Unfortunately, Maestro Penrod followed us back to Tuskland, complaining so bitterly about his lost property that I offered to whip some sense into him. Taking the hint he continued his whining to Bert Askew instead. Helpful as always, Askew drew up a writ offering 500 gold pieces for the return of the books even though Bert knew full well where they were.
“By the time he emerges his books will be ready and I’ll use the 500 gold to pay off the girls,” he said like the pimp he used to be back in Grayhaven. (Once again I want to remind you that I’m telling you these things to educate you in the ways of the world so that you will be better prepared to meet them.)
We sent adventurers to scout much of the territory we’ve been unable to explore while we prepared to leave for Tatzlford.
From Bert Askew’s lecture: “Loy Rezbin—known as Tanner—was a ranger of these parts of the Stolen Lands. He’s now mayor of Tatzlford, a small community on the Skunk River settled by the river bend where you fought the Tatzlworm. See, after the battle, Latricia Evanore, a priestess of Erastil, built her temple there and pretty soon other folks started gathering, including this Tanner fellow who was attracted for other reasons than religion, wacka-wacka,” Askew waggled his eyebrows suggestively while elbowing Trask in the ribs. “They’ve shared the responsibility for guiding Tatzlford ever since.”
More ominously Bert said the last messenger he’d sent never returned.
Still, Lev insisted that they were declaring a wish to invite us in and pledge fealty to us. “His letter sounded like, ‘Great Erastil, we’re about to be invaded—help!’” Lev declared enthusiastically.
Soon our provisions were packed into the bag of holding, tied securely on Betsy the mule, and we were riding northwest, passing many new farms along the way, the citizens hailing us enthusiastically, but soon enough we were enveloped by the silence of the deep woods. Even here we occasionally heard the sounds of the axe and saw and the curses of timbermen in the parts of the forest that aren't reserved for fey.
Finally we descended into a valley seeming much unchanged from when we'd begun our questing so long ago except for a wide trail passing through the forest. We followed it towards the river where we found the town of Tatzlford huddled against the River Skunk. A hastily built wall circumscribed over twoscore buildings and outbuildings. Several children ran along with us shouting questions until they saw Sizzles and beat a hasty retreat. A man in boiled leather hurried towards us cinching his sword and trailed by three tough looking men on horseback.
“Hoy, there!” he cried. “I am Captain Coren Lawry, the commander of the Tatzlford Guard!" He stared at Lev uncertainly before clenching his hand. "They say that you are Lev Davidovich? Of Tuskland? Could that be true?”
“It would,” Lev replied modestly.
He turned to Trask. “You must be Kelm.”
“No, he never leaves the city,” the bowman rasped.
“A shame, the mayor hoped to meet the famous Kelm.” He turned to me with a skeptical eye. “And you are? . . .”
“Oh, yes, we’ve heard of you, too,” he begrudgingly allowed. “But enough idle chit-chat. Mayor Rezbin would like to speak with you. We will be escorting you to the lodge.”
We got down off our horses and led them through the town as Lawry pointed out the various buildings where we'd occasionally see the bobbing heads of shy villagers peering back at us.
“T’ain’t often that we get distinguished guests like your honors—in fact you’re the first!” he laughed buffoonishly. “That there’s Gnori Berwekertan’s place. She’s a gemcutter, although she don’t keep the product on the premises, no sir,” he added, suddenly suspicious, which I can sympathize with if anyone has told him about the Varnholders' experience with us.
“That’s Able Morkentian’s cozy little inn over there," he pointed to a large building on the north edge of town. "There’s five rooms—one for each of you—not that I care where you stay—but Able’s got a good place and a comely daughter.
“Over south there is our smithy, old Kole Jhargev, comes from Brevoy like you all, with little good to say about it.
“Past Gnori’s is the Tatzlford library. It’s also a school for 16 children. Imagine that!” he said with pride. "We even got us an elven schoolmarm, Emraeli Emfaun. They say she knows her bidness,” he added with a harsh whisper, mouthing the word, “M-a-g-i-c!
“Over here’s Karl Roschinder’s general store,” he waved to several men propped around a checkerboard.
By this time we had crossed nearly half the town while circumscribing a small dark fortress at its center, like the stone at the center of a cherry, pausing only when we reached its front gates where the road continued west to a bridge over the Skunk River near the Tatzlworm's lair, bless its hide.
“River Run Alehouse just south there serves the finest huckleberry mead and sweet ale you ever want to taste—Killough Margrom, maybe you heard of him?” When no one answered he smiled. “Come over here, I got something to show ya.”
