The Wild March, Session 2: Plenty of Work to be Done

“Hyperborea, colloquially known as the Wild March, has earned its moniker well. Settled at least twice and abandoned as many times, even its more inviting latitudes have repelled all challengers with a savagery best associated with its own denizens. Wildmen, Orc tribes, and unknown beasts stalk the mountains which screen the Constant Sea from the Wayward Steppe. Black ruins dot the hills, gesturing grandly at the hubris that must be native to the hearts of any who think to challenge the Wild March.”

— Alexius of Bolchar, "On Wildness," page Twenty Eight

This isn't really "accurate" so much as the right feeling for the town. Earthwork embankments on all sides, not actually many buildings, rustic, misty, and wet. Sometime the artist in the group may draw a picture of the town, but only time will tell.

This isn't really "accurate" so much as the right feeling for the town. Earthwork embankments on all sides, not actually many buildings, rustic, misty, and wet. Sometime the artist in the group may draw a picture of the town, but only time will tell.

The group makes its way through New Harjevo, following the tide of people toward the central square. They pass through muddy streets packed with tents and makeshift lean-to's. As they pass a few of the low buildings, they spy an area that's been penned off to contain a multitude of livestock. Apparently, the farmers and settlers who had lived in the surrounding countryside are now packed into the harshly limited space of the walled town proper - packed to bursting by the looks of things. 

To one side of the square is a large, low building - one of the few with stone walls, and into that they see Saulius leading Beatrise and Arturas. They follow, shouldering through the throng. As they pass, the celebration begins as casks of wine and liquor are distributed, both from the town's remaining stock and from the goods brought by the new arrivals.

Inside, the building appears to be a kind of town hall, with a central hearth and a few long tables running along either side. The more subdued atmosphere suggests that this is where the community leaders have gravitated to discuss the next steps. Beatrise and Arturas have moved toward the far side of the room, and have selected a chair they feel suitable for her station. Fane glances around, and picks out the former Alderman, Saulius, nearby, who appears preoccupied with his thoughts. All told, there are about a dozen people finding their seats and murmuring among themselves, most of them settlers from the year before. Anton is a touch surprised to see a gnome accompanied by a towering half-orc, possibly the de-facto leader of the gnomes he heard of; Charna the Thunderous.

"Well!" calls out Beatrise, rubbing her hands together. Anton, Fane, and Vitaly quickly find their seats, while Vasily and Galapas remain standing. "We, ah, it seems we have a lot of work to do!" she says. The rest of the room is silent aside form the scraping of chairs. She coughs. "So these, ah, there are Orcs, to blame? I didn't, uh, hear anything, about Orcs when I was appointed to the colony?"

There's another moment of silence before Saulius speaks up. "they arrived about a month and a half ago. Not long before the first thaw. A whole tribe of them, riding down from the north."

"And there, ah, weren't any...?" Beatrise ventures.

Arturas finishes. "Defenses? Lookouts? Militiamen?"

"There'd been no call," says Saulius. "We'd exchanged some messengers with the wild men in the area, but nobody'd made any threats. Of course, this far north there are always risks of orcs, but the wild men said they mostly come for hunting and trade."

Vasily remembers his findings at the wagon wreck. The arrows he'd found had hunting broadheads, not mail-piercing tips. 

Saulius says "It didn't matter much. They cut us off from the few wild men we did talk with - gods know how they're faring - and drove us into the town. They've taken a few runs at the walls, but we've warded them off. There've been casualties, of course." He looks down. 

Arturas asks "Do we know anything about them?"

"The Orcs?" Saulius looks up and scratches his chin. "Not much more than anyone knows. Skilled cavalry archers. Tough horses. We call them the White Falcons, for the standard a few of them have on their shields. Can't say what they call themselves. We haven't been able to talk to the captives."

"Captives?" says Beatrise. "You've, ah, managed to take some alive?"

"Two of them," nods Saulius. "Hasn't done us any good, they don't seem to speak Gowan, Yalethi, Kolech, or any other human tongue. Two days ago a gnome tried some of their jabber-talk over the walls at some raiders, calling for parley I guess, and he got an arrow in the gut for his trouble. I think he's still dying."

Beatrise sighs and leans forward to cup her forehead in her hands. "Thank you, Goodman Rozzy, for your report." She looks up. "Alright, uh... Well, our first step should be shoring up our defenses, uh... Sir Arturas? do you have any suggestions?" she turns to the old knight.

He looks up from the floor and ponders for a moment. "Well, we'll need an organized militia, and a chance to spread out equipment. Depending on risk, we should send scouts to see if these 'White Falcons' have a central camp, and what numbers they have. We'll likely need to consider a counter-attack as soon as possible."

Saulius stiffens a little "Er - I think we'd be better off -"

"Thank you, Goodman Rozzy, for your input," Beatrise says sharply, and he falls silent. "Well, uh..." she continues, looking around. "There's plenty of work to be done, it seems. Arturas, attend to your suggestions, I'll..." she bites her lip. "Start taking an account of our supplies. I'll, ah, send word out when another meeting is in order. Vasily? Vitaly? Sir Fane? would you stay for a moment more?"

As the assembled crowd begins to rise and disperse, the brothers and the young Ironback approach the governor's seat. "Good, excellent," she says, rubbing her eyes.

"You have a task?" asks Vitaly.

Beatrise sighs. "Not specifically... Not yet. As you can, ah, probably tell, New Harjevo is off to a bit rougher a start than I might have thought. Or hoped, rather?" she seems to waver. "In any case, trained, ah, warriors are in rather short supply. I was hoping that I could get some sort of commitment from you three? You were an, uh, an immense help on the road."

Vasily cocks an eyebrow. "Commitment? What do you mean?"

She throws up her hands "I don't have anything specific! Yet! Just -" she meets each of their gazes in turn. "Things are rough, and they're going to stay rough - I just need, well, some assurance that I can call on you. Just - keep your eyes open! Can I ask that much? I need you to notice problems that Sir Arturas and I don't."

