Though writing you these letters may seem odd since we live in the same town it’s become a habit of mine and helps me order my thoughts, keep a record, and is a good way to introduce you to the ways and byways of the world outside your home.
I hope your nightmares have ceased since your encounter with the werewolf. Sleep should be a time of peace and security. I hope the lessons in self defense taught to you and Little Bill by Big Billee Weaver return you to the confidence you once felt. I swear by all the holy gods to never let it happen again.
Yes, the rumors you've heard about your old uncle are true—of late I’ve become enamored by a young waitress at the Stumble Inn, Lily Teskerton. She’s one of the few people I’ve met who actually listens to what a person says and generally enjoys what she hears, whether drover or king. I can’t help but love a girl like that. She wants a favor of me but she is offering something in return:
“I’ll give you my father’s (bless his roguish soul) +1 cloak of protection,” she purred as I sat at a corner table at the Stumble Inn. Her eyes shone with delight—as does yours when you’re wheedling Little Billee. “You see, my old Dad’s birthday is coming soon and I want to get him some Elven art, like the kind they find in the ruins south of town.”
“I’d settle for a kiss,” I replied like a schoolboy as she blushed prettily. I admit, Pino, I have affection for this girl, it is true, even though I’m less sure she feels the same for me. She greets every peddler, smith, and ox-herd with as much affection as she shows me. It does not matter, for to see her smile, to hear her laugh, to have her attention for even a moment, is bliss. Always remember, dear Pino, a pretty smile is worth more than gold, and kind words travel far. As the bard sings—
Pictures of Lily
Make my life so wonderful
Pictures of Lily
Help me sleep at night.
—Eel Pie Music
“I like her hair,” Piea sniffed. “But she’s a whore.”
Before I could chastise her for incivility there was a sudden commotion from across the room. “I swear I saw it fellows,” a man said loudly, slurring a little from the alcohol he was carrying in his big round belly. “I saw a hodag!”
“Sure you did old man.”
“I did! Lizard like thing with big sharp fangs,” he waved fingers from each corner of his mouth. “Swallow a punk like you in one snap.”
“Where it would take two or three snaps to gulp you down!” one wag laughed. “If it didn’t choke to death.” The table erupted with laughter.
“I stuck my magic spear twixt his ribs,” the old man replied stoutly. “That slowed him down enough that I got away—but I left my spear twixt his ribs.” He burped sourly. “T’ain’t had good luck since.”
“Why didn’t you get it back?”
The old drunk shrugged, a dazed look on his face. “Back hurts fierce these days, don’t got no use for it no more is why. My eye ain’t what it used to be and my hands shake from the drink.” He sighed, sitting back against the wall. “The man that can get it out of that beast is welcome t’ it.”
“Aw shoot,” one of his pals consoled. “Lemme buy you a drink.”
With that I took my leave, wishing Lily a good night with a peck on the cheek. The air was crisp and the streets empty as I walked home. There was a light on in your window and I hoped you were studying your lessons, or meditating on the divine, or writing in your journal as I taught you. In the back yard I share with you and your mother I knelt under the bower of trees next to the fangberry bush, clearing my mind of fighting and politics and planning and Tuskland; of you and Pirna and Lily; of big and little Billee. Only then could I follow the true path that Erastil clears for each and every one of us—if only we will see. Hours later I woke to the music of the mourning owls in the hour before dawn. I washed in cold water out at the pump in back as I made ready to meet my colleagues for our next adventure.
We rode southeast through the Camelands along one edge of the Tuskwater, where cliffs rose high above the water; brambles and nettles tearing at clothes and flesh. Down below was no better, the shore infested with stinging turtles. Still, when Lev noticed a faint trail leading down we followed it.
The inlet at the bottom seemed peaceful but we soon noticed the torso of a woman lay on the nearby sand and in the water bobbed a severed head. In fact the entire beach was strewn with pieces of the unlucky travelers who had stopped, perhaps, for a cooling dip in the water. “That’s pretty gross,” Piea allowed.
In the distance I saw a giant snapping turtle—Crackjaw—approaching us from just below the surface. As my colleagues improbably stopped for lunch I imbued my sword with turtle bane and prepared for combat.
