The Skunk River makes its way from east to west through this part of the woodland proper as the land slopes down into a boggy mire. In the dim murk we saw two ruined structures in the near distance. Two aged creatures waited there. “Some sort of outpost?” Lev wondered.
“For lack of bread the dog is dead,” Kelm declaimed. “For lack of meat the dog is eat!”
“What?” someone muttered. “Should we be writing this down in case it comes true?”
I could only shrug as I cautiously pulled out my sword, Blind Justice.
Sizzles smelled something she didn’t like, holding back. Cane lagged with her, bow at the ready.
Emerging from the muck came a giant boggard, pale, old. “Truce! Truce! Truce! Truce! Truce!” It pleaded in a thin high voice, huge bulgy eyes regarding us with alarm. Imagine that one of the frogs Little Billee loves to slip past your collar weighed 200 pounds. A slurk lurked behind him and it was even more disgusting, stewing in its own rancid slime. Kobolds often use them for mounts but no other creature can stand to be near them.
“Speak your piece!” Kelm called over, readying his crossbow.
“You go! Hungry,” it said, pitiably.
“What do you need?” I asked it.
“Boggard, slurk hungry,” it repeated. “You go. Me die!”
“Don’t die,” Kelm pleaded, sounding worried. “That’s crazy talk.”
“Slurk die. Hungry.”
“Maybe we should feed these guys,” I wondered.
“We’ll give them some rations.”
“Bug," it repeated dismissively. "Go. You go. Truce.”
As you’ve studied in Mrs. IIrkle’s class, boggards usually live in large tribes, but we detected no others nearby. What, if anything, they were guarding they were the last of their kind.
“Bug,” he repeated. “Snake.”
“You know, those tatzlwyrm carcasses we killed are an awful lot like a snake,” Cane mused. “We’ll come back and bring food,” he told them.
Back at the river Lev fished while the rest of us packed what remained of the tatzlwyrm carcasses onto one of the horses. The poor thing laid its ears back with disgust and we made it trail us at a goodly distance as we returned.
Once more the boggard came out to shoo us off. “Go. Die. Slurk hungry,” it called as we approached. We left the vermin infested carcasses there and backed off. Cane and I took the packhorse aside to wash the stink of death from her as the slurk dragged the bodies back to the smaller structure.
“Why are you here?” Cane called over to them after the sound of ripe flesh tearing had subsided.
“Hungry. You go.”
“We go ruins.” I said.
“You go. Truce. Me hungry. You go.”
“You eat, we’ll go.” Lev finally decided.
“Me die. Me die.”
“No die. No die,” Lev pleaded.
“Let’s explore this later,” Kelm said returning to the horses. “After they die they die.”
“Truce. Truce,” it called after us and we replied in kind. “Maybe you should make an edict restricting this area,” I suggested to Lev as we rode away.
We traveled west of the Skunk River through the forest. The rhythm of Autolycus’s gate was soothing, the air smelled of the woods, sweet and good. It was quiet except for the buzzing of the insects, unscathed by the harsh hand of man’s retribution. In a glade of sorts, amongst the shrubbery, we found a tall dim shape overgrown with brush, vine and tall grass. Nearing it I could see it was a statue long disused, the forest slowly reclaiming it. It was of a man with a fierce stag’s head. “Erastil,” I gasped.
“That’s nice,” Cane echoed.
The closer we approached the more certain I felt. Surprisingly, I noted that Sizzles wanted no part of the effigy. Cane stopped beside his friend as the rest of us slowly approached it. I felt deep peace
“What is it, girl? What is it?” Cane asked the wary canine, but she merely nosed at some rather flamboyant scarlet lupines, refusing to go further.
The statue had not been attended in a very long time, but I was struck with the notion that there had been worshipers here at one time. This land has not always lain fallow, or been as wild as it is now. There was once civilization and order and people living in harmony with the world. I vow that it will be so again.
Kelm accompanied me to the base of the statue. “I’ll help answer questions,” he said seriously, “because you’ve got the magic sense of a bug.”
