I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is that you and your mother have come to live with us in Tuskland. I regret that I can’t be with you more often but duty, as always, comes first.
While Baron Lev is back in Brevoy looking for a wife we decided that it was past time to gather old comrades and finish exploring our charter.
“If he gets married he’ll become incorrigible, you know that, right?” murmured farseeing Kelm to no one in particular.
The citizens cheered us as we left, and why wouldn’t they? This prosperous little town has sprung from the ruins of a bandit’s fort, all because of our exertions. I saw you waving from the sidelines with your little friend Billee but I couldn’t acknowledge you, having to keep a stern face for the crowd. You know that in my heart I was embracing both of you.
Outside the gates we were joined by Cane—who hates crowds—on the road west. During the last year Cane has befriended a huge wolf named Sizzles. Sizzles could swallow you in a gulp, little one, but I’ve never seen him get cross with a child yet, even when they pull on his ears. Of course he’s never met little Billee.
As we had stopped momentarily, I looked back on our little town and couldn’t help but feel a momentary pride in what we’ve accomplished, praise Erastil. Beneath the towers of our citadel—which occupies the very spot where the Stag Lord had founded his empire—there are houses and places of industry leading down to a waterfront where we’re starting to trade with our downriver neighbors. Oh, there is much left to do. I would like to see a school and library, and we also need a stout wall to defend when the inevitable raiders notice our wealth, but creation, as Erastil says, is pleasure, not burden.
“Let’s try northwest,” Kelm said when we came to a fork in what no longer a road but a muddy trail. The land was flat and arable. It felt good to be out exploring again, especially after a year of wrangling with constituents, bullwhipping miscreants, and placating congregants. “Responsibility should never be sought and never refused.”
Once again I saw a large black crow circling overhead. I could not tell if it was my old friend but I saw no red mark on its wing.
In a long slender valley we found one of the quests that have been eluding us for so long—Bokken’s fabled fangberry patch. It was in a woods that had somehow died and decayed, what was left of white trunks stuck out of the earth at crazy angles. Surrounding them, like a crown or thorn, the fangberry patch crowded out all other plants. We quickly dismounted our horses, noting a thin gossamer webbing stretched between the thorny bushes. Cane, who kills with as little thought (and similar results) as he gives to shaving, was suddenly querulous about harming the delicate plantlife. We promised to be careful and slowly eased ourselves in single file behind him, for the thorn of the fangberry is as sharp as the blade of the surgeon. When we reached the center of the patch, where the sweetest of the berries are said to reside, we started to fill our packs. If only we’d known the cost of those little morsels we would have steered clear. Let this be a lesson for you—what looks at first sight like the easiest route usually is not.
We had not been harvesting long when I noticed two dark shapes running across Piea’s powerful back. I cried warning, but it was too late. To my horror I realized that I, too, was infested with the denizens of a spiders’ swarm!
They were quick and my big fat sword was little use in destroying them, although Cane did better with his knife. That’s when I was sent reeling into the fangberry patch thanks to a blow from Piea’s mighty axe, “I’m really sorry, I’m drunk!” she cried in distress as gouts of blood erupted from my back. “I can’t see the difference!”
“You can’t see the difference between me and a spider?” I said incredulously, wishing I'd listened to Cane and brought stronger armor.
“Oh my god, you’re killing him!” Kelm lamented as fangberry thorns tore my flesh like so many slivers of lox.
Piea continued her assault, shouting, “I hate bugs! I hate spiders!” Swinging for all she was worth.
“Full-out hatred for Marquand!” Kelm laughed his oracle’s laugh, which Piea denied. I hope she's being straight with me because if I ever brand her heretic I won’t survive the encounter.
Speaking of branding, Kelm suddenly flung a large fireball that scorched all and sundry. Sizzles, living up to her name, let out a yelp and I started worrying, but miffed as well. I had survived bandits, mites, and creatures with nary a scratch, but here, in this berry patch I was dying! I changed my judgement to healing, little good as it did—like trying to stop a tub spilling with your hands.
