups! make that 3 bears and one man unconscious on the ground. Now what?

To the surprise of many, (but not if you remember that bit about “doesn’t spend much time thinking over her decisions” a ways back!), it was Lobelia who leapt into action again, using a swampland-specific magic she’d just learned as part of her Circle of the Land: Swamp. She threw a sphere of magical darkness over several of the combatants, and after failing to communicate with the shaman, (thank goodness!), she transformed back into a black bear to physically get between the two remaining combatants to separate them. She may actually be telling the truth when she says she “knows all ’bout momma bears!”

At the very least, she was able to get them to stop fighting long enough for the shaman to get his trolls to back off as well.

A very tense moment! And in that moment, while we held the bears who were our own people off the trolls we’d made a bargain with, Ursul’s ghostly form manifested, peering into the cavern from the passageway.

Only a few eyes spotted Her, but one pair were the troll shaman’s – and seeing that, (and perhaps because he was a decent and honorable troll, but I don’t believe that for a second!), our new shaman friend gave over the Claw even before we’d held up our end of the bargain. At that point, all the bears transformed back into men again, and appeared to be free of all signs of Ursul’s curse. Huzzah! Brownie points for everybody!

We returned to the keep, flushed with our success! (Though now we need to help the trolls ASAP to keep our end of the bargain.)

While there, we had a bit of downtime to work on projects. Alfaren began to fashion a rod of Healing, and Mort announced the first fruits of his alchemical studies – he’d worked out how to infuse healing magic into an herbal potion, and was pleased to announce that potions of Healing and even Greater Healing could be produced, though the cost was still prohibitive. (100-500gp respectively)

Alfaren’s rod also cost 500gp, covered by burning one <trade>. A rod of Healing is likely to pay for itself many times over, so it was worth the expense. Mort only spent 100gp or so, but he had to test the potion after it was brewed, so has little to show for his work for the moment, though his results are promising for future possibilities.

Then Adalone asked about Alchemist’s Fire. After some research, Mort said that he could collect all or nearly all of the ingredients for it locally, and the cost to produce should be low enough that we might even be able to sell it for profit to select customers!

However, he was extremely leery of brewing or storing more than a few vials at a time, (it’s dangerous stuff!), especially if he had to store it in the same tower as his workshop/living space/sickroom!

First thought was that we could store it in the small cavern beneath the keep, but it was reported that something was stealing supplies from our cache there. Further investigation revealed a small secret door that led into a veritable warren of twisty passages, the stone floors showing reptilian Kobold footprints in the dust.

Not having time or resources to explore the warren, we left the sign of an eye on the inside of the secret door so the kobolds would know we knew about and were watching them. The thefts ceased, but we still can’t store things like Alchemist’s Fire where they could get at it!

Whew! I may have left out a few details, but I think that was the gist of it. sleeepy..

Fodder's Folley

After conquering Talon Keep the party moves on to the next task at hand, rebuilding and preparing for the fast approaching clouds of winter. The set about sending the farmers and men to build an encampment down in the meadow affectionately called Keep Town.

As the men in Keep Town are tilling the fields the shadow of a man flies low over them causing quite the stir. Elfaran, Lobelia, Adelone, Symund, and Fodder take charge in investigating the source of this disturbance. After a couple days of watch they find this anomaly flying toward the cliffs just South of Keep Town.

Fodder set chase up the cliffs to find the source of the aerial terror. He journey brought him 180’ before getting Picasooed. In a daring feat to remedy his predicament he made an impossible leap to a new handhold, missing by digits he found himself dangling from an overhang. 80’ below him lay a ledge offering up it craggy embrace or even worse the valley floor.

As he dangles as a fly caught in a windy web the beast appears. A stag with the wings of an eagle dives in claws first tearing at the defenseless Fodder. Desperately he tears his gear off to made a lasso of sorts to caught in the antler’s of the beast. His attempt fails and he struck again, dropping him to his death on the ledge below.

The rest of the party stands in horror on the valley floor watching. Elfaran calls up his God for help and Lobelia fails her attempt up the cliff. Their efforts were too little too late, they retire back to the Keep to regroup and seek revenge.