There's a brief pause. Fane thinks of Saulius trying to raise a point during the meeting. He nods. "I'll be ready."

The Zherdev brothers also nod their assent, and Beatrise sighs. "Very well. Go, might as well find a place to camp."

This is the map I drew of the town. When we wound up scattered across the country by school, I put this photo together to try and add an in - universe flavor for their reference on Roll20, as if this map were posted on a message board. I'm not sure that totally comes across here, but I like the photo anyway. The areas hemmed in by dots represent the makeshift pastures for the surviving livestock.

This is the map I drew of the town. When we wound up scattered across the country by school, I put this photo together to try and add an in - universe flavor for their reference on Roll20, as if this map were posted on a message board. I'm not sure that totally comes across here, but I like the photo anyway. The areas hemmed in by dots represent the makeshift pastures for the surviving livestock.

Outside, the crowd grumbles as it disperses from the town hall. Few are satisfied, and they collectively rush to secure their own belongings. Anton touches the elbow of one of the settlers, a southerner with dark skin. "Beg pardon," the scholar says, "But Saulius mentioned a gnome was injured. Do you know where he is?"

The man gives a half smile. "Over on the south side by the walls is where they've pitched their little enclave. I believe the ones who came with you joined them." He takes a step away and look Anton up and down. "You look as though you're in need of supplies, eh? Come by my little shop, over yonder if you get the time," he gestures off to the northwest of town hall, winking as he does so. "It's become something of a community hub, I'm proud to say."

"Yes, of course," says Anton, and he excuses himself. He's just spied the half-orc he noticed in the meeting earlier, heading south along the main street.

In the meantime, Fane has decided to follow Saulius from a distance. As the Harker goes, he bids good day and hello to almost everyone he comes across, and a few have concern and condolences evident on their faces. He's clearly a man well respected in the community. His family seems to have a pair of tents not far from the northern pasture, and he greets a young man with a thin beard solemnly. As they talk, Fane approaches.

He says, "Alderman Rozzy?"

He perks up and turns instinctively, casting a curious eye at the knight. "Just, ah, Saulius, if you please. Goodman Rozzy if you're feeling formal." He murmurs something to the young man, who goes back inside the tent. "Can I help you with something?"

"Something was bothering me. Can I ask what was going on between you and the governor?"

Saulius shrugs. "I can't say that I understand it either, and it's none of my business. Truth be told, I don't much mind stepping down as Alderman. I was happy to help the town, but the stress..." he pauses. "Well, she has a royal appointment."

Fane says "It just struck me as odd that she would disregard your advice. What were you going to say?"

"Well..." he bites his lip. "If there's a reason for her choices, she likely doesn't want to settlement conflicted between me and her. I'm not sure I should go spouting off."

"If I understand right," Fane says, "You understand the dangers better than anyone. I've pledged my assistance to her, and that I'd keep an eye out for problems. It can't hurt for you to explain to me."

"Alright," he says, putting up his hands. "It just seems to me that we were cramped here in town even before we got a couple score more citizens. Living conditions aside, it's dangerous, and our defenses here aren't much to admire." Saulius shakes his head. "If we get attacked again, casualties might be worse than ever. Arrows over the palisades... Fft." he makes a stabbing gesture.

Fane nods. "But you have an idea?"

Saulius continues. "Up toward the mountains, to the south, there's an old keep. As best we can tell, it was built in one of the attempts to settle this valley a few centuries ago. We were breaking it down for stone - most of town hall is built from it. The outer walls are in a sorry state, but the central keep is large and sturdily built."

"Sounds promising. There's a problem?"

"You could say that. As for what it is... I can't rightly say. I was in one of the work crews breaking down the walls, and we all got bad feelings from that place. Strange sounds at twilight. Nightmares. There was a gnomish mason who went up with us the first day, but afterwards he refused to go within a mile of those ruins. We took to calling them the Black Stones."

"Are the stones black?"

Saulius pauses. "Well. Yes. Dark grey. But you take my point? Whether we use it to house the people not fit to fight, or break it down to reinforce the walls, there's use in that accursed place." he holds up a finger. "But only once we know it's safe. You understand?"

Fane sighs, and nods. "I'll see what I can do. Thank you for the suggestion."

"Of course. Happy to help."

Vasily, Vitaly, and Galapas searched together for a more secluded space to set up their tents, but had no luck. The town is more or less packed to bursting, and wit winds up being enough just to find a patch of open ground large enough for their tents and a cook-fire. As they set things up, Vitaly lets out a series of honking sneezes, and rubs at his dripping nose. The northern air has not agreed with him and he's come down with a bit of a head cold. The brothers have only just put a pot on to boil when Fane discovers them, and explains what Saulius told him.

"What exactly do we think is in there?" asks Vasily. "Is it likely to be any better than the orcs?"

"Worse than a whole warband?" says Fane. 

"I've seen things in some ruins down south..." Vitaly murmurs, but then jerks with another massive sneeze. "Awh! It's Probably worth the risk, though. It's hard to stand this crowd - might as well do something about it."

Vasily considers. "We could use any help we could get."

"You're thinking we should bring Arturas? or some of the guards?"

"We know somebody else. Galapas!" he calls, and the archer stalks over. Vasily gestures with a wooden spoon. "Galapas, this is Fane, we've been asked to look into some ruins as possible safe harbor. We could use your bow."

Galapas is silent at first, but then nods. "If you need me."

Fane looks him up and down, recognizing the bearing of a soldier. "We don't know what's up there. You have the nerves?"

Galapas nods.

"You said the gnomes especially feared the place?" asks Vitaly.

"Saulius said so."

Vasily nods, rising. "We should check in with them, then." He glances at the pot.