It was nearly 15 feet tall, vines growing up its sides, tough tendrils grasping the stone like a child grasps its toy. Tall grass grew along the pedestal as a bunny started away at the sound of our approach. I heard Sizzles’ thin whine. Hesitating, I raised my hand to the stone, which was warm and reassuring, alive with the power of Old Deadeye. Flowers, blue as the air, grew by its base.
Finding no reliquary, the others wanted to leave immediately but I insisted on paying Eristal the honor of cleaning the detritus from his statue. I also cleared out a large area about it, kneeling to give Him His due. The statue glowed with inner fire as Erastil’s power flowed from it into our weapons, anointing them with a keen edge spell. Unfortunately, because of his wolf’s reluctance, Cane did not share in our blessing.
“I don’t need that,” he sniffed.
“Haw-Haw!” Kelm mocked while pointing at him, like Little Billee does when he sees Grandpa Roy trip and fall.
Finally, we reached our border through the forest. To our surprise we found a journal lying there, as if thrown in distress and abandoned. When we opened it there was an even greater surprise when we recognized the handwriting of our spymaster, Skot Skevins. A spymaster’s business is his own but we read it anyway as we continued southeast through the woods. A goodly portion of the document was devoted to his attempt to write a national anthem. This is the only part I can report to a little girl:
Let Tuskland be blessed
Land of the free
Our land is the best
It's got lots of trees
Let Tuskland be blessed
Land of the free
Our land is the best
Can I sleep with ye?
© Copyright 4708 AR Tuskgutter Music LLC.
A work in progress, as they say.
The deeper we penetrated the forest the quieter it became. Soon even the birds had abandoned the sky. We came to a stagnate body of water, a foul odor rising from a miasma of filth.
In the muck we found the body of a long-dead unicorn, strangely uncorrupted, as if everything around it had rotted in its stead, leaving it pure. Its eyes stared milky white. Even so, someone had dared desecrate it, removing its horn. Suddenly, Kelm began shaking like a tubthumping cleric taken by vision of apocalypse. With doom in his voice he told us of “how powerful crazy fey creatures of the first world can leave their victims marked in a way that sheds a strange aura of repulsion of natural life,” he tolled like a bell ringing at midnight. “It’s as if the animals can sense the anger of the powerful fey and know better than to involve themselves with such a victim!”
We left the incorruptible unicorn there as we found it. There are many fey in our country and we’ve always tried to treat them fairly, but the thought of such a powerful being running free through our woods sent shivers down my spine.
The trees thinned out and we could see the beautiful rolling hills climbing out of the valley. We came upon a wild patch of zong. Praise Erastil and his bounteous land! While I’ve never acquired a taste for it myself I believe that it helps people become one with their deity.
We reached the wooded extreme southwest part of our territory but there was nothing to be found there. My colleagues relieved their boredom by discussing the design of our standard.
“Our flag should be a bunch of rivers coming together,” Kelm suggested.
“That’s nice,” Lev agreed. “A bunch of rivers with a tusk, a skunk, some emblems. . . .”
“And me slashing some guy’s throat as he sleeps,” Cane ended the discussion.
We soon came across “a peaceful forest glade. A small pond lay placidly in the dappled sunlight at the roots of an enormous oak tree, a scattering of leaves floating upon its surface. Birds twittered in the branches high above.”
Trusting his instinct Cane called out in Sylvan and was answered with a beautiful melodic voice that we followed to a scene of recent violence, where a dryad sat weeping over a fallen satyr.
“I have to say that the fact that there’s a bunch of fey in our kingdom freaks me out!” Kelm whispered hoarsely.
“No way!” Cane protested.
“I hate the fey!”
“You hate gnomes, you hate fey, you’re just an anti-everythingite,” Lev lectured.
“That’s not true," Kelm protested. "I love machines.”
The dryad's tears fell into the pool creating tiny ripples in the still water reminding me of a song the bards of Restov sing:
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.”*
The satyr lay unconscious but not dead. “There’s a tree,” she gasped out between sobs. “Rotten heart! It’s become sentient. Malevolent. It attacked my friend, who was protecting me. It is too strong.”