They call upon Vashanon to lead them to the cliff top to find the cave of the beast, begrudgingly she takes them. On their way up to the top they come upon a tower caved into the mountain and take note to return some day.
Once arriving at the cave mouth they decide to do some reconnaissance to learn more about the beast. Lobelia volunteers to take the form of a mouse and venture in. On her way to the entrance she is set upon by a hungry tarantula and fiercely battles the beast. The arachnid was vanquished by the magic hands of Adelone and Lobelia continued in.

Inside the cave bodies in all gradients of decay were strewn about. Lobelia sees a male and female creature and a nest of eggs. Stowing herself behind some rocks she throws alchemist fire to drive the beasts out of their layer. The female catches flame and flies out of the cave only to be beset upon by the waiting party.

The male retrieved the only egg that wasn’t destroyed by the flames and dashed out of the lair escaping the waiting adventurers. Leaving behind a ruined nest, bodies in all gradient of decay, and treasure. The most notable were mysterious boots taken by Lobelia, a magnificent periapt adorned on the neck of Elfaran, a shirt of Adamantine chainmail donned by Adelone, and a curious rod gifted to Ardul by Symund. Elfaran and Symund performed last rites on the poor souls in the cave and brought the remains of Fodder down for a proper burial. Interestingly enough Fodder’s heart was missing.

On the way back to the Keep a half-Ruk was encountered, he called himself Uhhgrha and he spoke of his slavers a party of Morhill Humans roaming the hills around the pass. They are dangerous when their emotions are mellow and they work as a collective, but still them up and they become weak. He was cautiously welcomed in to the group.

The sage of the keep called these beast Peryton’s and spoke of them using the hearts of men to help them breed.

Rumors, areas of interest, and events
1. Tower carved into the mountains south of the Keep.
2. Peryton male with one hatching
3. Morrhill humans roving around the pass.

The Taking of Talon: 1, 2, 3.

Talon Keep overlooks Talonvale and butts up against the Talonpeaks at the western entrance to the Scarlet pass.

Our band made their way from Leandra’s Row all the way to the keep. Leaving the farmers and craftsmen in the care of the rest of the band, Mort, Jaevin, Ardno, Adelone and Pathased journeyed to the keep.

Initially just a reconnaissance operation, the group decided to infiltrate the keep from the rear in the middle of the day, only to discover a highly disciplined and capable team of red skinned Ruk led by a powerful champion and an allied manticore. The battle quickly started to turn against the team and while it was close, they decided to use discretion and run while they had a chance.

They quickly recovered, though, and set up a ruse to draw the Ruk out using numerous campfires to make it seem like they were a larger force than they really were. By the following morning, the Ruk had fled and the team was able to take over the keep.

The team wanted to make sure — and carefully plumbed the depths of the dungeon finding mostly dust in the finished sections. But, as their exploration wrapped up, they realized something had been stalking them… a massive black ooze attacked them from above. It was acidic and immune to damage from cold or slashing weapons. The party struggled to finish off the creature — each time they damaged it significantly, it split into two smaller members. Finally, after both Jaevin and Pathased fell to it, Ardul cast the final spell destroying the creature.

Talon Keep was theirs.

In Memorium, an Introduction.

Mort & Lobelia’s introduction at last

It was a starlit summer’s eve in Forks, and at the Inn in the square, the party was just beginning.

It began quietly enough, with a few new faces among the usual supper crowd at The Toad’s Bottom, the tavern at the back corner of the Westport Inn, nearest reputable inn to Forks’ docks, fishmarkets, and burgeoning river trade.

Two rivers came together here in the first of two massive forks, the second being the fork in the trade road that followed each river upstream – or downstream to the sea, depending on which way you were facing. People and materials travelling down either would pass by one fork or the other, bringing a constant influx of trade goods and raw materials to the growing riverside town.

The Westport was an Inn, not some cheap flophouse, and the charms that kept out the many varieties of vermin or kept all the windows locked at night weren’t cheap – but guests at the Westport got the cleanliness and security they paid for. Certainly there were larger and more expensive inns closer to the center of town, but the Westport and the tavern behind it had done a brisk business for many years with the regular stream of travellers that the river brought.

