“That’s damn good timing,” Kelm said, peering at her nearsightedly through his thick spectacles.
On the back of her horse she was carrying a large burlap sack. Every once in a while the sack would move and a low moan would escape. “Just a bag ’o wildcats,” she said. “Pay it no mind.” When we continued to stare, she shrugged, “Mama said to always keep an eye on your man.”
She glanced back at the sack. “Oh, I let him out once in awhile to play.”
Let this be a lesson to you, Pino:
- There are all kinds of love.
- Never let a man put you in a sack.
- type 2 bag of holding with:
- 6000 gold pieces
- assorted coins and jewelry
- payroll coffer with 500 gp
- gems worth 3500 gp
- +2 defending longsword with the crest of House Varn
- wand of spectral hand with 17 charges
- ring of friend shield
- darkwood and ivory +2 thundering composite longbow (The workmanship consonant with the several of the centaur tribes of Iobaria.)
- building supplies
The quarters of the Master Dispatch had been destroyed with all his belongings. It seems spriggans are more interested in destroying than acquiring. We found a few scraps of communication with Restov mentioning conflicts with a tribe of nomadic centaurs known as the Nomen, but no hint at what may have befallen the village.
“Is it possible someone is setting the Nomens up?” Kelm speculated.
That’s when we spied a structure we’d previously overlooked—a sod house sunk into the base of a hill, its heavy oaken door hanging askew. Piea went in cautiously, but found no one there. It had been looted but, typically for the spriggans, they’d overlooked a small wooden box about the size of a wizard’s spellbook containing a healthy wad of zong and a pipe. Lying nearby was a book torn in half along its spine. The writing was in Skald, a language I studied at Academy for its poetry.
It was the journal of Willis Gunderson, a ranger in the company of Maegar Varn. It logged several skirmishes with the Nomen centaurs. The last entry was two weeks before our arrival concerning a minor incident at Varnhold Pass. Six weeks before an entry read: “Found bracelet by the river!” Someone had tried to rip the tough parchment page and failed. The next page was of a single large rune inscribed with charcoal—an arcane elven symbol warding off bad luck.
We headed east onto the plain, finding nothing and no one. After hours riding in the midday sun we suddenly realized that we were riding through a vast tract of large burrows, as if the land had been invaded by a giant race of moles. That’s when the ground began vibrating ominously. With shouts of dismay we dismounted as, with a shriek and a huge spray of dirt, a ferocious, snarling bulette surfaced.
|Bullete by Ben Wootten|
Bulettes are compared most often to an armored shark, but at least with a shark you can stay in the boat. With the ferocious bulette you generally find a rocky outcropping or die.
Or you fight, which is what we did, and so quickly did my colleagues dispatch the beast that I barely had time to set up my spiritual weapon before it was dead.
Since there was unlikely to be another of the predators within many miles we set up camp for the night and had a good steak dinner. By next morning's light we headed south until happening upon eight centaur warriors. They were not friendly, either, pawing the earth with their front hooves urgently, hands clenching their spears and bows with white-knuckled fury, as if willfully holding them back.
“No tread. Your presence here is dread, mon,” the first one said, shaking her big clumpy spikes of hair.
“It’s Jar-Jar!” someone from the back cried derisively.
“Where did you get that?” another demanded angrily, this time speaking in common, pointing at my new bow.
“We found it in the ruins of Varnhold.”
Loudly, they demanded I return it.
“Take us to your leader and we’ll negotiate,” Lev replied reasonably enough. They bristled nonetheless.
“That’s our Skybolt!" they screamed. "It’s sacred!”
“Please allow us the honor of returning it to your chief,” calmly, Kelm answered them.
They agreed, grudgingly taking us to their camp, another hour’s ride through a sea of grass. It sat on a low hill. A large bonfire crackled in the center, although they must have traveled dozens of miles to get the wood. Around it, the tribe’s females sat in a circle, humming. Younger warriors stood outside the circle, cleaning armor, sharpening swords. They took us up to the circle and one of the women, red of hair, approached. She introduced herself as their leader, Aecora Silverfire.
Lev explained that we were investigating the atrocities that had occurred at Varnhold but she only had eyes for the bow. “Where did you get that?” she demanded.
“We found it in the stronghold,” I said. “Some spriggans had it.”
Her voice became as chill as the wind off the lake of Mists and Veils in mid-winter. “There are about 200 warriors here in this camp,” she said in a deep growl. “You need to give me the bow!”
I’m not used to giving in to threats but I also had the desire to see justice done and, obviously, this bow had been obtained by someone through foul play. “I'm honored to return this beautiful weapon to its people,” I said gravely, handing it to her with careful ceremony.
She gazed at it closely before handing it off to another. I could read love there, and fear. “What brings you?” she said, turning back to us.
“We were looking for the Nomen who were responsible for the cleansing of Varnhold,” Kelm replied carefully.
“I know that place. We’ve had our issues with Varnhold.”
“Everyone there has vanished.”
“Why ask me?” After a moment’s pause, “Have you tracked down the Culcheck spriggans? They were probably involved.”
“There were some spriggans there,” Kelm answered. “They were pretty inept. They could not have caused an entire town to disappear.”
“I’m afraid that I can’t help you,” she coldly dismissed us. She's telling the truth, of that I have no doubt.
We tried to parlay further. I even tried to entice her with a description of PURK’s bountiful zong harvest. Centaurs do love their herb, don’t ask me why, but it might explain their suspicious natures. We made her a present of the box we’d found and its contents.
“Where’d you get that?” she said suspiciously.
“Varnhold,” we spoke as one.
“It belonged to my brother . . . he disappeared about three weeks ago. Did you see any centaurs in Varnhold?”