Kelm prepared a magic missile and singed it a little as it breached the surface. Cane shot it but the shafts bounced off its horny carapace. Piea’s blow also merely glanced off the terrapin's horny shell. Lev tried to sneak behind it but tripped noisily, getting bit on his butt for the trouble. I missed on my judgment but Cane finally hit as Piea cracked it’s shell. Lev scooted behind me as the turtle bit off a piece of my ear, causing me to miss again. Kelm slapped him noisily as Sizzles distracted the beast allowing Kelm a second chance and this time blood gushed from beneath its shell. The turtle then bit off more of my flesh and I began thinking of the better part of valor when it left its neck vulnerable and I was able to kill it with a desperate thrust.
We found only three coppers and a key with padlock on the creature’s unfortunate victims.
Cane then decided to explore the inlet further, diving underwater to find a blue-green elemental gem buried in the mud near the southeast shore. You have undoubtedly learned in school there are four varieties of elementals, each one summoning a different nature’s ally. Ours calls on water elemental.
We also found a skeleton buried there in the mud, tattered brown robes and a stone symbol marking it as that of a cleric of Erastil, praise be his name. We buried him and the remains of the others in a small grove of trees not far from where we found him.
That evening we had turtle stew for dinner, with succulent nettles and some kind of root Sizzles and Cane dug up near the swamp. We wrapped Crackjaw's head in “embalmer’s leaf” (tobacco), after soaking it in brine in our kettle. I wondered if this would earn me Lily’s kiss in lieu of Elven art.
“You’ve not got a kiss yet, much less head,” Lev jeered.
“Ha, ha, ha,” Piea mocked, before sniffing with a sideways glance, “She does look like a barmaid.”
“Ah, Mr. Citizen One,” I thought looking at Lev. “All things come in their time.” Then a sudden notion—can Piea be jealous?
We headed southwest through more plains. My old friend the raven—Kudra, I’m calling him at your suggestion—appeared to escort us along the way, dropping some presents upon a traveler we met who called himself Philbert Askew XII. His face looked like the south end of a north bound kobold—crimson and black. We gratefully bid him goodbye at a fork in the road.
In the northwest where the Tuskwater empties into Candlemere Lake we found ourselves boxed in a narrow defile between the hills leading down to a hot spot where a pool of stinking mud bubbled. Fungus, red and fragrant, and large towering flesh-colored mushrooms thrived along the rounded muddied hillocks nearby.
“This is freakish,” said Cane while dismounting. “Maybe we should take a sample.”
“Be careful,” Lev cautioned to Cane’s disgust as a large shape loomed up behind him. Sizzles growled warning while we watched a monstrous plant shamble our way. “It’s a tendriculos! Lev gasped.
“It looks like giant lady parts,” Piea added unnecessarily.
It towered 25 feet in the air, voracious gubbering maw and razor sharp thorn teeth gasping and sucking greedily as it approached, tentacles reaching for flesh, grappling Cane who frantically broke away.
Piea chopped a big chunk out of it as choking spores flew in every direction, but it slowed not a whit. I pulled out my longbow and let fly, but what good is a plant bane weapon when you miss? It laughed at Kelm’s acid splash.
“Ho, ho, ho, ho!” it rumbled deeply, suddenly turning on Sizzles. As the gallant wolf lay trapped and whining Cane chopped frantically to free his companion. Lev slipped in the mud, falling with a frail yelp.
Piea missed her attack but it was enough of a distraction for me to strike deeply, to the root of its root. It was like cutting into the heart of an artichoke 25 feet high with no butter. Kelm slammed it with a magic missile as it grabbed Sizzles by the tail, swallowing the frantic wolf like a pig-in-a-blanket! With a mighty oath Cane cut through the giant plant and suddenly the fight over was over.
We quickly released Sizzles from her fibrous tomb. As she shook the slime free of her coat we celebrated a muted victory. Kelm found five eroded coppers in its gizzard but little else.
The next day we went east, but all we found were empty grassy plains. Nothing of Lily’s ruins and so I can’t find the art for her she desires. If I don’t win her kiss soon someone else may beat me to it.
After some discussion we proceeded to the ferry station southwest where the Shrike River branches off from the little Sellen River. Long disused, there were half collapsed rotting wooden buildings on each bank, used by kobolds, mites, and bandits by the look of the detritus we found there.
“A fine place for a city,” said far-seeing Lev as he gazed about with evident satisfaction.