Over the years the inn had taken on some of its guests’ nautical habits, and its scrubbed wooden floors couldn’t be any cleaner if they’d been holystoned daily, while meals were served precisely on the bell each morning and evening.

There were always new faces at an inn in such an advantageous position, a mix of moneyed sailors on leave, well-to-do travellers on their way to the royal city, merchants travelling with their wares, and ships’ captains ashore for business – or any of the other assignations which could be had in such a port while their vessels were unavailable, tied up to the docks to be loaded and unloaded by lines of grunting, sweating dockmen and sailors, or winched up out of the water entire for repairs or repainting of their hulls.

Invariably they’d end up at the ‘Bottom, where the regulars would cheerfully welcome them in, ply them with friendly drinks, and listen eagerly to their stories. They’d also cheerfully go through their pockets for every clipped copper, were any of those travellers to be so foolish as to pass out in some shadowy corner beyond the watchful eye and heavy hand of Ergo, the owner and barkeep.

Ergo couldn’t be everywhere at once, but both his sight and his hearing were excellent, and when the oak-thewed barkeep ‘threw someone out’ for attempted thievery, he took the phrase very literally. The cobblestone streets outside were hard and unforgiving, and very few were ever caught at it twice. Only Cap’n Halfwood told of someone caught a third time trying to pick a purse at the ‘Bottom, but no one over the age of twelve believed even half of the crippled old sailor’s wild tales anymore.

That didn’t mean one couldn’t discuss a crime at the ‘Bottom, even plan one, but those who tried to commit a crime in Ergo’s tavern were either very good, very discrete, or very, very sorry.

Ergo wasn’t just the owner of The Toad’s Bottom, but of the whole Westport Inn as well. His wife Koshi was the real brains in their marraige, and she kept the books and ran the inn with a motherly but iron-fisted hand, while Ergo devoted his attention where he enjoyed it most, behind the bar at the ‘Bottom. (It was said that, while Ergo might toss a man out onto the cobbles if you roused his ire, his wife’s sharp tongue could shame a sorcerer into first apologizing, then flinging himself into the street to escape its barbed wrath!)

Still, it was a good place to make introductions, to loosen the tongues of those too long at sea, and to mark their pigeons for following to some other, less risky locale for the plucking.

All in all it made for ripe pickings for Forks’ less savory element, and the trio of dusty, worn-looking travellers who slouched over to the nearest empty bench and called for beer were observed, evaluated, and divvied up before the first tankards reached their rough-planked, beer-stained tables.

The reputable regulars at the ‘Bottom ignored them to get on with the serious business of eating and drinking, drinking and eating, or just plain drinking, while the remaining half-dozen or so of a less law-abiding nature – miscreants, muscle, the misbegotten, even a minstrel tonight, though he was currently facedown on the bar – traded Significant Looks around the bar at one another, looks that spoke volumes in the tilt of a head, the lift of an eyebrow, or the way old Cap’n Alfwood’s wooden hook scraped along the bar as he ordered his usual sour ale.

[Young, ain’t they?] went the unspoken conversation, [Tuckered out, too.] [T’girl looks a strong ’un tho.] [They come in with the caravan?]

[Nah.] This from a grizzled enforcer as he downed his ale, not so much as glancing at the other conspirators. [Seen ‘em all, an’ none o’ today’s had any trouble within a week o’ here – all three o’ those have been in a real dust-up sometime today.]

This news was shared via a half-dozen idly-cracked knuckles, a resounding belch, and a brief and shielded handsign or two as the scarred old tough drained his cup, plonked it upside down on his table, and shuffled out without a word, prompting more than one stealthy glance at the trio to note and reevaluate the slashed and not-yet-mended sleeve of one, the edge of a crimson-stained bandage in the shadows within another’s hood, and the specks and splashes of clotted gore still barely visible on all three cloaks under the dust of the road – if one looked closely enough, that is.

Cap’n Alfwood clacked his wooden teeth and shook his head in a wordless negative of his own, his leathery, scarred face almost hidden under his ragged woolen hat. [Nor from the river neither.] the leather-clad enforcer nearest the old seaman passed on, [Cap’n watches the docks all day if ’e wants ’is drinky at night!]