He led us into a nearby tavern. It was dark and cool inside. Several men watched us cautiously from a nearby table. "There you go, hoss!" Lawry extended his hands towards a huge creature mounted above the bar. It took a moment for my sun-dazed eyes to adjust but there it was, looking as ferocious as a two-ton teddy bear, the Tatzlworm we’d slain mounted above the bar.
After slaking our thirst and buying a round for the bar we once again filed outside. “Across the bridge and to the right is what we call the Lodge, a temple of Erastil. The priestess is Latricia Evanore—we owe everything to that woman—she’s the mayor’s wife.”
“What’s that?” we asked pointing to another large building across the river, set well away from the temple on the opposite side of the road.
“They call it Thrillseekers,” he grinned ruefully. “It’s kind of a sore spot. They advertise themselves as a place for games and fun but everyone knows it’s, um, you know, a brothel.”
Since a brothel was one of the first things we built in Tuskland, and its ladies are some of our finest citizens, I didn’t expect the heated discussion that followed about how such a small town could support such a large brothel. "All you need is a road."
Finally we were brought into the fort to meet the mayor, who seemed befuddled by our arrival. “Welcome to my Grace’s, er . . . uh . . . I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. . . Wel-welcome to Tatzlford. It’s an honor, we’re so happy to have you here,” he slurred the last, like when Big Billee has too much Cheerful Delver Stout.
“I’m very impressed with this little community that you’ve established here,” Lev replied graciously.
I felt almost as if Bert Askew was at my side, whispering as I studied mayor Rezbin. “He’s out of shape for a ranger, old, heavyset, losing his hair.”
At his side was his lady, a gracious woman, Latricia Evanore, warm and effusive, very much her husband’s other half—as Erastil intends. Together they were likable, down to earth, but still it seemed as if I could hear Askew whispering in my ear, “He’s not cut out for this. He’s under a lot of pressure. It’s her ambition that drives him. She is hot!”
This last thought I dismissed out of hand. Remember, dear Pino, random thoughts are not important, only the ones you follow.
The mayor introduced us to Kisandra Numesti, youngest daughter of lord Terrion Numesti, a knight and aristocrat of Brevoy, a leader of the group chosen to settle west of here at a town called Drelev on the Hooktongue Slough.
“It was established by Baron Hannis Drelev, gravel warrior,” said the grim young woman sourly. “My father is a knight serving the Baron. Things have never been easy near the Slough, where the unwary often disappear. Pitax, to our west tries to dominate us with bribes and threats. Lately we’ve been visited by darker forces from farther west—a vanguard of Tiger Lord Barbarians. Drelev’s been trying to play them off Pitax ever since and I’m afraid Tatzlford is about to pay the price. It’s why he threw my father into the dungeon and why I’ve come to warn you—the Lords of Pitax are not nice people.”
Trask tsked at the Baron’s cruel temerity towards her father, apparently never hearing about how Cane dealt with the dissenter known as Grigori in our earlier days.
“Baron Drelev’s troops, along with the Tiger Lord Barbarians, and eight enormous trolls, are two or three hours north of here,” she added to gasps.
But First Comrade Lev is made of sterner stuff. “Trolls are annoying,” he allowed. “What do they want? Are they planning on taking this city with us here?”
“He’s always been jealous of your success.” she said. “But really, he’s giving you up to save his own skin. Drelev surrendered to the barbarians and the Lord of Pitax so that they wouldn’t overrun his kingdom. I suspect he sees attacking you as a way to prove his worth to his new master.
“Any loyalty I owed Baron Drelev died as soon as he allowed those savages to take my sister and imprisoned my father for refusing to help him slaughter you.”
“Don’t you fret none,” Trask took her hand comfortingly.
“I hoped that by warning you I’d earn your favor and obtain aid in freeing them,” she said gratefully. “But even if you choose not to help me, I can’t sit idly by and watch as that madman attacks this village.”
“Let’s just go take care of this!” Trask growled, raising his fist.
“We can grab a couple of people from here!” Cane agreed enthusiastically. “How about the school marm and the smith, the leader? . . .”
“So the Baron himself is with these mercenaries?” Lev asked, ignoring him.
“No he’s back at the castle.”
“We’re all about overthrowing unjust leaders,” Lev then cooed.
“Let’s go kill some barbarians,” Trask growled again. “We shouldn’t go on the defense but raise an army right now and go in there and . . .”
“We’re not ready for that, yet,” Lev protested.
“It don’t matter!”
“They are led by one of Drelev’s right hand thugs,” Kisandra broke in. “A pig of a man named Ameon Trask.”
We all looked to our Trask, whose jaw dropped in abnegation. “Well,” he finally stammered, “they’re all dead men now, I tell you.”
