“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 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."
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?"
"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.
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 Gidon? 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."
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.