West we traveled after that, following the river as it meandered through more flat land. After several hours ride we happened upon the hill giant we’d heard so much about. He was licking his fingers next to a smashed jug. We approached him cautiously while he remained unaware of our presence. A terrible brute, he seemed upset, smashing his club against trees and rocks. I was hoping that we could convert him to our way but the others in our group were not quite as sanguine.
“Brrrgh!” the giant (known as Munguk) raged. “Bhuurrrrrrrgh!”
He looked back at the broken jug, licked his hand, then got mad and started smashing stuff all over again. “Rhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhgh!”
“Giant!” Kelm called as Lev tried to shush him. “We’re here to help you!”
Startled, Munguk charged Kelm with a look of rage on his face.
“Jackass,” Lev muttered as Piea laughed.“Yeah, jackass!” she taunted.
“Maybe we can talk about this!” Kelm cried before the giant thwacked him stoutly across the choppers.
“Rhaargh!” Munguk exalted as Kelm’s blood and teeth sprayed out over the ground. Kelm immediately huddled behind his shield of faith. Meanwhile, Lev crept up to the giant’s smashed jug, quickly fixing it good as new. “Phiisst!” he hissed, “Hssst! Stop now or we won’t fix your jug.” But it only made the enraged hill giant madder.
Sizzles crept up behind Munguk to trip him but got smacked for her effort. I pulled out my sword making it hill giant bane and charged, drawing blood.
Piea also charged but she was off-balance, missing with a wild roundhouse.
“Rhhrargh!” he hollered, running straight for your dear uncle, hitting me so hard I saw flashes of light circle my head like birdies. Lev threw faerie fire, which was impressive to see but didn’t do a lot of damage. Kelm, though, paralyzed the creature, who then stood dumbly while Cane chopped his head off. Sadly I watched the blood spurt from his neck like a Sunday chicken as the huge body sunk to its knees.
“Face is red, raise the head,” Kelm intoned. “Face is pale, raise the tail.”
“Poor giant,” Lev mourned sadly, although the truth is that we could never have reasoned with the monster.
He had a satchel in which we detected magic. We stripped him of:
• hide armor
• giant great club
• a sack in which there were:
o 9 throwing rocks
o 3 unmatching boots of various sizes
o wooden bowl and spoon
o empty jug
o strips of dried dwarf-jerky
o a jar with a partially eaten pickled sheep’s head
o a bent grappling hook and five feet of frayed rope
o a battered but still functional spyglass
o gnarled piece of magical driftwood—a wand of hideous laughter, 10 charges
o necklace of fireballs, type II, one remaining
o crude map on the back of a smelly uncured piece of hide
Kelm was able to decipher the map, which showed a place nearby labeled “Mean, ugly, troll men!”
“More good news,” Cane muttered.
Late that night as the full moon rested on the nearby scrubby pine we heard a rider approach. It was our own Skot Skevins, who rode up to cheers of welcome from our group.
“I’m glad I found you guys,” he said, breathing as if the horse had been riding him instead of the other way around. “You need to get back to the town—there’s trouble!”
“Oh shucks!” Piea grumbled as we wearily broke camp and mounted our horses for the ride back to town.
Skevins couldn’t tell us much about what had been happening but did say, “A guy rode into town recently and he’s talking smack against you guys. People are listening to him!”
“Is he sexy?” Piea asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” Kelm interjected while affecting a hick accent—“Them percolators, they’re no good people. . . . Raising this town from a swamp,” he whined, sorely aggrieved. “And his pal saying, ‘Yeah!’”
“Yeah,” echoed Piea
“Giving us places to live and jobs,” he continued, sounding like a Restov punk.
“Those jerks! I hate those guys.”
“Giving us means to make a living.”
“His name is Grigori!” Skevins spat, ending their banter. “A real revolutionary. Reminds me of Comrade Lev before he came south.”
Lev let that pass without comment, although Piea giggled and Cane scowled. A half day later we arrived back in glorious Tuskland.
Back in the P.U.R.K
You don’t know how lucky you are, jerk
Back in the P.U.-P.U.-P.U.R.K.
The Tuskland girls really knock me out
They leave Restov behind
The Elven lass
Really kick my ass
And Tyg-Titter-Tut is always on my mi-mi-mind
—Skot Skevins, Anthem #9
There we found Grigori standing on a table in front of the Stumble Inn, giving one of his infamous speeches. There was nothing prodigious about him. His voice was high and noisome, he sweat profusely while swinging his arms violently to make his ridiculous points—all lies and fabrications. Erastil teaches that all men can be represented by some animal and this man was a fox. How I longed to brand him charlatan!