"I'll keep the fire going, brother," Vitaly reassures him. "You go make sure we've got all we need." He leans back into their tent and pulls out a blanket that he wraps around his shoulders, sniffling.

Fane, Vasily, and Galapas all look at each other, then set off south in search of the gnomish camp.

There's, uh... not a lot of terribly dignified art of gnomes. Remind me to post the story of Gnomesgiving someday.

There's, uh... not a lot of terribly dignified art of gnomes. Remind me to post the story of Gnomesgiving someday.

Meanwhile, Anton had already made his way over to the small gnome community - a tight cluster of wagons and tents strung lines of prayer flags. The gnomes themselves move to and fro in a rush to get their new settlers unloaded and to distribute vitally needed supplies. They murmur back and forth in their language, shaking their heads. Anton approaches one who sits outside a tent, gazing up at the sky.

"Hello?" he says in gnomish. "Beg pardon, but I heard a gnome was wounded while trying to negotiate with the White Falcons?"

The gnome sighs and folds his arms. "Talk plain, Reachman," he says in Yalethi. "Our tongue is not for you. Your accent is atrocious, besides."

"Oh! My apologies, I meant no disrespect! Your, ah, fellow. Is he hurt badly?"

The gnome tut-tuts. "Dear Gilad. Nothing to be done now. There's talk about quickening his passing, but most likely he doesn't have long left as it is."

"I thought I might help," offers Anton. "I have some skill with healing magics."

At this the gnome perks up. "What's that you say? You're a cleric?"

"Ah, no, but I do know a charm or two that can ward off injury."

The gnome leaps up. "Certainly can't hurt. Come, this way!"

The gnome leads Anton a short distance through the narrow lanes of the camp, to a tent on the fringes. Within is a low cot, on which rests a pale gnome with bloodshot eyes, soaked in sweat. A female gnome with deep bags under her eyes sits on a stool at his head and gingerly mops his forehead with a damp cloth. Anton's escort murmurs a few words to her, and her face flickers with hope as she looks the scholar up and down, before bowing and leaving the room. 

Anton approaches the bed, and gently pulls away the bandages over Gilad's stomach. A rank odor assails his nostrils, and he sees yellow puss welling up from a puncture wound that burns with signs of infection. He quickly whispers a few words and presses his hands to the wound, and when he withdraws them, the injury is gone, though the redness remains. Gilad's breathing becomes somewhat less labored, but Anton realizes with sadness that though he mended the injury, that wasn't what was killing him.

"I don't think the arrow was poisoned," he says. "Perhaps deliberately fouled, so as to promote infection. I've lessened his pain, but, ah..." he looks down. "I don't believe there's any more I can do."

His escort nods, crestfallen. "Yes, well... I appreciate your effort, Reachman. Not many would offer such aid to us. You have our thanks."

He leads the scholar outside, and they walk through the camp together. "You seem suspicious," Anton says. "Why wouldn't others help?"

"We're used to being targets of suspicion," the gnome shakes his head. "We're not builders, generally. We seek to bring our skills at craft to the communities of others, but this marks us as outcasts. We have learned that we can only rely on each other." He gives Anton a sidelong glance. "Have you never seen a gnomish enclave before? We're not uncommon in the Reach, I hear."

Anton shakes his head. "Maybe not, but I've spent most of my life at my family's estate, or in the college."

"You know our language, though."

Anton shrugs and smiles. "It seemed like a compelling challenge!" He frowns as he notices a three other humans approaching the gnomish wagons - the archer he saw before, and the knight who rode at the head of the column.

His escort notices them as well, and bristles at the sight of their weapons. "Speak of devils..." he murmurs in Gnomish. He whistles, getting the attention of a few others who drop what they're doing and join him to approach the newcomers.

"Good day -" says the knight in the lead, but Anton's escort cuts him off.

"Fair day, could be better, what do you want?" he sniffs.

Fane, Galapas, and Vasily all look at one another. "Come again?" asks Vasily.

"Men don't come bearing weapons unless they want something. So what is it? A suspect in a theft? Accusing us of hording supplies? Cursing your cattle?"

Fane raises an eyebrow. "We just want to know about the Black Stones."

Several of the gnomes visibly pale. Anton's escort remains resolute. After a brief pause, he says "Talk to the humans who were up there. They dug around those ruins for weeks."

"Ruins?" asks Anton. "What ruins?"

Fane turns to him. "The, uh, former Alderman said that there's an old keep to the south that could work as a refuge for noncombatants. He also said there was a gnomish mason who seemed to think there was something wrong with them." Fane turns back to the gnomes. "Do you know where we can find that mason?"

The gnomes look back and forth at each other. "Can't say we do," the escort says. "But I wouldn't advise going up there. Probably unsound, been moldering up in those hills for gods know how long."

As they talk, a young gnome dashes up toward the crowd, looking at Anton. "Are you the human who cured our wounded?"

"I tried?" he says.

"Charna the Thunderous wishes to speak with you," the child says, and disappears back into the crowd. A murmur goes through the assembled gnomes, and the humans just get more confused.

Anton turns to his escort. "Just who is this Charna?" he asks.

He chooses his words carefully. "She is... greatly respected. A newcomer, like yourself, but... it would not be wise to keep her waiting."

"Where can I find her?"

"The tall wagon, to the west," he points. "Speak to the half-orc."

Fane calls out, "Just a moment!" Anton turns to him. "We're just trying to help out around here," the knight says. "If you could ask for any word about the Black Stones, tell her that we're trying to make it safer, and that information could make all the difference. Can you do that? We'll wait near town hall for you."

Anton glances at his escort, who is giving him a stern look. "I'll see what I can do," Anton agrees, and sets off to meet Charna.


He approaches the wagon, where the Half-Orc he noticed earlier is sitting. Anton waves hello. "Uh... Charna, well, summoned me?" The half orc just looks at him. "I'm the, uh, Reachman that helped Gilad? My name is Anton."

