I hope things are going well for you and your Mother. I know I had to leave rather suddenly, but when duty calls the righteous respond.
Thursday morning I was summoned to the hall of the Swordlords of Aldori where Lord Kazelov gave us our charter to represent their interests in an area known as “The Green Belt.” Yes, I know, we need to find a better name—Marquandland comes to mind.
He then took me into the next room where I met the adventurers they’ve chosen to be my partners in this quest. We spent the rest of the day going over maps and listening to a vague song and dance meant to cover the Swordlords’ backsides if there is trouble—and to remind us that three other groups will be making a similar undertaking in other parts of the Stolen Lands. So we are definitely replaceable.
I then hurried back to my room, gathered my gear, and said goodbye to you and your Mother. My stay has been a short one but I believe I've managed to make you my friend. You were brave although I saw tears in your eyes. I felt like crying as well, but that wouldn't do for an Inquisitor, so I kept them inside. Then I walked to the town gate where I joined my four new compatriots.
We set off for the south, passing the time by sharing our stories:
First there is Kelm Taslor, an Oracle by divine acclimation, which means he can tell the future but not the time of day. He’s very full of himself, having been pampered from birth and told as a wee lad that he has a great destiny to fulfill. This, and blindness, make him a bit dreamy, with a tendency to look through you instead of into your eyes. Nevertheless, he’s sturdy, with fire in his belly, and sees the things that eyes can’t.
Lev Davidowich is a fetchling Sorcerer, a rabble rouser and born leader. I’ve hung many of his kind but now I walk another path. Erastil believers—as you know—feel that all things are parts of the larger every thing. Competing ideas are good, making society a richer stew. I admit this is hard for me to comprehend but I’m trying. Followers of Abadar (my previous deity) believe that ruthlessly pruning the tree of society of its deadwood is what makes society strong. But ask yourself: what results when it is the live branches that are sheered? What do you cut when the tree itself is dead?
I apologize for the digression, dear Pino, politics is boring. Davidowich is a natural offspring of the Lebeda family and a glib talker. His travels have imbued him with a strong sense of the injustice in our world, which I share. The difference between us is that he still thinks the world can be changed. This makes him a dangerous man despite his happy-go-lucky facade.
Cane Alexson is the Ranger of our group, certainly the most useful. He’s lived most of his life in the woods and is, as you might expect, a true bumpkin. He’s smart, though, and will learn if he survives long enough. He’s dogged, determined, and dependable—the 3-Ds of character that city folk often forget.
Piea is also from a region like the one where we’re going. She’s tough and resilient, having fended for herself from a very early age. She may seem too eager for a fight, but I don’t think a blade can be tempered any other way. I’ve swung plenty of her kind as well, but the Piea I’ve come to know is an argument for giving some people a second chance.
They are all courageous and a little foolhardy, but I guess that’s why all of us are out here. We’re only lacking your father’s advice, which may yet prove fatal.
Along the way we came across wayfarers, merchants, and bandits. The latter two groups gave us wide berth for the same reason—we had no money for them to steal, but the first group would often camp with us for protection and to pass along gossip about the Stolen Lands. And this is how we eventually found ourselves standing before Oleg’s Trading Post on the north side of the Green Belt.
It was a dirty little place but well fortified. At each corner of the palisade was a tall tower but there was no one watching as we strolled right into the compound. There were several rough timber buildings, a wagon, some tables and chairs near a smoldering fire. A woman stood there expectantly and unafraid.
“I am Svetlana,” she said offering her hand. Her lack of concern led me to check the perimeter again and I spied a man working on the roof of one of the buildings. “Candy asses,” I heard him mutter.
Lev took the lead, Adam’s apple bobbing as he explained who we were and why we were there. By this time Oleg (as you might have anticipated, the man was he) had climbed down to join us.
“I thought they were sending the King’s guard!” he groused. “That’s the last time I ask them for help.”
“It’s the bandits,” Svetlana said. “They clean out everything we have. It’s frustrating. And we ask Restov for help—they’re always talking about how important we are—and instead of a Swordlord they send us . . . this.” She sniffed disdainfully.
“They clean out the missus, too,” Oleg grumbled.
