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.