“Help us help you,” Lev coerced her gently.
“How can I help you? I fear that once the tree finds my grove all will be lost. It will kill me. And devour me.” She sat weeping as the rest of us watched helplessly.
“Slay it and I will reward you,” she finally stammered.
“Let’s go kill the freaking tree!” Cane growled.
“He lives in a blind hollow just a few miles south,” she pointed despondently.
“It’s outside our charter,” Kelm said.
“Not if it’s disturbing our land,” Lev tersely replied.
So we traveled southeast, across the border.
Eventually we came to a wooded clearing about 50 feet in diameter. There was decay there, like the decay surrounding the unicorn, and the horses snorted nervously. A gloomy place with little sunlight breaking through the canopy overhead. Sickly trees, their branches knotted like the hands of grandmother Barnes, lined the perimeter as if something was sucking the life out of this spot. Vegetation grew fitfully in ragged clumps, and bones—some human—were strewn about haphazardly. We had dismounted and were proceeding cautiously when Sizzles lifted her leg to do what dogs do to trees only this tree would not suffer the indignity. With a roar it lashed out at the hapless wolf, clubbing her senseless to the ground.
“Sizzles!” Cane and Piea shrieked. I hurried to stabilize the stricken canine as Piea raised her great axe and power-attacking the tree of woe, twice missing in her haste like an angry crosseyed woodsman. Kelm plunked it twice with his bolts but the monster barely noticed the inconvenience. Cane followed and took a hard shot in return.
I stabilized Sizzles and ran to flank the tree as it savaged Piea, missing with a weak shot from my bow. Lev hit as Piea groggily slashed at the tree to no avail, dodging its attacks in her heavy armor.
Imbuing my bow with flames of the faithful I buried an arrow deep in its wood. With a scream of frustration it erupted into flame. We watched until we were sure there was nothing left of the malevolent lumber.
We found amongst its roots:
• 3 pieces of amber worth 100 gold apiece
• a folded up bundle of cloth that unfolded into a robe of bones
Though distasteful Kelm said he has uses for it, modeling it as if he was on the main stage at the Garment Festival.
We returned across our border to Tiressia, for that was the dryad’s name, and Falcoas, her satyr friend, who had awakened but was still too weak to do little more than flirt with Piea and Cane.
Tiressia gave us each a feather token in gratitude and one for Sizzles. We offered her our continued protection, prohibiting loggers and hunters from coming near this part of our realm, a reservation, if you will.
She also gave us:
• a wand of cure light wounds, which Kelm took
• scroll of summon nature’s allies, which went to Cane
Finally, she offered to act as our eyes and ears in this region as we bid her farewell. It’s good policy to make friends with the fey. It serves the balance of Erastil. Besides, “No society stands easily when based on injustice.”
We stopped at Melianse's arbor to plant five of the feather tokens as we'd promised. This earned us a kiss—even Sizzles—and we celebrated that evening at a fey cotillion by the sparkling waters of the Skunk River. Its waters somehow sweet in the dappled light of the waxing moon. The dancers were sparkling with St. Elmo's Fire as they made their rounds. Melianse asked me to dance and I said I could not but she insisted and—you will be amazed—I finally gave in. You would have laughed and applauded if you had seen me there in Melianse's arms; I was floating in air like the moon and the stars.
Even so, Tuskland never looked more beautiful when we finally returned and, once my duties had been completed and Autolycus given a good rubdown, I hurried to your home. For your Mother I had a silken purse, to replace the one stolen from her on the road from Restov. Little Billee got a book of the Parables to see him through his adolescence, and for you, little one, I brought a dress I’d admired on one of the nixies, who immediately took it off to give to you—I blush to think of it, but to them it’s a simple act of friendship.
But the warmth of family was soon replaced by the cold of evil. While we were away a murderous rampage had begun outside of town where first animals were found slaughtered in their pens, then a young maid picking berries by the light of the moon. Most recently, a shepherd boy and much of his flock, were found soaking in their own blood.