“There were several skins,” Lev blithely volunteered. A shiver ran up my spine at the look on her face. She said something in a dialect I did not understand but her tone was clear.
Smoke was coming out of Kelm’s ears as he turned toward Lev. “You don’t—what—you don’t—You say, ‘We found some remains that were properly disposed of with all ceremonial rights.’ You don’t say, ‘Yo! We saw some skins!” They continued arguing until suddenly Silverfire spat noisily on the ground.
Piea was about to spit back but we grabbed her in time to avert certain tragedy, or your uncle would not be writing these lines.
“You realize that there are 200 of them surrounding us,” Cane said from the side of his mouth.
“Phaa! That’s what my great-axe is for!” Piea sniffed.
Kelm tried again with the centaur leader. “To show our friendship we returned to you the things that belong to you,” he said, trying to establish a quid pro quo with her, but she was having none of it. “We’re looking for information about Varnhold,” he pleaded, “and what happened to its citizens.”
“I don’t know and I think we should stop talking to each other,” she replied brusquely.
After a short pause Lev decided to push our luck a little further. “We’ll leave you in peace with one final question.”
“We’re looking for a jade bracelet . . .”
“I don’t know anything about a bracelet.” She turned, walking quickly away as several of her lieutenants closed ranks, scowling down at us.
“Drop by Tuskland sometime,” Lev called after her. “We’d love to see you. . . .”
We gave up with that. Either she cared a great deal, or she cared not at all, either way defeats our purpose. We were given an escort, less for our security than to ensure we didn’t wander back.
Our conclusion was that someone was trying to frame the Nomen for this crime. But whom? What have we missed? Who murdered the spriggans? And why would such an inept bunch then wait around for us to show up and kill them?
We went west next. On one sleepy afternoon we saw some crows by the roadside near a dead mother cat, still protecting her kittens. Piea took one as a pet, stuffing it in the bag with Arven, and I got one for you, too, dear Pino. I’m calling her Sizzles, Jr., but you can call her anything you want.
We returned to Varnhold in hope of finding more clues, but it all came to naught, later earning a scolding from Bert Askew for wasting time. Even so, I had the distinct feeling of being watched while we were there. Where was Maegar Varn? What has the bracelet got to do with things? Who's this Vordakai? We studied the clues we’d been given but drew a blank, like little Billee at show-and-tell. With Lev yawning from boredom we decided to head back the Tuskland.
Studying a map Kelm saw that we could easily take our folding boat down the river to Tuskland.
“That’s smart!” Lev said in astonishment.
“You said that like you were surprised,” Cane replied and we all had a good laugh.
Later, we came back to the mountains at the headwaters of the Shrike River. There we discovered a large, recently vacated cave. Everything inside was smashed.
After following alongside the waters while they raced down a deep ravine to the plain below, we finally found a quiet spot we could unfold our boat to place in the water. It was quite comfy, with room for our horses, men’s and women’s privies, a mess, lounge, rumpus room, and servants' quarters. In a short cove we discovered a smashed rowboat that had recently been unearthed by storm or earthquake. Inside, covered with moss and dirt, grinned a pock-marked skeleton. A gold locket suggested he had died nearly 200 years ago, when this land was Erastil’s.
The water of Lake Silverstep is as clear as winter’s morning, the air as fresh as a bite from a lemon. So it surprised us to see a three mile swath of the northern lakeshore bubbling with sulfurous mud. As much as we wanted to investigate we could not stop, having important business in Tuskland that could not wait.
Ah, it was wonderful to finally be home, sharing dinner with you, Pirna, and Bert. I introduced you to your new little friend, whom you immediately named Nymeria. While you two were getting acquainted I met Bert’s son, little Ernie Askew, who has been living with his aunt in Brunderton until his daddy could send for him. I hope you become great friends.
Later, I went to the tavern to meet with Old Beldame, who promised to tell us what she knew about the centaurs if we stood her for beer—she’s a stout old dame. I saw her give Kelm the eye while she told us about Nomen belief. Apparently, they’re the guardians of an ancient valley in the Dunsward. Concerned, Kelm sent Aecora Silverfire a message by bird feather token asking her to explain this legend. Then he went home with the Old Beldame. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino, never underestimate adversaries or friends.
“According to Nomen tradition,” Bert Askew lectured us in the Common Room two days later after receiving her reply. “Vordekai is a slumbering warlord in the time of the Mother tribes, an ancient power figure,” he said she’d written.
But there was this little bit more. “There is an evil place in her tradition that her tribe is supposed to watch the valley to the west and south against disturbance, a place they call Olah-Kakanket—the Valley of the Dead! Taboo to the Nomen.
“‘Recently one of my scouts,’” he read excitedly, “‘claims that she saw a large lumbering shape amid the stone of the Olah-Kakanket—I can only wonder that maybe your friends from Varnhold awoke this entity.
“‘The scout that saw the shape was my own daughter, Samantha. She has since disappeared and I fear the worst—that she has defied tradition and entered Olah-Kakanket.’”
“And that’s all the information they have. They’ve lost much of their archives in the years following their battles with the Taldorian army.”
Bert tossed the letter into the air. “And this sainted woman is the one you slandered as standoffish!”
“Time to go back,” Kelm and Lev said as one.
“‘I would warn you against going into the valley of the dead’” Bert snatched the letter back from the floor, “‘but if you do and you find clues of my daughter’s disappearance I’ll be very much appreciative.’”
At Kelm’s suggestion we sent her a message thanking her for the information. “When we enter the Valley of the Dead I will make certain to look for your daughter as our paths take us into that dreadful place,” he wrote.
“Are we really going to go back?” Cane asked.
“We have to,” Lev replied. “We have to.”