“I accuse this, this quintumvirate of gross negligence!” he growled. “They abandoned the town again and again to go gallivanting through the Narlmarsh on fool's errands. They’ve left you exposed to banditry, monster attacks, and worse. Think about the werewolf that showed up. Where were they?”
“We killed it!” Piea yelled as the crowd drew back from us with a discontented murmur.
“Let him talk,” said Kelm. “This is a free country.”
“Is it?” Cane muttered darkly.
“Maybe they’re the ones responsible for the attack,” Grigori taunted. “They’ve been running around stirring up trouble. What about all the wealth they’ve been accumulating on their trips?” I had to laugh at this. Would you and your mother be wearing hand-me-downs if I had access to great wealth, or even a decent wage? I’ve given everything to this land, we all have. “I don’t see them helping others,” Grigori went on, spittle coursing from his mouth. “Look how well fed they are!”
“I feel personally offended,” Piea replied.
“And the priest,” he said looking at me, “drooling after princess Lily.”
“Yeah, that’s right!” someone in the crowd yelled. “This guy makes a lot of sense.”
Lev had heard enough, stepping forward suddenly.
“My god, it’s the Baron!” Kelm whispered sotto voce. “I think you should challenge the Baron in debate,” he added more loudly.
“I will challenge the Baron in debate,” Grigori agreed confidently.
“Challenge accepted,” Lev replied evenly. “Tomorrow, noon, jackass.”
“No, no, no,” Grigori replied, shaking his finger slowly in admonishment. “No, Comrade One—right here! Right now!”
Lev looked around at the crowd. Some were hostile, others longed for excitement, for blood, and a scant few were ready to be carried by the tide of the debate. He waited until they had dragged a table for him to stand on before replying. “So what’s your problem?”
“You know what the problem is,” Grigori accused. “And the people know what the problem is,” he smacked his lips, pointing an accusing finger our way. “You are the problem! You have caused all of the troubles!”
I reached for my whip.
“We have caused none of the problems,” Lev replied dismissively. “In fact, this town would not even be here if not for us.”
“Listen to them,” Grigori sneered. “So full of themselves.”
“We are full of ourselves,” Piea objected loudly. “We literally have a decree that says so!”
“We don’t need another king,” Grigori replied dismissively.
“We don’t need another king!” Lev agreed. “We need a populist government that is run by the people. We need to stand up to see that there is no hunger and that every person has a shelter over their heads.”
“We’re the rulers, we can kill him if we want,” Kelm said quietly aside to us. “We can let him make his speech. . . .”
“If we kill him that will only confirm that we are despots,” I tried to reason despite my concern over his relations with my fair Lily who stood watching with eyes aglow from the doorway of the tavern.
“Is she shacking with that guy?” I wondered aloud.
“What?” Kelm asked me incredulously. “Are you jealous?”
“What are you trying to do, intimidate me?” Grigori taunted Cane, who stood in front of the table, glowering like a nether-god. “What are you going to do next? Are you going to attack me and cut me down right here in front of the people? Is that the kind of rule that you have?”
“We have laws here that we acknowledge and respect,” Lev protested,
“When they are advantageous to you,” he accused. “Otherwise, you’re not around.”
“My sword is now asshole bane,” I threatened.
“Careful,” Kelm laughed cruelly, “You may have to drop it.”
I felt properly chastened for letting jealousy rule my tongue. Thank you Erastil for speaking with the tongue of the oracle, Kelm.
“So where are you from?” Lev asked, finally going on the offensive. “Who are you? Are you a citizen of this country or have you just come here to cause problems? Sent by foreign agents, mayhap?”
“Listen to them making up stories. I am just helping you, fair citizens. Many of you have invited me into your homes. I’ve broken bread with you, shared your hardship, kissed your daughters. I appeal to you good people. I am allowed to walk through these parts just as all of you are.” he sniffed. “Are we not all free to walk?”
The crowd’s mood once again shifted.
“So what would you do differently?” Lev asked.
“What would I do? I’d be here and I’d lead,” he stated, gesturing sincerely. “I would be a leader to the people. A real leader who cares, who will invite you into his house.”