“Not the little sheep!” Piea cried despondently.
At the ceremony for the Tree of Life, where we planted Sizzles' feather token, I saw you there in your new dress with little Billee and soon after was thwacked on the head by a bean. Fortunately for Billee I did not have time to investigate the matter for immediately after the ceremony we began our investigation of the murders. People told us that they have been hearing an eerie howling at night, but not like that of any wolf they had heard before. Only one old man nodded his head saying that he recognized the sound from when he was a boy as that of a werewolf! "Woe betide ye!" he bespoke with satisfaction.
Next we examined the bodies. I won’t describe their condition but it was frightful.
“Watch this,” said Kelm, eyes rolling back in his head as he placed a hand on the bloodied head of the dead shepherd boy, Bevin. What killed you, boy?” he intoned.
A horrible gurgle issued from the poor boy’s throat. “Wolf.”
Next he turned to Saki, the berry-picker girl, her thin form ghostly pale except for clots of gore at throat and breast. “Was it a wolf that killed you?” Kelm asked.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Outside of town we found wolf tracks leading into dense shrubbery. Emerging from the other side were the footprints of a human leading back into Tuskland. We lost the trail in the confusion of city streets.
At Fangberry's Inn we were told of a young barbarian tribesman new to town by name of Kundel. No one knows anything about him except that he keeps strange hours and mostly to himself. Since he was not in we asked the innkeeper to unlock the door for us, citing our authority and the large whip I was carrying. Inside, the room was almost as disgusting as Little Billee’s. There was a partially eaten tomato-cheese-hog pie and, under his bed with a soiled pair of underwear, a girl’s dainty ear, its golden earring matching the one on poor Saki’s other ear.
As we were leaving the inn an improbable and unrelated thing happened. Do you remember Sneed, one of Kesten Garess’s troops, the one who deserted? As we were leaving the inn we overheard one man say to another, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Sneed.” With shock we recognized the man he was talking with as one of the Stag Lord’s followers who had escaped our judgement. We quickly collared him—he was meek as a kitten—hustling him straight to Garess, who kept his word, giving us the four masterwork weapons he’d promised. How stupid must Sneed be that he would visit the very town where both Garess, his former commander, and Akiros, his former bandit colleague, live? It shows you, Dear Pino, that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.
The night was to be the last of the full moon, perhaps our last chance to catch the werewolf, for he would probably move on afterward. We baited our trap with Kelm and Piea—pretending to be lovers, entranced with themselves, oblivious to danger.
At first I had trouble recognizing Piea, who had shed her armor and was wearing a filmy white dress. Only the battle-tattoos on her biceps gave her away and these she kept covered with a thick woolen shawl.
For his part Kelm was dressed as a young fop without a care in the world, which means he dressed as himself. “Oh we’re so in love and so unarmed,” he sang offkey.
“We’re so drunk,” Piea tittered, lifting her dress to show off her smooth supple legs. “Our inhibitions are lowered!”
“Let’s play this out and get naked!” Kelm suddenly bellowed with glee.
“Woo-hoo!” Piea agreed, pulling the dress over her head, revealing for a moment the tattoo across her belly that reads, “Heartbreaker” in green, red, and gold. (I know you’re young for this kind of information, Pino, but you need to know of the world as it is, not some fantasy concoction of merchants and clerics that will lead you astray.) “All the way!” she hooted. “I’m not pretending at all . . . I’m really virile!”
“I will cast a spell on you,” Kelm giggled.
“An aphrodisiac spell?” she whispered.
“No,” he stated matter-of-factly, “a spell of protection to replace your armor when we fight the werewolf.”
“Oh,” she replied, disappointed. "You're playing a part."
"And you're being silly."
|Tomruen: Lunar Libration with Phase |
“I’m so drunk!” Kelm hollered.
“Oh, yeah,” Piea echoed.
The shadow ducked between two buildings, ignoring the “lovers.”