[Walkers then.] opined Jimmy Fingers, with a snort of dismissal that almost upset the tiny carven figures on the gameboard between he and his barbarically-clad opponent. [You want ‘em, or is it young ’arry an ’is girls’ turn ta shear ’em tonight?]

The laconic negotiations were nearly complete when the leader of the trio dropped a single, tiny, platinum-colored coin into into the serving woman’s hand instead of the usual iron or copper bits, bringing the hidden discussion to a halt at her startled gasp.

More than one eyebrow was raised in speculation as she tried to argue in a hushed voice, then dashed to the bar in a rustle of skirts for a breathlessly-whispered conversation with Ergo, and more than one ear strained to hear as the flustered tavern-keeper arrived at the trio’s table for a low-voiced conversation a few moments later.

“Change? Don’t worry about making change, man!” one of the travel-stained trio rasped at the fawning tavern-keeper, throwing back his hood to reveal a haggard and bandaged face, the ends of a long slash that just missed his left eye visible at the edges of his bloody but otherwise clean and neatly-wrapped bandages. “Ye jest keep bringing ‘t beer out, an’ if we hain’t drunk up the full value of that by midnight, ye can keep whateer’s left – Unless we catch ye watering down the drinks, that is! Yer well paid, an there’ll be more ’t come if yer square with us.”

Sudden steel rang in the wounded man’s voice, and even the burly tavern-keeper was quick to reassure him, “Oh aye, of course not – Sir! This is a quality inn! Why, we’re known all the way to the Duke’s keep, we are!”

“Well, unless ye’ve got the good Duke locked in yer pantry ta tell us that Hisself, that don’t do me aught, now does it?” came the good-natured riposte, “Jest bring us a good hot dinner and keep ‘t beer flowin’, and we’ll sing yer praises ’til ’t morrow.”

“Right you are, Sir!” Keeping his face straight with an effort, Ergo stalked back to his usual place behind the bar to pour more beer, his mind awhirl while the dusty trio downed their beer in thirsty gulps and called for more. A platinum piece! A platinum piece just to wine and dine 3? Enough to pay for two dozen, and his good beer at that! He kept hold of the fresh pitcher to get the attention of the serving-girl, then let her have it as whispered hoarsely, “It’s the real thing, lass! Give them whatever they want, and maybe they’ll drop another!”

Sending his only other girl into the Inn, he gave her a note to the cook for more substantial fare than the usual bread and stew, and another to his wife to be sure there were rooms ready in case the trio needed to sleep off their drink – and could perhaps be convinced to pay similar rates for the privilege. Hells, if they tried to drink the full worth of their coin tonight, he thought, they’d be so besotted he’d be able to go through their pockets himself before anyone else got to them! (Ergo didn’t allow anyone else to steal from his customers..)

He was industriously wiping down the long oaken bar a few minutes later, and the hidden conversation had gone through the cant version of “Hold the phone, what’s this?” and was well into re-negotiations once more when the tavern door was pushed open to the stopper with a wooden thunk, and a rabble of assorted.. – Lets just call them “folk”, shall we? – of very assorted folk began to filter into the tavern, some quickly joining the trio at their table, while others found tables and benches of their own nearby before beginning to move the heavy tables closer together, leaving long scrapes in the liberally-scattered sawdust on the floor.

Most appeared to be new acquaintances, but a few bustled in talking like old friends, and at least one pair bickered like old enemies or an acrimonious, long-married couple. Most seemed eager to get to know one another, telling and retelling each other of their own parts in the day’s events, with several toasting and boasting boisterously once they had a couple of cups inside them, overjoyed with relief at not being among the dead at the end of the day.

The silent conversation around the bar, half thieves’ cant and half long familiarity, ground to a wary halt once again as new faces began to outnumber old in the continued influx, and the growing number of rough-hewn spears clutched tightly in-hand, and worn but serviceable blades at the belts of several of the growing crowd gave even the boldest of the conspirators pause.

Newcomers continued to make their way in over the course of the next candlemark or so, until they outnumbered not only the criminal element, but the rest of the tavern’s usual supper crowd as well. A silent consensus was achieved: [Smile and act friendly until we know more about this mob! Now, who will pay us the most for anything we can learn?]