“I don’t like this person,” Piea growled, adding, “I love this guy.”
To my horror I realized that I loved him too! Clearly a spell was at work here, he was cheating. If only they had let me brand him when I had the chance!
“Violence in not the answer. Violence is what these would do,” Grigori gestured towards us. “Your so-called king or baron or duke or whatever he calls himself. He would cut me down were you all not here to witness.”
How prophetic his words would prove to be.
“He’s a violent man,” he concluded, pointing at Lev.
“I am anything but violent,” Lev sniffed and for once everyone could agree. “By my goddess, I do not stand for the unjust and overthrowing or murder of people!”
“He lies,” the man spat on the ground. “I’ve counseled women who have been attacked by this man.”
“Not Lily, I hope!” I pleaded, despite knowing my ensorcellment.
“Let Lev's accusers come forward,” Kelm demanded but no one stepped forth. A hush fell over the crowd.
“You are lying through your teeth,” Lev turned bitingly on him. “You have been here but days. You know nothing and yet you proclaim to know everything about our nation.”
“I have been here longer in a row,” Grigori replied, flustered at last. “More days in a row than you. You show up, change your clothes, have another virgin, and then run off again. We all know it, don’t we?” he gestured to the crowd.
“Yet the majority of the government stays present for the majority of the people,” Lev stated majestically, puffing out his chest out like a Flame Storngbird. Once again the crowd was listening to him. Then, as suddenly as it had come, I felt the enchantment leave me. The crowd seemed to deflate at first, but then their hearts filled again with anger—toward Grigori.
“Throw him off the stage,” cried a citizen.
“What should we do with him?” added others.
“Let him go,” Kelm said firmly, standing.
“He’s here for a reason,” Lev objected, ignoring my offers to brand him once again. “But he used magic to influence our people so we are going to take him in for questioning.”
“We could beat him up,” Cane rumbled.
At this point we stopped and, looking around, realized everyone was listening intently to our debate.
“No, he walks for now,” Kelm insisted.
“Uh-huh,” Lev finally agreed.
“This isn’t over,” Grigori threatened weakly, quickly jumping from his dais and stalking off toward the Inn.
When he was gone the townspeople—once again our townspeople—crowded up to congratulate Lev. “Hey, you’re back!”
“We, we really weren’t gone that long,” Lev futilely protested before climbing back on his table to give a patriotic barnburner: “There are monsters and boggards and jackfrogs and hill giants are threatening to kill our city and crush us and we’re off saving the day!”
Once he’d sated the crowd we continued our discussion about Grigori. I wanted to severely chastise the man—he was both unprincipled and a menace. Kelm and Lev spoke with voices of reason—wishing merely to question him, possibly win him to our side. Ultimately, though, they felt releasing him was the price we paid for the kind of society we are trying to create—FREE, whatever that is. Is the bird free of the sky? Piea sat on the fence, undecided whether to question the man or "chop his f-ing head off." Cane entertained darker thoughts still.
We found Grigori at the Inn, preparing to depart. “I don’t want to talk with you,” he said truculently. “There is nothing to say. I’m having one drink and then I’m leaving.”
Piea tried to win him over with her feminine charm, fluttering her eyelashes and speaking with a breathless husk.
“I’m wise to you, sister,” he said dismissively. “You’re a tease.”
“What a loser,” she retorted to his departing back.
He went out to the stables, saddled up his mule, and immediately left town. In a killing fugue Cain followed him as the rest of us watched, unwilling to either join him or stay his hand. “I’m really glad this guy’s going to die,” Kelm muttered, watching him go.
“I want him to die,” Piea agreed. “He was really starting to make me angry.”
“I can’t believe that you flirted with him,” Kelm groaned.
“I did what I had to,” she said dismissively.
“For the record I do not approve of this action,” Lev stated mildly.
“That’s why you have plausible deniability,” Kelm the politician observed.
“I actually had no idea this was going to happen,” Lev protested.
“No one will believe that,” I grated. It’s not his murder that bothers me, Pino—I’ve seen his kind many times—eventually he would have swung at the end of a rope, but damn it, we could have squeezed Grigori dry for information about the doings south of here. Followed him and discovered the people he associates with. There would be no need to kill him—his bosses would have done that for us.