“Tarnation,” Piea grumbled. “I didn’t think we were that bad.”
Then a woman screamed in the next block over, I suddenly realized, your block. Then the scream of a child. "My god, no!" I cried running toward the sound.
“Forget it,” Kelm called after me. “They shouldn’t be out after curfew. We have to set an example.”
“I say thee nay!” I’d recognized your voices—the werewolf had you and your Mother!
Piea reached him first, still in her skivvies, but not in time, for he had already ripped Pirna’s throat. I called for justice in despair, cutting him across the buttocks.
With a snarl, the lycanthrope turned on me, taking a chunk out of my arm with his great axe. That’s when I overheard Kelm casually say to Piea, “Oh, by the way, I didn’t get you that spell of protection yet because you were running.”
She hesitated incredulously as she realized that she was protected only by her underdrawers (admittedly linked mail). “What did you just say?”
Fortunately for Kelm, the werewolf lunged at him and he had an excuse to move on to help your mother, Pirna. “I stopped the gurgling,” he called proudly a moment later.
Despite her vulnerability Piea wailed on Kundel again, but I was distracted and missed him. I saw you there crying in terror beside your mother. I vowed the creature would soon be weighed on the scale of justice!
Cane, also eager, reached out to stab the werewolf, overextending his arm. With a move straight out of the Swordlords' academy, the werewolf’s axe lashed out, slicing Cane’s hand off like a round of Aldorin baloney!
“Noooooooo!” Piea cried as we all watched his hand fly off and the blood gush forth with each pump of his great heart. Sizzles picked up the hand by the palm, returning it to her companion with tail wagging. He looked on it with disgust as I helped him apply a tourniquet to the stub of his arm.
“You can get a hook hand,” Piea said encouragingly to him. “That would be cool!”
“How am I supposed to use a bow?” Cane replied incredulously, ignoring the pain. “Everything I do is based on two hands!”
Meanwhile, Lev had continued plinking at the werewolf from afar with his crossbow. Then Kelm stepped forward and simply touched the ravening creature in just the right manner.
With a gasp it froze unmoving, eyes bugged out comically, half-human, blue. He fell to the ground with a thud. I rushed to you and Pirna’s side, joining you in your tears.
As Cane continued waving the stub of his arm around like a frustrated Sunday-school teacher my colleagues stripped the werewolf of his possessions:
• +1 Great Axe
• potion of remove fear
• 11 gold pieces
Before I cauterized the end of Cane’s arm I had him dip the stub into warm zong tea to somewhat anesthetize the wound before I applied the searing heat of my brand. Cane barely flinched as the smell of searing flesh filled the room (although he quickly drank the rest of the tea).
The next day, after seeing to it that you were studying your lessons despite the previous night’s uproar, I walked to the citadel to confer with the others over our nation’s monthly report. Now that the werewolf is gone there is no apparent discontentment in our realm (except for Cane). Consumption is balanced with what we produce and we have an 11 rating on the New Stetven Hitpoints index. Our first order of business was to claim the area we are lumbering—the better to oversee operations—and we also began upgrading the strategic southeastern corner of our realm. We have twelve good, safe, roads and new farmland east of town.
In old business: Lev announced that he had had a promising response to his marriage proposal from House Lebeda who were proud to offer a cousin of their grande dame, “Waltzing” Matilda.
Afterward, Cane and Sizzles immediately set out to find a sorcerer to reattach his hand. He says he hopes it will feel “softer” to the touch than his previous hand, which he intends to bury beneath the statue of Erastil.
Finally, I want to tell you that on my journey I met little Billee’s father, who, it turns out, did not die of his wounds after the bandits’ attack, although I regret to say his mother did. Big Billee Weaver will be coming to your home soon to pick up his boy. He says he’s going to live in Tuskland so you’ll still be able to see your playmate and he’ll have a father to severely chastise him the next time he hits the Inquisitor with a spitball.
Your loving uncle,
* Lyrics by Robert Hunter, Ice Nine Publishing Co., Inc.