Desultory conversation picked up around the bar as the watchers settled in to wait, while the minstrel was elbowed awake, and after a brief hissed conversation, set to tuning his cat with a will. (er, instrument, sorry – but you wouldn’t know by listening!)

Eyes all around the bar widened in sheer amazement when a tiny, stoutly-built little woman appeared from amongst the growing throng and clambered nimbly up onto a bench, so small that she could stand on the bench with her head at the same level as those already seated. Could it be? A real Halfling, here?!

Not only that, but some of the others looked no less exotic than she did, one so small and gnarled he could only be a gnome, and one or two others with the short, stocky build of dwarves, while one slender, still-hooded figure ordered an imported honeywine, then sat sipping it with a preternatural grace that could only mean elvish ancestors. (Actual Elves would be too much to expect, of course – even a half-elf was a rare thing indeed in Forks, but there was definitely something fey and eerie about that one..)

Ergo’s excitement over his deal began to fade as more and more of the growing crowd were added to the first trio’s tab, and it became more and more likely that it wouldn’t be all that excessive an overpayment after all. His mood showed miraculous improvement a few minutes later, when both of the serving girls reported that others were buying their own drinks and dinner – and paying good silver, for them, too! – and he worked out that he’d make a profit tonight even if he lost money on the drinks. He positively beamed when he realized there was still the chance for more silver (or even gold or platinum!) before the night was out, dealing with the sudden pandemonium with his customary good grace and cheery bonhomie.

One of his serving girls was needed just to run orders and dishes to and from the cook, and Ergo had to send another note to to his wife to send a couple of their daughters to help with the tables, as well as call in a strapping lad from the stables to bring up a fresh keg of his best beer from the cellar, and then another of ale, just so he could remain behind his bar and keep refilling pitchers and tankards as they were emptied.

All of the new crowd seemed well-heeled tonight, and more than one paid for their food and drink with their own coin, some seeking his best wines, another triple-distilled brandy, and one (the halfling) haggling drunkenly for the lowest price she could get on a meal of turnip-and-squirrel stew, yesterday’s bread, and a pint of cheap ale. Ergo was mystified by it all, but careful not to hint that others had already payed for the finest the kitchen could offer. Bouyed by the promise of tonight’s profits, (and to be honest, put off by her shrill voice and shrewish manner), he let the tiny woman have her meal for a few coppers rather than haggle while he could be serving more drink – and collecting more coin – instead.

Through a strange mood of mingled sorrow and triumph, introductions were made and toasts were soon flowing freely. The minstrel struck up a bawdy tune, and before long half the inn was tipsily singing along with the chorus. A few didn’t join in the singing, instead staring silently into their tankards or alecups, their eyes haunted and far away as the celebration went on around them.

By now all the regulars were unashamedly eavesdropping, unsure what to think of such a strange and diverse crowd!

During a pause while the minstrel lubricated his instrument, (i.e. somebody could be cadged into buying him another drink), a short man in faded but durable red robes stood and waved his hands in an attempt to get the attention of the nearby tables, but he was too short to be seen around those gathered at his own. With a wry snort he gave in to the inevitable and climbed somewhat unsteadily up onto his bench, and then up onto the tabletop to stand where he could be heard, (and more importantly seen), over the victory-and-loss-fuelled air of revelry and misery that gripped the mob. Miserevelry?

Both front and back of his heavy red robes were prominently marked with the sigil of St. Cathexis’ martyrdom, a blazing canoe in white, marking him as a trained healer of some skill in the local healing order. – A real cleric or divine healer would wear white robes with a red sigil, but otherwise the symbol and style were the same.

Lowering his hood revealed a sweaty, bullet-shaped head as bald as an egg, lacking even so much as eyebrows. His pale skin was flushed, suffused with drink and emotion. and his piercing eyes were the grey of a stormy sky, albeit rather bloodshot and glassy at the moment.

Standing unsteadily on the plank table, the man held up his glass of wine and called for the attention of the chattering mob, raising his voice to be heard. “Quiet over zhere, I’ve got somezhing to say! Quiet down, the lot of you!”, finally shouting over the din, “Shaddap, I said!