“That’s why we’re here!” Piea replied fiercely. I guess I’m not the only one with a past to make up for.
“Well, we’ll find out if you’re worth your sand when they show up tomorrow.”
The bandits are led by a woman wielding two axes. Kressle. Everyone is afraid of her. The stories they tell, well, you are well-informed for your age but it’s not something I’d tell a little girl. There may be a dozen running with her crew.
At dawn I climbed to the top of one of the towers overlooking the courtyard. The others waited in hiding down below, although Kelm was having one of his visions and being led around by the hand. Lev fussed about. making sure everyone was in their proper places.
We only had to wait a short while when five rough looking men showed up. I watched stoically as Oleg limped up to them, pleading his poverty, his whiney voice piercing the distance like a well-aimed arrow. The boss cursed him roundly, sending two of his boys into the storeroom.
Lev made a dirty face at one of them and he started running away like a child from a monk of Rovagug. It was easy for me to hit him using my longbow. He squealed in distress. Then Cane and Piea went into action and soon all but one of them was dead. The last one was running for his life but the two quickly mounted the bandits’ horses, although Cane took a nasty header owing to a wound he’d received during the fight. There were no worries, though, as Piea quickly rode the bandit to ground and killed him so that there would be no one left to warn Kressle of our arrival.
Oleg pranced around like a boy at a wedding, no sign of his infirmary any longer, and began stringing the bandits up on his palisade by their intestines at Piea’s grisly suggestion.
“I like you, young lady,” he said, drawing a sharp look from his wife.
“Who are you calling a lady?” Piea replied evenly. Wisely, he shut up.
On the leader we found:
• two flasks of alchemist’s fire
• a dagger
• composite longbow +2
• 20 arrows
• two days of trail rations
• silver pendant with a stag’s head
• leather armor
• 35 gold pieces
• a dagger
• composite longbow +2
• 20 arrows
• two days of trail rations
• silver pendant with a stag’s head
• leather armor
• 35 gold pieces
• 4 sets of leather armor
• 4 longbows
• 80 arrows
• 4 short swords
• 8 days of trail rations
• 40 gold pieces
Lev offered to share the wealth with Oleg and Svetlana but surprisingly they declined, saying the return of their wares was enough for them. Oh, and maybe us clearing out the rest of the bandits. To sweeten the incentive Oleg produced a circular purporting to be from the High Court of Restov offering 400 gp for the heads of at least 6 bandits. I had no idea this line of work paid so well.
Oleg opened up after that, telling us about the area we’ve been sent to tame. None of it sounded too serious, but he did tell us to be on the lookout for Bokken, a crazy guy, alchemist perhaps, or shaman, herbalist, or otherwise, who lived nearby.
Oleg also has more pockets than a second-rate magician as he sold us two cure light wounds and two vials of antitoxin.
We set off in the rain on the bandits’ horses, a sorry malnourished lot. Although I often rode a horse as a lad I haven’t had much reason to lately. You would laugh to see your old uncle jouncing along like a “bowlful of jelly.” I envied Piea and Cane’s practiced ease whilst Kelm seemed to be floating several inches above his saddle. I struggled the best that I could, rain dripping off the wide brim of my hat. Lev seemed to mind the imposition of the rain the most and who can blame him? Rain is bad management.
We lost the trail, found it, lost it again, and, as it was getting dark, we set up a cold camp and spent the night. I spent a long time listening to the rain dribbling onto my head as I sat watch. The next morning we set off again with the rain coming from southwest.
Coming over a rise we saw the land drop down into a depression, where a pond might be found on a rich Rostland farm. But here was a pond of bones. “Alas, Yorgy,” I thought, while cradling the skull of a child.
We stared down into a dark pit at the center of the boneyard when Kelm shouted, “I’ve glimpsed the future—spider!” and a monstrous black creature suddenly emerged, attacking Cane, wrapping her big hairy legs around him hungrily as her fangs craved him.
Lev plinked at it using his crossbow and I with my longbow as Piea hit it a few licks. Hearing Cane bellow I realized the spider had bit him, seeing a red line of poison coursing towards his heart, which wouldn’t be harmed, but once poison traveled from there to his liver and kidneys there would be no hope. (Thank Eristal he’d had the sense to buy antitoxin at Oleg’s.) With a shout of glee Piea slew the beast and it fell back into its lair emitting one long loogie of green pus that missed me by inches. A judge learns early how to dodge spit.