And there is a bigger issue. I initially left the cult of Aroden—left the service of the Issian noble houses—because Aroden’s worship is at its heart based on injustice. No one should be made inferior by convention.
All power needs opposition. It’s the way rulers learn what concerns their subjects. Demagogues come and demagogues go but Lev should be able to best them in debate—even if the other guy is using magic—and if he doesn’t then maybe it is time for him to go.
Opposition gives the people a valve, like in a wind instrument, to honk their concern. The music you hear may not always be pleasant, but it’s important that you listen. If you shut it off—as the ruling caste of Brevoy has done—the pressure builds until the bladder splits. That’s when people die.
The next day Cane and Sizzles returned to town carrying the items they’d stripped from the Grigori’s hot corpse:
• 3 potions
• +1 chain shirt
• masterwork buckler
• +1 rapier
• short bow
• 132 gold pieces
My share of the blood money I gave to the town indigent, something Grigori might have wished if he really was sincere.
“He used magic to unduly influence people,” was Cane’s excuse. “It’s a dangerous wilderness, I hear,” he added disingenuously. “That’s why we have to go out and kill things.”
“Exactly,” Piea agreed.
“We killed the giant plant that ate that wolf!” Kelm added excitedly, a boy once more.
As we passed the square we overheard a man saying to his friend, “They just went off and killed Grigori in the middle of the night. He might have had information valuable to the city.”
“Yeah, he might have had some information there, jackass,” Lev grumbled with disgust.
“We don’t have to justify . . .” Kelm protested.
“We could have asked him to surrender, got his information . . . and then killed him,” Lev replied, shocking me more than anything Cane has done. Our little group has become like the ancient Order of the Eel, too slippery for its own good.
“Where was he from?” Piea wondered, much too late. “Why did he start all this?”
“Now we’ll never know.”
The next day dawned a beautiful morning, clear blue sky and the tang of autumn in the air. I stopped by your house for breakfast and was surprised to hear you humming Skevens’s Anthem #9. Perhaps the boy has something there. I was unsurprised when Big Billee and Junior showed up for breakfast. It sounds like his skill as a carpenter has been put to good use here in Tuskland. And Little Billee even had his hair combed, although I can't say he looked happy.
Then I walked through the streets with the other early risers to reach the Citadel where I spent the morning reading and answering letters from other followers of Erastil. I then joined my colleagues at the Stumble Inn for lunch where we also administered our barony: building roads, farms, and extending our realm south.
Then our business was interrupted with more immediate concerns. The distraught parents of young Tig Tannerson were escorted into our room. (Wasn’t he the one who gave little Billee a bloody nose at school?) It seems his hobby of collecting pets along the wilds of the southern green belt has gotten him in trouble and he has been missing for several days. We agreed to search for him.
Afterward, at he bar, Piea was drinking a ladyfinger (well, a 40-oz. ladyfinger) and chatting with the man next to her, citizen Arven, he introduced himself. He was wearing a hat covered with fishing lures and his face was like something caught on one of those lures—watery, eyes protruding, one of which looked adoringly at her while the other wandered around the room.
He then told her about his secret fishing hole. “Best durned place in the universe,” he proclaimed. “Full o’ them wall-eyed pikes,” he intoned raptly. Piea wetted her lips with one finger from her glass as he spoke. “Then it was invaded by that nasty old Crackjaw, which was some ill-tempered beast, you betchcha, chewed up half my buds afore we got away.”
“Crackjaw?” Piea laughed. “You got no worries, handsome. We killed and ate that thing.”
“Garshk,” he replied. “You ate him. No wonder you got such pretty hair, with all that turtle protein in it and all.” He ducked his head bashfully, pulling a small box out of his pocket he held it out towards Piea. ”I was going to give this ring to whoever got rid of old Crackjaw but if he’s already gone . . .” He batted his wayward eye at Piea. “I admit I’m kinda sweet on you, gal. I don’t want to spoil it by giving you a ring,” he apologized, standing. “Maybe we’ll meet again sometime, I hope.” He retreated awkwardly out the door.
Piea watched him go before turning to scowl at the men in the room. “I need a man who’ll let me benchpress him!” she growled as everyone quickly found something else to do.