When the overall hubbub quieted enough to hear him speak he continued, now and again slurring his words or swaying a bit, but plainly not yet completely in his cups, “Now, some of you know me, and a lot of you ozhairs met me today as I wash binding up your bleedin’ wounds. Zhere are many who would not be here if eet were not for me, yesh? My name ish Mort, an’ I-I weesh to make a toasht! A toasht to some of zhe men who did not make it here alive today.” The drink brought out the provincial accent that he normally tried to hide, but he could still be clearly understood.

An expansive gesture with his winecup sloshed his tablemates with some of its contents, to their noisy distress – especially that of the drunken “lady” across the table, the opulently-upholstered halfling in stained acolyte’s robes, who screeched in a most unladylike manner at the sudden dousing, “You wall-eyed sonsh of a toad sucker!” She cried, flailing ineffectually but theatrically in all directions. “You did that on purposshe! I’ma gonna give you such a k/hic/! – Such a kick inna arse, juss’ as s-shoon as I can catch tha th-three of ya!”

Mort rounded on her like a snake to roar in her face, his usually-quiet voice suddenly booming, “I said quiet you! Especially you, Lobelia Crackville-Baggins! I’ve heard all I can take from your filzhy mouzh already today, you horrible half-pint harridan!”

He’d apparently hit just the right note of fury to silence the loudmouthed halfling, who wilted before the blaze of his incandescent anger. From the look on her dumpy, potatolike face when she turned away however, she was anything but cowed, and the imprecations she muttered under her breath were enough to make a fishwife blush! Nonetheless, she quieted long enough for Mort to ignore while he spoke to the now-silent crowd around him.

With a final glare at the halfling he went on, “As I wash shaying, I am Mort-” “Mort the Short!” came the stage-whispered rejoinder, but someone else at the table managed to get a hand over the soused halfling’s mouth before she could say more. Mort’s face reddened even more, but after a deep, cleansing breath and another sip of his wine, he was able to smile and even shrug his shoulders in good-natured surrender, “Yes, yes, Mort zhe Short. Zhat’s me. Zhat ees what zhey called me down in the Gallowsweed, where I an’ m’friends journeyed from just a few daysh back. Well, my friends and.. Lobelia.” Mort grimaces, “I apologishe for zhat part. We tried to keep her from following us, but someone must have let her out of zhe sack!”

“But take note now, all of you!” he went on in a stentorian voice and spreading his arms wide, “I am short, but I am a short MAN! Look at me! I look nozhing like a dwarf! If I were a dwarf, I would be a TALL one, no? – I. am. not. a. Dwarf.

“I am Mort! – zhe Short, yes. Short men have run in my line for generations, so laugh if you like, call me Short if you must. Share your small talk wizh me, your small favors, your little jokes. Ahah-hah-hah! So funny you can be! But do remember who may hold your life in zheir hands zhe next time you lot bite off more zhan you can chew!” Mort swept his bloodshot eyes over the crowd, then his anger seemed to fade.

“But not all of my friends made it zhis far,” the small man continued sombrely, “An’ I weesh to tell you of two zhat deserve to be remembered.”

“Zhe first, well, hees name was Moan. Yes, Moan Strataxe, youngest son of his fazher, Gripe. And yes, very much a dwarf. I have nozhing against dwarves, as I have nozhing against children – But I am not eizher one!”

“Zhe Strataxes’ clan live in zhe hills around zhe Marsh, and are known for many leagues around for zheir armor and weapon-making, but even more so for zheir forging of fine-wrought musical instruments of every shape and size, and zhe wonderful music zhey would make wizh zhem. Nearly every Strataxe plays an instrument, and zheir musical axes and tuned hammers have sung in every major dwarven battle in zhe last 300 years. On quiet winter nights, you could hear zhe zhrob of zhe beat coming up from zhe very stones of zhe earzh underfoot. Eet is…Magical!”