Piea and Cane climbed down into the spider’s hole where they discovered another of the thieves under the its carcass and quickly stripped him of everything valuable. Inside one boot (which she coveted) Piea found a single scrap of paper. On it was a crude drawing of a dead claw-shaped tree atop a barren hill with an X scrawled in blood at the tree’s base. We went back to Oleg’s that night.
We found a much warmer welcome from the couple, who had supper waiting for us and even a little entertainment from the locals, who came out of the woods to admire the bodies we'd brought back. A few were persuaded to fetch their instruments and girlfriends and we enjoyed their uninhibited singing and dancing that night.
The next morning we disguised ourselves in the bandits’ gear before setting off. Fortunately, I washed my set before retiring the night before, so the smell was tolerable and I wasn’t bothered by lice, although I noticed a couple of my companions scratching their nether parts.
The rain had stopped and Cane found their trail again. We followed it west of the spider’s lair for several hours before losing it for good. Every so often Kelm would exclaim cryptically about a vision only he could see and then quiet down again like a man waking from a dream. Humanity contains such fragments, it’s hard to ken how they all fit together.
We emerged into a field of wild radishes. In its midst five kobolds were gorging on their final meal, rubbing their stomachs, moaning. They jumped up when they noticed us.
“Oi!” one of them grunted. “Do you think we can take them?” They whispered amongst themselves. “These are our radishes.”
“We don’t want your flipping radishes,” Cane growled.
“Take us to your leader,” Lev added.
“Floop you,” another taunted as they suddenly charged Cane, drawing blood. Lev took a shot with his crossbow but missed the slippery little devils. Cane was able to kill one, but the other slashed his foot, ruining a good boot. Kelm suddenly hooted, “You are about to get killed by kobolds!”
Piea then charged into the fray but missed her small target. Meanwhile Kelm helped stop Cane’s bleeding. I then tried my luck but my swing went wide as Lev put a morningstar to good use upside the skull of one of the kobolds, crushing its head like an overripe melon. Cane finished by chopping another one’s brainpan in twain, spilling its brains onto the ground in front of me.
Lev jumped up and down like a small boy, exalting in his first blooding. “I killed something with my morningstar!” he cried. I wish I could say it was the first death attributable to my hand. Never start killing things, dear Pino, because once you start you can never stop.
Piea chopped one in half while Kelm merely touched his and it dropped dead, retching up its sad belly of radishes. There is no more honor in killing a pack of kobolds as in killing rats, but there is more danger as they use knives as well as teeth. The only mistake you can make is to pity them.
While we stripped the bodies—it was hardly worth the effort—Lev picked radishes, singing happily off key until finally Piea joined him in a victory dance.
Retuning to Oleg’s, Svetlana was ecstatic when she saw what we carried. “Oh, Moon Radishes,” she exclaimed before using them to make a most tasty soup. I must send you the recipe.
Later, as we sat about the fire, Oleg, who had been sipping too much moon radish wine, suddenly got sentimental. “Those bandits, they stole Svetlana’s gold wedding ring,” he cried. “If you find it I promise you a thousand gold in trade.” We all were amazed at his offer. Not for the first time I reflected that this little outpost was really just a front for Oleg’s real operation, whatever that is. He bears watching, or maybe befriending.
The next morning we headed southeast for a time and then southwest through the plains until we reached hill country. There we noticed a dark crack in the earth. Looking it over carefully, Lev and Cane discovered a tunnel leading to a larger space. Once they’d determined it was empty we followed, noticing the dull yellow grain in the walls, realizing with astonishment that we’d discovered gold! (I want you to keep this our own little secret, Pino. Who’s to say what riff-raff will follow us once the word gets out?)
We stayed the night in our little cave and the next day found a creek wandering through a forest of acorn trees. That’s when a thunderstone landed amongst us, deafening Lev, Piea, and Kelm (to go with his blindness). I was a little apart from the others when several arrows flew in from the brush behind the far bank. Piea was hit, but not severely. Then an arrow whizzed past me from the near side.