At this, the half orc nods, pulls open the door in the front of the wagon, and enters. A moment later, he reappears, accompanied by Charna herself. She is dressed in loose fitting breeches, and a strange half-robe that runs over each shoulder in long ribbons, and comes up in a deep hood around her face. Her eyes are a harsh grey, and deep lines run across her face that speak more of experience than age.

She looks Anton up and down, before making a rapid series of hand gestures. As she does so, the half-orc speaks. "Welcome, Anton, he of the Reach. I am called Charna the Thunderous."

Anton stares at the hulking figure, then flicks his eyes back to the gnome. "I'm sorry? who is...?" as he speaks, the half orc makes similar gestures, which Charna watches carefully. Anton suddenly realizes - Charna is deaf.

She goes on, her fellow translating. "This is Ishmael, my companion on these long roads. It seems we have something to thank you for. Do you seek payment?"

"No. I don't think so. Why?"

She ponders this. "You have no doubt come to understand that gnomes have few friends among other races. We are regarded with superstition at best, and hostility is more common than we would like." Charna squints at him. "Still. If we are to make a life here, I would wish to make allies of any who wish to treat us with respect."

He blinks. "Of course. That makes, ah, perfect sense to me!"

"We would be most pleased to have your advocacy." She extends a hand, and he gently shakes it. "If you are ever in a position to offer it."

He smiles uneasily in response, then coughs and says, "Actually, there was, uh, something I wanted to bring up. I've heard that there are some ruins called the Black Stones to the south. I was wondering if you knew anything about them? I heard that the gnomes have, uh, especially shunned them."

She remains silent for a moment, scanning his features. "I have been told of these ruins. Why do you want to know?"

"Well, apparently it could serve as a refuge, and help to deal with this overcrowding problem."

"And this information... is this the price you would exact in return for your good word to the governor?"

Anton sucks in a breath and considers this for a moment. He remembers how reluctant even his escort was to talk about the ruins. Perhaps some quid pro quo could help to get a little more information. But, he thinks, is it wise to make an adversary of Charna over this? He lets out his breath. "No. You have my good word whether you offer any advice or not. It's the right thing to do."

She visibly relaxes, and nods. "So be it. These Black Stones have a stink about them, I hear - they are steeped in fey trickery and a powerful presence." She reaches within the front of her tunic and pulls out a medallion made from woven wicker. She offers it to Anton, and he takes it. "This is a talisman that would likely serve you well. It reveals where deception clouds the eye, if you peer through it."

Anton examines it more closely. It appears to be about two inches across, woven into a rough semblance of an eye, with the iris being a smooth river stone with a hole in it to represent the pupil. He slips the leather thong around his neck and tucks it beneath his shirt.

"Do you know anything else?" he asks. "I mean, what could be up there?"

She shakes her head. "None of us saw anything. And it could indeed be almost anything - the realms of the fey are vast in their potential. Be on your guard, and remember that they do not operate as mortals do. You are as strange to them as they are to you."

He nods his understanding, and sensing that the conversation was concluded, offers a brief bow. She returns it, and silently goes back to her wagon. Some few answers found, he departs the gnomish camp and makes his way through the cramped tent city back toward the central square.

He spies Fane, Galapas, and Vasily huddled near the front door. "Hello there!" he greets them. They turn, and he explains what Charna told him about the Black Stones.

Galapas squints. "She arrived at the same time we did, right? Why was it such a priority for the other gnomes to fill her in on the state of a ruined keep?"

Anton has no answer, but he does insist that if the others are heading up to these ruins, he wants to come along as well. "It's a fantastic scholarly opportunity!" he says. "When did you say it was built?"

The other three look at each other. "I'm not sure," admits Fane, "But are you sure that's such a good idea? You don't exactly look like the - uh. Well, to be honest, the adventuring sort."

The archetypal murder hobo.

The archetypal murder hobo.

Anton puffs himself up a bit. "I'm a fine shot with a crossbow," he says, "And I know a spell or two besides! And you could use a scholar, I daresay. Books, engravings, architecture... I'm practically fluent in seven languages."

"Practically?" probes Vasily.

"Well, you can't be fluent in Blackspeak, there's no verbal component."

Fane frowns. "Why do you know Blackspeak?" 

"It's not important!" Anton says. "If you really want it, take the medallion and go without me - but I can help, and I came to this gods-forsaken land to research this very sort of thing."

The three of them look at each other, and after a few moment's silent consultation, they collectively shrug. "Welcome aboard," says Fane, and they shake on it.

Sweet mercy. This is three posts in, and they've only just officially formed the party so I can stop referring to them all by name every time they do something. This "Novel Lite" approach is fun and gives probably the most compelling moment to moment picture of how things went down, but it's REALLY time consuming. I might try to shift over into a more "summary" writing style, of only to catch up with the gameplay before I turn forty. For reference, I'm 9,400 words deep and they have yet to set out on their first quest. at this point in Shamus Young's campaign log (The inspiration for writing this all up), his players had been in a shipwreck, battled soldiers, done a robbery, researched local history, trekked cross country to the next town over, and were picking up their second quest hook. I'm downright paranoid about readers missing the smallest detail about this goddamn town. I don't blame anyone who's getting frustrated that they were promised high adventure.

Sigh. Join us next time as I try to pick up the pace.


The Wild March, Session 1: There Goes the Neighborhood

Previously in this session, the players were part of a group of settlers heading north into the Wild March. Two members of the group spotted a group of crows above the road ahead and decided to check it out. Upon arriving, they found several dead humans with their wagon, and tracks leading off into the woods, which one of them followed while the other continued investigating the wreckage.

Back at the column of settlers, tensions are beginning to mount. Fane has passed up and down the line with word that people should be on their guard, and from within saddlebags and packing chests, they draw chipped axes and bent swords. Many of them string bows with trembling fingers, and pull on moth-eaten gambesons from their grandfather's days or earlier.