“Moan and his elder brozher Groan, zhey could see in an eenstant zhat I was no dwarf, but still zhey taught a small-for-his-age boy how to fight – and how to fight dirty when my opponents were bigger zhan me. Zhey befriended me when all else laughed at my stature! Zhey even taught me an old dwarvish saying; “Size Doesn’t Matter.” – as well as zhe dwarven trick of punching anyone who laughs in zhe donglers while zhey are still laughing at zhe words."

Mort smiled wickedly at the fond memory, lost for a moment in the recollection before he went on, “Now Groan, ‘ee was an axe man from zhe beginning, but Moan was more into zhe, ’ow you say? Zhe percussion, no? ’ee didn’t mind being backup hammer of zheir youzhful war band, even compared to his brozher’s role as lead axe. Zhere was never any greed or envy een him, no desire to upstage zhe ozhairs. No, ’ee was satisfied to keep zhem all working together in rhyzhm, to make himself better by making zhe ozhairs better.”

The small man’s face falls as the loss hits him once more, his voice mournful. “He came wizh us from zhe Cursed Marsh just to keep me company! His brozher had found his calling as a Thane – ahh, what we would call a paladin, I zhink, but wizh more lightning – and had begun his training. Moan wanted to see how zhe humans lived in zheir cities, to spend a couple of weeks helping me to get my feet under me, zhen he would return to zhe dwarfhalls to begin his own training as a cleric, so he could continue to keep his headstrong brozher, his fellow dwarves, and all of zheir allies from harm.” Mort looked haunted, “Now.. Now I must journey or send word to his family, to tell zhe elder brozher zhat his little brozher won’t be back for zhe winter concerts, zhe yearly battle of zhe warbands, or anyzhing else – ever. He was slaughtered by a beastly zhing, just as the battle he had no place in began to turn our way!”

Mort angrily wiped at his eyes as as he was overcome by emotion, then went on in a choked voice, “I saw zhat cursed keep where it happened destroyed, wizh no stone left upon anozher, but zhat won’t bring him back.” Swaying on his feet, he raises his cup and says, “To Moan Strataxe, a dwarf and a real man!”

Many hands raised their cups with him, which was just the moment of inattention the halfling needed to escape. Writhing like an eel and biting the hand over her mouth, she wrenched herself free of the man holding her and darted under the table, disappearing among the throng of drunken legs. Her shrill, querulous voice rose from hiding a moment later, “What about Beeeeker? What about my boyfriend?!

Mort looked about furiously, but couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from. “He was never your boyfriend, you ninny! Beeker was six and a half feet tall, and human besides. You’re no human, you’re a half-witted hassock!”

“He was so my boyfriend!” came the waspish reply, “We use’ta share our lunches every day, an’ I got him a job with that nice Mr. Corpsegrub in his tower down in the Marsh! Beekees invited me ta come to the big city with him!”

“You mean you used to steal his lunch every chance you got – and Corpsegrub was a bloody necromancer!” Mort retorted, setting off gales of amusement at the other tables. "And zhat poor red-headed boy was touched in the head from zhe beginning. He never spoke a word to anyone, just “Meeble-meeble-meeble!” But ee’d do whatever anyone told him to do, even zhe goosegirl. And you, You took advantage of him every chance you got, you hip-high harpy!"

“Was not! Lobelia shrieked from hiding, “Did not! And besides, old Grubby never asked poor Beeker to do anything evil, he just paid him to catch eels and snakes and things from the swamp!”

Electric eels!” Mort roared back, to the further amusement of the watching crowd. “And adders! Death adders! D’you have any idea how many times he almost died of poison? I have never before seen a man’s eyes light up like hees did, sometimes for hours after every eel-hunt! Just let me find a stronger sack, and I’ll toss you back into zhe swamp that ye sprang from, you tiny trollop!”

Mort stood at the edge of his table, turning his head this way and that as he furiously searched for the halfling’s hiding place. With a glance at his shoulder he sent the owlet perched there winging up into the rafters to seach from above, while he hopped down and began looking under each table in turn.

“Where are ye, you little swamp-rat?” he shouted, his face congested with fury. He was too busy looking amongst the forest of legs under each table to notice the foot-long centipede that scurried from the shadows and begin to wind its way up the length of his iron-shod staff, only spotting it in the last second before it reached his hand. “Come out, an’ I’ll show you just how zhose eels – By zhe Gods!!” With a startled oath as he spotted the creature, Mort dropped his staff as if it were red-hot, then grabbed the length of yew by the far end and began viciously beating it on the sawdust-strewn floor to dislodge the multilegged monstrosity, his half-hysterical stream of curses accompanied by Lobelia’s peals of drunken laughter.