Behind me I spied a bandit and, unthinking, leapt atop an intervening log as if I was one of those on-stage action heroes. You would laugh at your old uncle making such a ridiculous move, but it worked as I stabbed down fiercely at my opponent, and he was unable to hit me. I sliced through his ribs as, mysteriously, the smell of bacon filled the air. Who eats breakfast in the middle of a battle?
I didn’t see this happen but learned afterward that Cane was challenged by two bandits in the creek, while Lev scared one our foes away, then moved to flank another. Kelm was hit by a thrown hand-ax as Piea pursued two bandits on the far side of the creek, killing one and treeing the other.
I felt the thump and painful sting of an ax, realizing that the feared bandit queen was finally among us. She was joyous in battle, laughing as she hurt us, one after the other, her minions fighting all the fiercer for her presence. Then Kelm took it all away from her with just a touch.
On her side of the stream, Piea climbed up the tree after her opponent, sustaining multiple wounds as she struggled to reach him. She finally caught up to him in the treetops, throwing him down to the ground below.
I cast daze on Kressle, then paused—a mistake—before rushing into battle. Unable to attack, she fell victim to Cane’s graceful killing stroke.
Only one of them was left alive. While we debated what to do with him, I helped heal Cane as Piea scoffed. “Spells are for hillbillies,” she grated.
We then found a small camp where a pitiful ration of bacon lie cold in a pan. Cane munched on it absently as we confiscated camping supplies and the usual bandit gear we’d found on the others, although I wish we hadn’t damaged so much of their armor. Kressle was carrying two masterwork hand axes and 85 gold. We found more gold and silver in a small coffer where there were also two silver earrings, a wooden music box, three crates of furs and hides—probably Oleg’s stock—and a polished wooden case with eight bottles of a pungent green herbal liquor. Most frustratingly we found the impression of Svetlana’s ring, but not the ring itself.
By this time the captured bandit had regained consciousness and we gathered to question him. He was defiant. “We’re looking for a ring,” Kelm asked him quietly, staring at a tree stump instead of the bandit.
“Mites,” the man answered. “Under the old sycamore tree, they stole it yesterday.”
“Are there any other bandits out here?” Lev asked him.
“They’re all south with the Stag Lord.”
“You served the Stag Lord?”
“I did. He’s a bloody drunk. All that booze under the platform's for him. He's half of what he used to be, and ain't never been right in the head. A few weeks ago he punched my horse for spittin' in the yard. Personally, I wouldn't care if he dropped dead tomorrow, but even drunk out his mind he's still got a fair amount of fight to him. He’s a monster of a man!"
We determined his lair was 18 or 20 miles south, so we’ll have to deal with him at a later date.
“He calls himself the Stag Lord. He's a deadeye with the bow, and I saw him crush a prisoner's hand to mush in one fist. Come to think of it, I've never seen him without his creepy stag helmet on—some of my friends think he ain't got no face under it, but not me—I think that creepy helm is his face!"
He started rambling at this point, probably the concussion. He said we’d need a password but couldn’t remember what it was.
“I’ve got this,” said Lev as his finger eerily emitted a freezing cold towards the bandit’s nether realm.
“By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?” the bandit suddenly gasped. “That’s it, ‘By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?’”
“I should probably write that down,” Cane said laconically.
We took him back to Oleg’s where we found the master of the domain in conversation with a grizzed old veteran. His beard had food, twigs, and maybe a bird or a squirrel nesting in it.
“Greetings, sir,” Lev bowed.
The man rudely snorted, a large green booger flying from his nose. “You just stay away from me,” he growled.
“These are friends of mine, chill out Bokken,” Oleg pleaded.
“Have you seen any fangberries?” he suddenly asked. “You see any when you’re out and about you bring them to old Bokken. They’re little tiny purple berries and they got a leaf on them that looks like a fang.” He said this with bloody relish. “I’ll give you 25% off any potion if you just get me some fangberry juice.”
We promised him we would and then old Bokken limped back into the forest after first making sure that we knew where to find him.
Oleg then took the bandits we’d brought him, happily hanging them around his fort, strange fruit that were already smelling ripe with death. We tied up our live one where he could contemplate his good fortune.
The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.
Kiss your mother for me,