It's only marginally better at the head of the column. The trained guards had spaced themselves out to screen Beatrise from the surrounding woods, while Arturas circles though the crowd on horseback, taking care to keep up at least a slow forward pace. Over the sound of the pattering rain and the creak of leather sings a few melancholy, tortured chords from Narcissa's lyre.

Anton does his best to ride level with the old knight. "What's likely to be out there?"

Arturas scowls at first, but softens when he sees the earnestness on Anton's face. "Could be any number of things," he says. "Wolves. A magical beast of some sort. I was told there are wild men up this far north."

"Wild men? What do you mean?"

"What do you think I mean?" Arturas snaps. "Frontier folk. Hermits. Not the sort of people that usually make a thorough accounting of themselves in tax season, so I can't say I know much more about them than I do about these woods."

Anton brightens at this. "Ah! So they're a promising subject for cultural study?"

Arturas looks as though he's about to give Anton a piece of his mind when their conversation is interrupted by a sudden outburst from behind. Arturas' hand flies to his sword, but they both quickly realize that Yustan and Narcissa are responsible for the sound.

The two of them are leaning in their saddles and gripping Narcissa's lyre, apparently fighting over it.

"What do you think you're doing?" Narcissa shouts.

"Righting a heinous crime against music!" Yustan returns.

"It's mine!" she says.

"Well, it's my ears you're violating with it!"

Arturas audibly growls as he spurs his horse back to where they are fighting, seizes the lyre out of both of their hands, and dashes it to pieces on his knee. "That's enough!" he roars, and glares at both of them. "I have had enough of your vapid sniping over the last month to last me the rest of my life! We may be in the lion's den, but you just can't stop fixating on your vile caterwauling!" 

Both Narcissa and Yustan simply stare in return, momentarily cowed.

"Stay silent!" he hisses. "I don't want to hear a note out of either of you until we arrive!" Arturas turns back to the road. "And preferably a good while after!" he calls over his shoulder.

Narcissa stops her horse and dismounts to pluck the shattered remains of the lyre out of the mud before more horses break it further. As she stands gazing at it, Fane returns from his trip down the column. She looks up. "It was a gift from father," she says.

"I know," he said. He put a hand on her shoulder, not sure what else to say.

The shadow of a horse falls across them. It's Yustan. "I feel the need to..." he coughs. "...apologize. I had no intention to break such a work of art, only..." he wavers a moment, then straightens. "I would commit my energies to repairing it. If you would allow it."

Narcissa peers at him, then proffers the broken instrument. He takes it gingerly, nods, and spurs his horse to return to the head of the column.

Fane looks after him, wandering what the two half elves have discovered down the road.

Vitaly moves haltingly, but keeps his eyes on the trail. A couple of specks of blood here and there mark a path of bent stems and broken sod. Perhaps three hundred paces from the road, he discovers a hollow with a few loose fibers of cloth, and a small, bloody hand-print. The tracks move on from there, and he contemplates heading back. Vitaly hesitates for just a moment. It could be a halfling, from what he's seen so far. Not so urgent as to press quite so far from the rest of the band. In his gut, though, he knows it's a child. He moves to press forward, but is interrupted by the sudden twang of a bowstring, and a lance of pain through his thigh. He lets out a cry of pain and falls to the ground, a white-feathered arrow jutting from his leg.

His eyes flick through the forest as he huddles for a moment behind a fern. He can't pick out a likely spot for the assailant. Before Vitaly can move any further, another arrow buries itself in the tree beside him, prompting a scramble for better cover in the hollow where he found the hand-print. He heaves large breaths as he grits his teeth against the pain and fumbles to pull his own bow off his back. He rolls slightly to one side to survey the area again, once more cursing the trees and the highlands and the hated damp of the north. A flicker of movement catches his eye - there, in a tree perhaps thirty paces away, perched about fifteen feet up. Vitaly knocks an arrow and takes to a knee, gritting his teeth against the pain.

A twang sings from his bowstring, and a gruff cry comes from the tree as his arrow sails true. A half second later, a retaliatory arrow whizzes past Vitaly's ear, and he slings himself back into cover, just in time to see a bristled grey wolf almost the size of a horse come leaping through the trees toward him.

Oh hey, worth mentioning to the uninitiated - Druids can transform into animals. Vasily is a druid that specializes in this trick, so he can turn into tougher animals, like brown bears and dire wolves. In the setting, this is treated with superstition and fear by most "common" people, and I've actually been pleasantly surprised at how well Vasily's player has roleplayed that and tried to keep the power secret from the settlers. Being able to randomly turn into a bear and do person-chores around town is hugely tempting, because the reactions from townsfolk are comedy gold. I'm glad for the restraint.

"Brother!" Vitaly calls, waving frantically toward the tree. Vasily streaks past his brother and makes a bee-line for the unseen attacker.

There's a tumult of snapping branches as an orc leaps from the tree. Wiry and long-limbed, the orc stands just over seven feet tall and wears his thin hair in long braids strung through wooden beads. He hits the ground running, dodging between the trees and vaulting over logs.

I'm not a fan of the "burly green strongman" design for orcs, and think the Fifth Edition Monster Manual design is kinda silly looking. Thus, these orcs are characterized by a lean, tall build and thin features with scraggly hair and an inability to grow beards or moustaches. Maybe it's a little petty to redesign something cosmetically like this in a game that's exclusively text and words, but... heck with it. These orcs are different.

Vasily streaks after it with a howl, while Vitaly lets fly another arrow. He misses, but the wolf is closing in fast. The orc makes a desperate leap to try and clear a deadfall, but trips over a dead branch and falls flat. He rolls onto his back just in time for Vasily to fall on him in a storm of teeth and claws. In the space of a moment, the orc is dead. 