When the bruised centipede finally released its grip and scurried for the shadows Mort followed, catching it just before it vanished back under a table and bringing the end of his staff down on it again and again with crushing force, long after the dismembered segments of the venomous creature had stopped squirming. “God in heaven, die, you damned leggy thing! DIE!”

Only when it was very, very dead did Mort stop at last, gripping his staff in both hands and panting like he’d been in battle for his very life. “I hate zhem! I hate zhose.. disgusting.. vermin!”

At last he shuddered and drew his hand across his face, regaining to his senses just as the little halfling charged out from under a table at him, waving a metal fork in one hand and a short sword in the other and shouting at the top of her lungs, “You-you killed Leggy! You dwarven bastard, I’ll kill you this ti-”thunk! Lobelia’s shout ended as if switched off as Mort’s staff described a precise arc through the air, ending with a loud crack atop Lobelia’s greasy bun and dropping her to the floor with all the grace of a sack of potatoes.

I! Am! Not! A! Dwarf!” Mort gritted out between clenched teeth, then took several deep and calming breaths breaths to steady himself, letting some of the crimson flush of fury recede.

The murmuring of the assembled mob got louder as the tiny woman’s body lay unmoving on the floor. When the hubbub of voices began to voice individual complaints, Mort snapped at them, “What? What?! Her head ees solid bone! A little knock like zhat isn’t going to kill her – more’s zhe pity!”

Bringing his hands to his face in a show of consternation as the angry murmurs continued, Mort called out mockingly, “Oh no! Oh no! She ees hurt! EES ZHAIR A DOCTOR EEN ZHE HOUSE??”, then widened his eyes in awe as if struck by divine inspiration, “Why seenk my canoe, I am zhe doctor! Oh, we are saved, we are saved! Stand back!” Gesturing theatrically he shooed away the concerned watchers, then bent over Lobelia’s still figure to check her pulse and listen to her humors, “Give her air! Give her – Faugh!” His bald face paled as his small hands examined the knot atop her skull. “By all zhe saints and martyrs! Her-” cough! “- her breazh!”

At last the little man stood and turned away, his face comically woeful. “Eet is as I feared. Zhe little woman.. She’ll live.” Face screwed up in disgust, he stumped back to his table and climbed up onto the bench, saying at last, “For zhat, I apologize.”

Picking up his winecup and peering nearsightedly within to be sure there was wine left, Mort put his hand up for quiet once more as he thought for a moment, then continued heavily, “Touched or not, young Beeker saved us bozh, taking zhe blows zhat would have cast us into zhe boiling rock. He burned up in an instant! But in zhe end he was a man, and in his deazh he lived up to his name.”

Raising his winecup, Mort made his final toast, “To Beeker Blownaparte! Even zhe lowliest can die a man, and we shall all remember heem!” Then drained his winecup with a flourish as the others echoed him before bringing it down on the table with a bang.

“I have just one question for our host,” He mused before the next toast began, looking over at Ergo behind his bar, "Why “Zhe Toad’s Bottom”? It seems a strange name, unsuited for the fine inn you are a part of."

Ergo barely had time to open his mouth before every regular still in the place turned Mort’s way and held up their tankards to chorus, “Where d’ya think he gets this frog-piss ale?!

Their raucous laughter followed him out the door as he made is way out to relieve himself, leaving Lobelia still snoring on the floor where she fell.


Onwards to Talon Keep

Your group has banded together (final name of your company?) and along with representatives from the explorers guild and a few commoners to help you along, you’ve been asked to establish a presence in the north of Lockeland to investigate the Kingsbarrows.

Fall is in full swing — it’s wet and cold, and winter is expected early. It’s a crappy time to be undertaking this journey, and an even worse time to be trying to establish a base. But, with 6 months of food, a little luck and a willingness to try burning green wood, hopefully you’ll all make it through the winter.

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