“We need to find new friends,” Cane muttered under his breath as he cleared off the last of his spiders. Then another blast of heat as Kelm finished the rest of them with a second flask of alchemist’s fire.
“Thank the twelve raging gods!” I thought, crawling on my belly beneath the wicked thorns, bleeding from every exposed part of my body. Even so, a short time later we had started picking fangberries again—just to leave this place all the quicker.
“I was trying to help,” Piea apologized later. “And then I just got so angry—full-out power-attacking!”
We rested that night far away from the patch, heading north to Bokken’s hut. “They better be clean,” he groused, gnawing on a stale donut as he inspected our hard-won cargo. “I guess a deal’s a deal,” he allowed disdainfully. “I’ll give you 25% off all potions for a month.” We ended up replacing the potions of cure moderate wounds we’d used surviving our encounter with his fangberry patch. No one was very happy with the deal and I can only hope Lev brings an economic adviser with him from the north along with his new bride.
We returned to near the fangberry patch and began exploring further, the edge of the plain leading into the southeastern edge of forest. There was an unnatural calm here that I could not place at first. Cane looked tense and alert when most times he’s dozing, and Sizzles darted back and forth nervously. Even my mount Autolycus was skittish. Then I realised why things were so quiet. There was none of the noise of the critters that usually inhabit a forest. Even the winds were hushed. We found a hollow underneath a fallen pine tree, the branches creating a natural shelter. Something lived inside. “Daddy?” Cane called piteously (like little Billee the day he came in from the forest) before realizing, to his horror, that he’d spoken out loud.
“Hreeegah!” came his answer as the Tuskgutter—who else?—stepped forward to deal with us as it had dealt with all the other hunters and woodsmen. I prepared a judgement for him as, with a roar, he took a piece of Piea. “Damn You!” she roared in pain.
Suddenly Lev fell out of a tree. “Just surveying the territory,” he shrugged as Sizzles eyed him like a wolf judging dinner. “I dropped by Oleg’s and heard you were heading this way. Looks like you can use some help.”
“I don’t know about that,” Cane muttered as he bloodied the ’Gutter while Lev put a ray of frost up the wild boar's backside. I missed my shot as the creature charged towards me before veering off to bite Cane, tearing a veal-like strip from his right calf. “That’s not very nice,” Cane grimaced before putting his blade deep in Tuskgutter’s side, as, with a mournful sigh, the great beast expired. “There ya go, pal!”
We made stew of Tuskgutter that night and he was surprisingly tender. The next day we took the head back to Oleg’s, where we had a reunion of sorts as we waited for Vekkel Benzen to show with his reward. He stumped in with genuine emotion, smiling one minute, and erupting into tears the next, hugging us all in turn, although only Piea had to force him to quit.
• masterwork longbow
• 6 +1 animal bane arrows
• Tuskgutter head cheese
This time we went southwest of Tuskgutter’s lair. We had not seen Cane or Sizzles for some time when in the distance there came the faint yip of a dog. We followed the sound to where the hunter and his familiar stood looking down into a deep pit where the snarls of a trapped animal could be lewdly heard. “Come no further,” he cautioned. “It’s an animal, a thylacine, I think, but it’s been in here a long time and is desperate. I need to save him.”
“All you ever talk about is killing,” someone jibed from the back.
“We kill people, we save animals,” he shrugged as if it was obvious. That’s when Fate lavishly intervened and the rotten, undermined ground they were standing on gave way and they rolled down to the feet of the enraged beast. Try as he might Cane could not befriend the beast and he had to kill it. He brooded all that evening while preparing the hide for transport. “It gives me no pleasure,” he said before hieing into the woods with Sizzles to spend the night out there.
The next day we came across a river—the Skunk if I can trust my nose—and heard loud cursing nearby. A small wagon lay mired in the stream below us. Two ponies hitched to the wagon were in danger of drowning in the deep channel where eight gnomes were struggling unsuccessfully with the wagon while a larger one uselessly cursed them.
“Push! No, pull! Push on this side! Pull that—you guys are idiots!” he screamed.
“Save the ponies!” Cane cried anxiously, starting towards the water.