Vasily drags the corpse back over to where Vitaly is leaning against a tree and doing his best not to put weight on his leg. "Well," Vitaly says, "I suppose that settles who killed the travelers on the road."

Vasily cocks his head.

"Yes.., the question is, can we keep tracking the survivor with orcs in these woods?"

The wolf growls, staring down at the body. He looks back up at his brother and shakes his head.

"I suppose you are right. The column is too exposed." Vitaly sighs. "Perhaps we should not mention the survivor, if we can avoid it. If the orcs followed, whoever it is must almost certainly be dead already."

Vasily motions to his back, and Vitaly clambers up gingerly. He slings the body across the wolf's back, and together they begin rushing back through the woods to meet the column. They pass most of the human caravan by, instead creeping out of the woods near to Galapas, beckoning for him to come up the bank into the tree line. 

"Orcs," Vitaly says, and shakes his head. "A few dead. If they're raiding in the area, there may be no telling what state the colony is in!" 

They leave the body with Galapas and proceed up the column to meet up with Beatrise. Vasily resumes his natural form, so as not to alarm the other colonists. Especially among frontier folk, druids are not well loved. 

Neither Beatrise nor Arturas take the news well. Alarm wells up in the young governor's eyes, and Arturas curse loudly before bringing his horn to his lips and sounding two short blasts and a long blast - the call for a fast pace.

They go storming down the rain-choked path as fast as their numbers allow, down from the last stretch of the mountain pass and around a bend that reveals the broad valley before them. The road hugs the foothills of the mountains as it bends away to the east, down through lighter forest and onto more even ground, and within an hour they spy smoke rising from a hollow somewhere down the road. It appears to rise in a dark plume - suggesting something rather larger than cook-fires. They quicken their race down the road into the valley. The gnomish wagons can barely keep up, but they press on rather than risk an ambush.

Not long before midday, they come upon the outermost farms - all abandoned, some burned. Vitaly breaks away to scout a few as the column approaches, and finds orc and horse tracks, but no bodies or arrows. These were abandoned, then burned later. 


At last, through the sparse trees, the column spies the walls of New Harjevo - little more than large lumber stakes arranged at the top of low earthworks, good mostly for warding off cavalry charges. Smoke rises from the center of the town, and figures can be seen scurrying to and fro before the gates. Within a minute, they seem to have spotted the column and rushed inside.

"Doesn't look like orcs..." murmurs Vitaly. 

Beatrise is cautious, though. "Sir Arturas, sound our approach? And check our pace."

As they slow the horses, more figures can be seen spilling out of the gates and down the earthen causeway. Arturas lets out two long blasts on the horn, and after a moment, three long notes return from the walls. The knight sags visibly in relief, and they can see that the figures are their countrymen indeed, Harkers spilling from the gates to greet them. The column breaks formation and rushes up to meet them, and the tension of the last few hours releases like a coiled spring. Families are re-united and strangers embrace one another, both as the welcome party and as reinforcements to a beleaguered town.

Atop the gates stands a man in a tattered red cloak with a shining silver brooch, his arms wide in greeting. "Welcome, my friends!" he proclaims through a vast smile. "We welcome you indeed, though I think we can hardly believe it! I'm not ashamed to say, many of us were worried we wouldn't hold out to see the second wave - Welcome!"

"It's, ah, it's good to have made it!" calls Beatrise in return, drawing laughter and cheers from the assembled crowd. 

"If I might introduce myself," calls the figure in red, "Saulius Rozzy, pleased to greet you, I have the immense honor of being the elected Alderman of New Harjevo, though the hard work of these folks have hardly made me necessary -"

"Nonsense!" comes a cry.


"We couldn't have managed without you, Rozzy!" 

The crowd of settlers falls about cheering again, until gestures from Saulius calm them down. "Whoever has the responsibility, I'm glad to have the worst of it behind us!" he beckons to Beatrise and the rest of the column. "Come up, I'm sure we have a few casks left for a suitable welcome party!"

The crowd cheers again, but falls silent as Beatrise holds up a hand with a condescending smile. "As you please, Goodman Rozzy, but I should take this opportunity to formally announce my governorship of New Harjevo." The remaining cheers falter slightly, not sure where this is going. She continues, "I have a document with the royal seal, formally empowering me, and If I might presume to speak for the Tsar, the throne and all the institutions of Harmark thank you most sincerely for your service, Goodman Rozzy."

Saulius' face begins to fall, along with those of many in the crowd. "I'm sorry, lady governor? I'm - I'm not sure I understand."

"You may remove your badge of office, Goodman Rozzy!" beams Beatrise, voice dripping with magnanimity. "Your time of service to the throne is ended, and your burden relieved!"

Galapas, Vitaly, and Vasily all exchange wary looks. They don't totally understand either, but they don't like how this feels. Fane bites his lip, and places a hand on Narcissa's reins. The rest of the crowd is dead silent.

Still more confused than alarmed or angry, Saulius slowly gropes for the brooch at his neck and unclasps it. He balls the red cloak around it in his fist, and gazes at it a moment before turning back to Beatrise. "Ah - take it. As it please you, lady governor?" he calls, and tosses the wadded cloak down. Arturas catches it, passing his own glance to the Governor, which she ignores. 

"Well!" announces Beatrise. Despite her outwardly cordial demeanor, Anton notices that her cheeks burn bright red. "Now that official business is out of the way... I believe a welcome party was mentioned?"

Once again the arriving column cheers as they stream in through the gates, but the settlers who had been led by Rozzy seem notably subdued. Narcissa races off to join the festivities, such as they are, but Fane stays outside for a while longer, looking in on the newly expanded village. He can sense more trouble in the air. Saulius had boasted that the worst of things were behind them, but he wasn't so sure.