We began to discuss our strategy, Trask wanting to put snipers on the rooftops and in the trees, “traps in the woods and archers on the bridge.”
“There are eight trolls and they are advanced trolls,” Kasandra said, urging us to concentrate on them while she rallied the villagers.
We spent the rest of our time preparing for the battle to come. The children and infirm were taken into the citadel while the rest gathered around Kisandra and Lawry as she ran through a few simple signals. Most of the villagers were hardened from living on the frontier and a few were spoiling for the fight.
“I don’t think the Barbarians are too committed to this yet but if they sense weakness they’ll be on us like stink on," she saw the librarian and was suddenly abashed, ". . . tigers, yeah, so we’ll just lure these guys into here and then the archers will . . .” We left them to their planning and found a nice high place where we could rest until we were needed.
While waiting I honed my sword’s blade, running through my little trick bag of spells, and warming the muscles in my legs and arms. Cane nuzzled Sizzles to the giggles of some of the children who were still outside the Keep. Lev and Vlad sat in animated conversation with one another, best friends forever. Trask watched from above for the approach of the Drelevans and their allies, his eyes darting from the forest to the river to Kisandra to the south to the north to Kisandra, to the river, to Kisandra. Meantime I counted my +1 arrows.
They appeared along the eastern bank of the river, cheering in derision as they followed it into town. We had just enough time to get the children inside and bar the door before the enemy breached the partially completed wall. They were followed by eight lumbering trolls leaving savage destruction in their wake.
Fortunately, we’re a lot better at fighting trolls than we used to be and they cooperated by stupidly approaching in a pack. Vlad's searing light blinded three and seriously damaged all but one. Lev followed that with a heroic speech about, “How all the trolls should die!”
Cane sidestepped while pushing his blade into one. I toasted another using searing light. Trask’s bow obliterated its target, leaving his victims looking like a bag of Butcher Pete’s ground round. Unfortunately, Ameon got away. Only a few of the villagers were hurt and soon a guard was posted while we dragged the trolls to a huge pyre outside the town’s walls.
As dusk approached, we sat eating roast rib-eye while Kisandra once again pled her case. “My father is in the dungeons of Drelev,” she said. “Please help. My sister went to Drelev to make peace with the barbarians.” She shook her head in amazement. “They slapped her behind and told her how they would use her like an animal. Their leader is as wacko as the rest of them, a self-styled barbarian lord who thinks himself a reincarnation of a great warlord and that he will ruin her for all other men, by the gods!” she cursed. “In order to appease them the daughters of five senior officers of Drelev were given to the Tiger Lords as hostages, including my sister!”
“That’s cold,” said Trask.
“Help me repay Drelev by forcing him to give up his kingdom and his plans. He’ll cause the death of hundreds if he is not stopped. I can pledge you my family’s loyalty—I have no wealth. The citizens of Fort Drelev will welcome you as liberators and beg to join your kingdom."
Trask jumped up, "We must save them!" He was about to pledge his fealty when interrupted him.
"There is one person you can trust," she said huskily, "my lover Satindar. She runs the town brothel.”
“I was right on all counts,” Cane laughed while making kissing sounds at Trask.
Kisandra turned red, standing up, staring at Trask until he too had turned red. “I expected more of you,” she sniffed. “Yet this foul mouth on your friend Cane sickens me to the core.” She spat and stormed out.
“Lesbians are kind of sensitive,” he laughed at her retreating back.
Vlad and I quickly followed her to the edge of town.
“Don’t mind him, my lady,” I said. “Cane’s never known the favor of any woman, preferring the love of animals to that of his own.”
“Well, it shows,” she grumbled before relenting. “The guards are among Satindar's best customers. If you are looking for a safe place to hide mention my name to her and give her this.” She handed us a jade ring. “Place a long-stemmed flower through the ring and she’ll know you can be trusted. I can also draw you a map.”
Preparing to leave the next morning we were approached by several citizens, hats in hand, asking favors. One was Chesk Umberweed, the town’s alchemist, who said he’d promised several dwarves to deliver a powerful metal etching acid but he’s run out of supplies. “I need a dozen vials of giant slug acid.” he said in a faint northern accent. “You know how dwarves are when they can’t get what they want. I’ve heard that there are giant slugs in the Hooktongue—a single slug should suffice. I’ll brew you a dozen potions of your choice in return.”
The local taxidermist, Quanchy Veeliker, wants a fresh water elasmosaurus to stuff “and be careful with the body, and I will give you 8000 gold.”
Damn!” Trask exclaimed.
We also saw a wanted poster for Speartooth a saber-toothed tiger that “has long claimed the hills west of the swamp. He’s killed and eaten at least a hundred people! Kill him and deliver his 22 inch fangs to the captain of the guards, Coren Lawry, and he will give you 8000 gold.”