Baron Lev immediately started giving orders, which were largely ignored. Kelm nonchalantly wandered off to gaze at a stand of flowering weeds while Cane raced to rescue the ponies.
“Why are you always plotting against me?” Lev muttered.
Piea shrugged. Her armor is too heavy to risk going into the water wearing and she's too modest to doff it. “Why don’t you like gnomes,” she suddenly asked Kelm.
“Gnomes suck,” he replied.
“Can’t they work in the mines?” I wondered as I prepared to enter the cold water.
“No, that’s dwarves!” he groused, offended I would even ask.
“No, no,” Lev insisted. “They have plenty of uses.”
“Gnome skulls make nice candleholders,” Cane called from the bank while rolling up his trousers. He then joined the excited group trying to push the wagon, soothing the ponies and getting them unhitched.
Kelm stolled up to the leader of the group as he fumed on the bank. “We got this under control!” the gnome barked at him.
“No we don’t have it under control” the ones in the water squeaked. “We need your help!”
Lev took control, shouting louder than the rest as I reached the wagon and Cane finished unhitching the ponies and hurrying them to shore.
Meanwhile, Kelm eyed “old grumpy” (as he called him) disdainfully. “How the hell did you get here?”
“Look, right now my concern is getting my wagon out of the river," old grumpy replied. "I don’t have time for idle chit-chat, my friend. Why don’t you help? I can’t swim.”
“I can’t swim, either,” Piea sadly replied, while Kelm sniffed, “I’m too pretty to get muddy.”
Lev turned on the charm and soon ropes were running to us from shore and everyone was working together, rocking it back and forth the current nearly pulling it from our grasp. Finally we got it back to shore.
“Hooray for the strange people,” the little ones cried.
“We are kings of the realm and you are now my subjects,” Lev informed them triumphantly, thrusting his birdlike chest out like a banty rooster.
“Oh, okay," they replied, a bit confused. "Please, you must eat with us!” They led us to their nearby camp, which had been set up a short distance away.
“I’m sorry I was standoffish at first,” old grumpy extended a hand. “My name is Jubilost Narthropple. We’ve been mapping out the Greenbelt. Then these kobold’s attacked us, scaring the ponies into the river." He said they were looking for an ancient dwarven outpost. "You haven’t seen it have you?”
Admitting that we hadn’t, Lev expressed interest in their maps and after some hemming and hawing we forked over 1000 gold (I’m uncertain why we’re carrying such treasure into bandit country). Lev then offered him a job working for us but Jubilost seemed disinterested, at least until he finishes his survey.
While munching our headcheese he filled in the map. “East of—Tuskland is it?” he rolled his eyes, “and south you’ll find a ford across the Gurdin River. To the southwest, on the lake, is Candlemere tower, it’s said to be haunted.
“Ooo,” my compatriots eyes lit up.
Northwest of Candlemere there’s a crazy hermit living there in a hut. . . “
“Southeast by east of there is an abandoned ferry station, deteriorated wooden buildings stand on each bank. South of that is a crazed hill giant. He was drunk out of his mind. Too drunk to fight, we ran away. Between Candlemere tower and your town, Tuskville, there is the hut of one very crazy witch. She not only eats kids, she tans their hides and makes doll furniture out of it, or at least that’s what they say.”
So you see dear Pino: say your prayers, obey your Mother, always think before you act, and don’t trust someone just because they’re offering you sugar.
Shortly after leaving the gnomes to their own devising we headed further east into the forest. The Skunk River bends like an elbow through here. The current scouring a deep backwater where lilly pads floated amongst waving reeds. A warm breeze blew in from the direction of the plains. Several large trees had been recently felled, leaving a gap of warm sunlight. Two lumberjacks stood as a guard looking both angry and bored as six others stood with their foreman nearby in an apparent standoff with a woodland nixie. It was like a Peace Day rally in New Stetven.
“What seems to be the problem?” Lev asked the foreman as he rushed up to us.