He becomes aware of a few others who linger outside. Anton, Galapas, Vitaly, and Vasily have all likewise hesitated on the threshold. They glance at each other, and share a nod. None of them say anything, but there's a momentary bond of camaraderie. Then, one by one, they make their way up the causeway and through the open gates. Whether or not Saulius was right, there's still plenty of work to be done.

The Wild March, Session 1: The Red Carpet

Hyperborea, colloquially known as the Wild March, has earned its moniker well. Settled at least twice and abandoned as many times, even its more inviting latitudes have repelled all challengers with a savagery best associated with its own denizens. Wildmen, Orc tribes, and unknown beasts stalk the mountains which screen the Constant Sea from the Wayward Steppe. Black ruins dot the hills, gesturing grandly at the hubris that must be native to the hearts of any who think to challenge the Wild March.
— Alexius of Bolchar, "On Wildness," page Twenty Eight
The mountains are calling and I must go

The mountains are calling and I must go

Our story begins far to the north of Harmark, in the foothills of mountains that have earned no names. Rain falls in fat droplets from the boughs of the trees that cluster like walls on either side of the muddy track. It's late spring, but the chill and the damp die hard this far north, and the rain has not let up in three days. 

It seems to fall heavier on the procession of settlers - more than two hundred Harkers, Ironbacks, Reachmen, and gnomes who have spent almost a month marching up perilous ravines and passes only barely clear of snow. By the reckoning of those in the lead, they should be within a day's ride of their destination, but they are so bone-weary that they can hardly muster the energy to sigh in relief.

They are the second wave of settlers on their way to New Harjevo, a town founded last spring with the permission of the throne of Harmark. It has been decades since the last time such a thing was attempted, yet there was no lack of folk hoping to test their mettle against the stone of Hyperborea. Among these are Fane and Narcissa Vascelov, exiles from the Iron principalities. They ride near the head of the column, with the officially designated governor of the settlement, Beatrise Petra, and her second, an aged knight named Arturas Dain.

Though the mood is largely dreary, Narcissa breaks the monotony of foot and hoof on mud with a halfhearted plinking and plunking on a lyre. 

Fane sighs. "Do you really have to play that?"

Narcissa scoffs "It's my only instrument! I have to practice, don't I?"

"You've been 'practicing' on that thing all the way through the mountains."

"Well then," she sniffs. "All the better. Just imagine how much worse I would be now if I hadn't spent all that time improving myself." She pauses for a moment, crestfallen. "Agh. I should have taken the lute."

"We didn't have the space," says Fane.

Beatrise, the governor, glances back. "She's, ah, very enthusiastic. I appreciate something to break up the monotony." 

Arturas lets out a sigh that verges on a groan without moving his eyes from the path.

"How much further?" asks Fane.

"Couple of hours," Arturas replies. "We're in the valley now."

Beatrise has a rough map, stained with travel. She admits that it's not totally accurate, but it's the best they have right now. Fane decides to leave Narcissa to her practice, and slows his stride to see what the rest of the column is up to.

Near the back of the column, a Kolechian scholar named Anton Kostov is trying to strike up a conversation with the parade of gnomes. They've been relegated to the far back, with a gap of a dozen yards between them and the rest of the settlers. Anton happens to know the gnommish language, and speaks animatedly of what he's read about their customs and religion. He's unaware that this is seen as rude and presumptuous, so despite his best efforts, he finds himself largely ignored by the gnomes. Still, he gathers a little about gnome contingent of the settlers. They seem to all come from Harjevo, where they were forced out of the neighborhood they'd set up there. Furthermore, they defer to an older looking gnome that they refer to as "Charna the Thunderous." Anton has noted her a few times on the trip, and that she never seems to be without a certain hulking half-orc by her side.

Anton tries unsuccessfully to strike up another conversation with a gnommish cobbler before shrugging and riding up the line. Most of the party doesn't have horses, but Anton is the proud owner of a tubby and rather dim pony he has affectionately named Stanley.

Not far ahead, riding a couple of paces back from the main body of the procession, Anton comes alongside Galapas, a fellow Kolechian with whom he's tried to commiserate a couple of times. Anton clears his throat with a nervous grin. "Think the rain will let up before we get to town?"

Galapas shrugs. 

Anton nods, undeterred. "Probably not, probably not. Doesn't hurt to hope, eh?"

The archer shrugs again. 

At this point, Anton notices the half-elf brothers, walking side by side a little further up. He's seen them and Galapas speaking with fair frequency on the trip, but they've always fallen silent at his approach. The scholar clears his throat. "Well. I suppose I'd best get going. I had something I wanted to talk to Yustan about." He gently urges Stanley forward, and Galapas hardly even looks at him as he goes. Yustan is an irritable and high-minded Icosian architect who's spent most of the trip courting Beatrise's attention with promises of broad stone streets and glimmering domes. 

Anton offers a friendly wave to Vasily and Vitaly Zherdev as he passes, and Vasily offers it back. Vitaly mostly looks after the scholar's back with a tranquil curiosity. "Brother?" he asks, "Have we met that man before?"

"Surely you've seen him,"

"Seen him, yes, but have we broken bread together?"

"Not as I recall."

"Then why does he smile and wave at us?"

"I do not know."

A brief pause fills the space between them. "Brother?" asks Vitaly again. "What will we do once we get to New Harjevo?"

Vasily shakes his head, "I don't know. I haven't seen the town."

"If you don't know what we'll do there, why have we spent so long getting there?"

Vasily sighs. "You rely too much on certitude, Vitaly! Is it not enough to have the woods around us, the frontier ahead of us, and each other beside? What happens will happen."

"I suppose..." says Vitaly. "Yet, this land makes me uneasy. I can;t even see the horizon for all these hills and trees. It makes me feel... rudderless."

Vasily pats him on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he says. "I'll make sure you don't get turned around."

It's at this moment that Vasily catches sight of something through a gap in the canopy of leaves. He squints up at it, pausing in his tracks. 

"Brother?" says Vitaly.