The next morning we were once again on the road south, figuring to visit the old witch first. Who else is likely to abduct a child? Tig was last seen building a raft southwest, where he intended to cross the Skunk River and explore the western bank of the Tuskwater. Following our map we soon came to a small dilapidated mud brick hut atop a low hummock in a fetid marsh. A trickle of smoke emerged from a hole in its roof. A wooden fence on the perimeter was hung with crude fetishes crafted of sticks, feathers, and animal bones. My old friend the raven cawed from the top of a nearby cypress. A scarecrow stood in the front yard. A rusted bell hung from a length of rope next to the gate. We pulled the rope and a heard a flat clanking noise.
An old woman peered out through a window. “Go away,” she croaked.
“Good afternoon, Ma’m,” Lev said like a door to door salesman. “We’re from the new city of Tuskland and we’re interested in making your acquaintance.”
“What do you want?”
“We’re looking for a boy who disappeared in your area.”
“I was wondering when someone would come looking for him,” she grated. “Tig! Somebody’s here for you. Come on in,” she added gently, swinging the door open.
As we passed the scarecrow its button-eyes seemed to follow us speculatively.
Inside the cluttered room Tig sat playing with a wooden toy nearby a bubbling cauldron of stew. “I was just exploring,” he said, as bad a liar as Little Billee. “She’s so nice,” he added. “She’s a good cook.”
Lev introduced himself to her.
“I know who you are,” she said, sourly. “Trying to civilize the land.” She paused, looking us over with her googly eyes, reminding me of Piea’s boyfriend. “Good luck to you. There’s a lot of dangers like the mad hermit. He’s west of here. Watch out for him. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Is Candlemere Castle haunted as they say it is?” asked Kelm.
“Will-o’-wisps infest the area,” she said as we groaned.
“Some say there is an ancient evil . . .” she continued ignoring us, “older than the gods themselves.”
“Actually,” Kelm interrupted her. “There might be something you can help us with. We’re looking for ancient Elven ruins. Would you happen to know where they are?”
She paused looking closely at Kelm for a long moment. “I don’t know of any.”
She played with her rolling bones for a time as we sat quietly. I was happy just to rest in her overstuffed chair. How did they transport such a thing across a swamp?
Finally she spoke. “I know of a barrow where an ancient warrior is buried. They say it too is haunted.” She paused again for another long while.
“Then there is the lizard-folk tribe on the island in Candlemere. At the mouth of the river to the west is the lizard king—he can do anything.”
After another pause Lev asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? You’ve been so much help.”
“There’s a mud bowl nearby. You should be able to find a particular mushroom I’m looking for—black rattlecaps. I’ll give you 100 gold pieces for every one you can bring me.”
“No problemo,” Lev promised, "We were just over there, rumbling with an enraged plant.
The old woman smiled. “Take Tig back with you. His parents need him for now.”
We waited while they said goodbye. They both tried to play it tough but then tearfully embraced before parting. She gave him a magic sigil. “I’ll be back—when I’m older,” he said, glancing defiantly at Lev.
“Shall I brand him?” I idly asked.
“I already have,” she cackled, “although you’ll never see it, little Tige here wears the mark of The Old Belledame!”
“You said your name is Elga!” Tig interrupted her cackle of triumph.
“Ah wee lad,” she sighed, patting his head affectionately.
She then served us tea.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Piea said, refusing the cup offered her. “You seem so nice, why do people call you crazy?”
“It’s not easy being green,” she shrugged with a gap-toothed grin.
Lev took Tig back while the rest of us revisited our little battleground with the tendriculous where we discovered that our battle had destroyed much of the crop, leaving only 11 black caps. True to her word the old woman paid us 1100 gold.
On the way back Piea started telling us about her fisherman with the lazy eye, “I want to visit him again,” she stated.
Getting back to Tuskland I wanted only to see was my bed but we were immediately confronted with a tacked up notices:
“Rumors of a dragon haunting the southern Narlmarshes are assuredly overstated,” the first one read. "The evidence indicates the source of the rumors is merely a forest drake. However, several people have lost their lives, therefore the marshal has determined the beast must be put down. The kingdom offers a reward of 1200 gold pieces for the first group that can claim a forest drake in the Narlmarshes fallen.”
The other was an offer of 600 gold pieces and three potions of cure moderate wounds for shamblesap taken from a shambling mound for the production of medicinal herbs. I can say that only a sap would approach a shambling mound but on the other hand I could use the money.
See you Sunday brunch!
Your loving uncle,