“This nixie over here has charmed my workers,” the man complained. “We’re trying to make a living here. She won’t let me clear this lumber out.” She is beautiful, it's true, a bit larger than you are and tinted the lightest shade of green glistening in the delicate whirl of her scaling. She also looked very angry.
Lev turned to her, questioningly.
“I politely asked them to leave,” she sniffed. “These trees have been growing for 200 years and they deserve a far better fate than serving as some grubby peasant’s slop table!”
The lumberjacks immediately started arguing amongst themselves. Some agreed with her, some wanted her gone, and some wanted her in ways I cannot describe to a little girl. Lev waited for the noise to die before hopping onto the top of a stump and proclaiming grandly, “Here is the solution!”
The noise erupted again as everyone renewed their arguing. Kelm finally managed to shush the crowd as the nixie’s musical voice began weaving enchantment over us all.
“I want them to leave the glade and provide reparations for the trees they’ve already felled,” she sweetly sang.
“I want my men freed and I want the lumber!” the foreman hotly replied. How would you judge this situation, little Pino? Write it down to send me and then read what we did:
“There must be other timber around here you can cut,” Cane said. That’s when I remembered the stand of coachwood trees we’d passed on our way to this place. Perfectly good wood for building and they grow like weeds. Lev then gleefully “wrote them a writ” for the timber in exchange for planting five trees for every one they’d desecrated. Once he realized he’d be able to keep the wood they’d already cut, the foreman quickly agreed, ducking his head to us in a deferential way I find displeasing. May you always stand tall and uncowed, Pino!
“But,” the nixie added, “You must place a tree feather token at the base of every tree you felled.” When she saw our puzzled looks she added, “There’s a naiad just north of here who sells them.”
By the way, the logging foreman’s name is Corax. Lev read him his rights and obligations while in our realm and then sent him to Cane who told him what would happen if he didn’t, all the while scratching Sizzles, who growled helpfully, behind the ears.
“You can depend on us,” Corax replied hastily directing his men away.
The nixie was called Melianse and she watched us hash out an environmental plan for our realm. Very boring. “We’ll find a balance,” Lev proclaimed as Cane demanded areas of our realm be protected from all development. “I believe in making all the people in this realm happy,” Lev boasted, “and making sure that they all have good lives.”
“Oh, gag me.” Piea retched.
We headed northwest after assuring Melianse we would find her naiad as soon as we finished exploring our land. I was happy that for once we managed to solve a conflict without violence.
We soon came upon the Skunk River again, coming to a ford across it. Perhaps we’ll name it “Pino’s Ford.” Thick piles of refuse blocked the river’s flow. Behind it was a large pond of water. We poked around the detritus for a time before coming upon the dead bodies of a band of dwarves. The shock of that had barely registered when we realized that we were being observed by two scaly, aggressive, dragonlike creatures.
I concentrated on shooting one with my longbow, while the sight of Piea sickened the other. She thwacked them both hard. The sickened one turned to escape, taking a second solid hit from the fighter before disappearing in the water. The remaining creature then grappled her.
Cane chipped away at the creature with his bow more successfully than I. Kelm stood watching with rapt awe before healing Piea of some of her wounds. Lev, meanwhile, had leaped to a small island in the stream before using his wand of magic missiles to shoot the fleeing creature dead.
“Damn, you stink!” I heard Piea shout with disgust as the beast grappling her belched an anesthetizing gas, then curse as it bit her. (While I don’t normally condone young lady’s using such language, Pino, in the case of fighters in the midst of battle, I think it can be allowed.) Then the creature disappeared into the murk as Cane quickly leaped into the water to finish it off.
“Wheee!” Piea hollared.
Amongst the remains of the creature’s victims we found:
• a set of +1 scale mail made in Janderhoff
• 38 gold and 520 silver
• a pewter drinking stein worth 12 gold
• silver ring worth 35 gold
• jade carving of a nude female Elvin monk worth 85 gold
• watertight scroll tube with a complete map of the northwest corner of the Greenbelt
We buried the remains of the creatures’ victims then moved upriver to set up camp for the night. I gave Autolycus a good rubdown before retiring for the night.
Give your kittycat Bundles a hug for me,