Vasily points, and sure enough, they can both make out a thick cluster of dark winged birds, circling perhaps a half a mile ahead of the caravan. 

"There's a kill ahead," murmurs Vasily.

"Too many to be small game..." agrees Vitaly without taking his eyes from the flock. The brothers look at each other, and without another word, increase their pace and begin marching up towards the head of the column.

In the meantime, Anton has come to Governor Beatrise, who is now being talked at by a man whose dark skin and thick ponytail marks him as a native to the city of Icos. He gestures grandly and speaks of marble domes and bath houses and towering ramparts. Beatrise seems to be doing her best to feign interest, but Arturas is visibly melting in his saddle.

"Ho there!" calls Anton with a quick wave.

"Oh - I don't believe I've had th-" begins Beatrise, but the Icosian cuts her off.

"I beg your pardon," he sniffs, "but the Governor and I were discussing important matters."

Anton gives a sheepish smile. "Sorry to interrupt, I just thought I should introd-"

"What, introduce yourself? Pfah! Do you know what kind of work you are intruding on? Do you know whose work you are intruding on!?"

Anton opens his mouth dumbly.

The man rushes on. "I am Yustan Adalet, master architect, master painter, master sculptor, master of creation. My works grace streets of granite and marble and gold, my thoughts are studied - nay, revered - by the highest institutes of the finest art in the imperial capital of Icos itself!"

Anton pauses. "It's... an... honor to meet you?" he ventures. 

Yustan gives him a blank look, then turns away to survey the path ahead. "The same, I suppose. You shouldn't slouch like that, it ruins the constitution."

"If I might ask, what is a man of your, ah, standing doing in Hyperborea?"

"Hah!" Yustan scoffs "What place could serve me better? As broad a canvas as I could ask for, a wilderness to tear aside with my own two hands! The mistake of academics is to presume that the world will naturally conform to the mind. I understand that labor is as much a divinity as conception!"

Narcissa gives a light chuckle as she strums another lilting bar from her lyre. "Weren't you just saying that they kicked you out for pissing off one too many nobles?"

Yustan's nostril's flare, and he looks on the edge of exploding with rage. Instead, he merely pauses before hissing "I wish you wouldn't play that thing."

Beatrise drags her eyes from the two of them to turn and address Anton. "In any case, I don't think I've had the pleasure?"

Fane has noticed Vasily and Vitaly shouldering their ways to the front. Most of the settlers merely grumble about elven self-importance, but Fane can tell from their expressions that there's something else going on. He follows close at their heels and takes care to undo the clasp on his scabbard.

The brothers reach the front of the train. Vasily approaches Arturas while Fane listens in from a few paces behind. "There's something dead on the road."

Arturas snaps to attention. "Eh? What are you talking about?"

Vitaly points. "There are crows circling above the road ahead, assuming the path doesn't change course. Something died ahead. Something big."

Beatrise notices their hushed tones "What? Wh-what is it? Sir Arturas?"

The old knight gives the brothers a wary look. "Something might be up," he says. "Can you two move quickly?"

Fane speaks up "I'm not sure they should split from the column..."

"I'll ask for your advice when I want it, sir." Arturas growls. 

"We can check it out," affirms Vasily. 

"Can you slow down the march a bit? Give us more time to make sure it's safe?" says Vitaly. Arturas nods, and the two half elves dash off and away, vanishing around a short bend just a few paces off.

"I should have gone with them," murmurs Fane, but Arturas gives him a smack on the shoulder.

"Come on. If there's something dangerous out here, you need to be in position to defend the train."

"I suppose..."

Arturas sighs. "I told you, I don't need your supposition, I need your discipline. I need to stay here, but I need you to pass word down the column."

Fane hesitates. He casts a glance toward Narcissa, still oblivious and strumming her lyre.

"Go, before I have to pound some sense into your skull!" growls Arturas. Fane sets off back down the line.

Vasily and Vitaly make quick progress along the path. It's muddy and thick with patches of brush and roots, but both of them are adept at moving across wild terrain. The rain slips into their boots with every step, and they run in silence as they glance at the fast approaching cloud of birds above.

At last, they round a bend and both skid to a halt in shock at the sight before them. 

Once again, that's Vasily on the left and Vitaly on the right. Last reminder.

Once again, that's Vasily on the left and Vitaly on the right. Last reminder.

Blood and rainwater mix freely to form a carpet of crimson mud across the path, in which a shattered cart lies half submerged. Limbs and bodies picked of skin peek out from under a blanket of black wings, along with the stained white fletchings of arrows. As the brothers approach, the birds take off in a storm of caws. Vasily and Vitaly glance at each other, then wordlessly begin to pick through the remains.

It's hard for them to tell much about the deceased. Aside from the horse, there seem to be two adults, probably human, killed within a couple days. Wolf tracks circle the site of the massacre, but its plain that these people were killed by something with hands. Vasily kneels to take a closer look at the corpses while Vitaly circles wider. He catches sight of a splash of crimson under a fern some distance off to the north of the road, and finds signs that someone under five feet tall went blundering through the underbrush.

"Shall I follow?" he calls to his brother.

Vasily offers only a grunt as he turns over the larger of the bodies. 

Vitaly shrugs and sets off through the trees.

Vasily finds that these are almost certainly humans, a man and a woman. A copper band on each of their hands suggests they were married. The druid carefully extracts one of the arrows to examine it more closely. The head is a low quality iron broadhead solidly affixed to a shaft of ash - not a wartime arrow, but a hunting or bandit arrow. Vasily glances from the arrowhead to the man's corpse. It killed him just the same. He sighs and tucks the arrow under his belt, about to turn and follow Vitaly when something else catches his eye - a footprint in the deep mud, with blood and rainwater pooled deeply within. Much longer than a man's foot, with a depth that suggests something at least seven feet tall.

Vasily curses and dashes off into the woods.