Latricia Evanore and I talked about our service to Erastil. She says the Stolen Lands have long been cherished by Erastil and that others have failed in the past because they did not balance their civilizations with the needs of Nature surrounding them. P.U.R.K, though, she thinks has a chance as long as we're inspired by Erastil's wise tenets.
She also confided of her specialty for crafting magic items out of insect parts. “I need the wings of six giant dragonflies and will trade a +3 cloak of resistance for them,” she told me as we sat together. By the twelve gods I wished she was a free woman but it's not to be. We prayed for Erastil's forbearance and then I took my leave.
Tanner was leaving as I arrived, after an agreement with Lev for Tatzlford to join P.U.R.K. after we build them a road to Wyvernstone Bridge. Rezkin just happened to have the plans on him. That's when Bert Askew rode up to the Inn with news about how our explorers fared in the wilds above Varnville.
“A nest of trapdoor spiders killed a few them,” Bert shrugged apologetically, pointing out the spot on the map.
“Awesome, we don’t have to pay those three guys,” Cane shrugged callously while snacking on a rare-steak dinner he was sharing with Sizzles.
“Another was horribly maimed,” Askew read from a scroll. “He came back having terrible nightmares and killed himself a week later. The survivors did manage to bring back a great deal of spidersilk and win the award for themselves, not to mention finding several magical items.” Askew sneered at us for the wealth we’d passed up.
Bert said that another of our groups had discovered Nomen burial grounds to the far northeast, near the border with Brevoy. He added that he'd ceded the land to the Nomens who brought what little remains they'd found of them back to him.
His third group he'd found lingering in a back-alley tavern in Tuskland. One called himself Harsk, jr., from parts unknown. Others were a “vivacious young lady with wild eyes and quills like a porcupine known as Laori Vauss from Old Korvosa; Joseph Tenderling, from the city of Chesed; and a very large man called Black Auchs—‘To distinguish me from my bruddah!’—from somewhere in the River Kingdoms.”
“That’s how I got my start,” Trask growled proudly. “Busting heads and taking names!”
“They weren’t much better than bandits yet they brought back those manticore quills!” Askew bubbled with resentment. “And you know what they got? A rare book of ancient halfling poetry worth a great deal!” he huffed. “And you know what that spiky gal said to me? ‘I know a sucker who'll buy this,’ and walked off with it!”
They had found the plains to the north empty before hearing a weird whistling sound and discovering that the ground was riddled with holes leading to caverns filled with gemstones.
“Those guys gets a bonus,” Cane grinned.
"Oh, it gets better," Askew spat. "They followed the river through a little valley between two rocky outcroppings. There they discovered a small island—kind of like Vordakai's joint—where a giant flytrap gobbled them all up except for the spiky gal. It probably couldn't digest her."
“Ha!” Trask laughed. “She gets the P.U.R.K. pension!”
"West of there she found a shallow cave in the mountainside where she also discovered a rich vein of iron ore. She’s now one of the wealthiest people north of Korvosa!” Bert screamed in frustration. “You should have seen her smirking, followed by a line of mules a mile long! Phuh,” he spat with contempt.
After he'd calmed down we officially proclaimed Tatzlford a member of P.U.R.K. and then departed to explore further east. The land on this side of the forest was much different than what we're used to, swampland, teaming with snakes, wildcats, and dragonflies of all sizes. Most of them are harmless but there is also a giant, ravenous kind that quickly discovered some tasty morsels.
The first I knew of their approach were the shrieks of Vlad and Cane's sudden curse, “He bit me!” Then Sizzles yelped.
“These things are bad-ass!” Trask howled with glee.
Lev gave a quick speech to assist us: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. Gentlemen in Tuskland now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Hooktongue Slough.”
We were then set upon by the beasts, who buzzed about our heads like bees on a sweet thing. Trask obliterated one, only the wings were left to settle fluttering on the ground. Sizzles took the most damage but Cane protected her until all that was left were wings.
From there we traveled east, finding nothing but swamp when Lev stumbled into a pool of quicksand that sucked him quickly down. “Help me,” he called frantically. “I’m sinking. Help me, help me!”
Cane quickly waded in and rescued him. After that we passed through empty plain until reaching the East Sellen river, following it as it widened into Lake Hooktongue. Along its pebbled shore we found collapsed shacks and huts, maybe it was a long abandoned trading post. There were boggards living there but they were no match for Lev and Trask who slew them all.
Their treasure was a 14 inch statue of an elven woman touching her right breast worth 350 gold pieces. We also found 24 copper and 17 silver pieces.
As dusk approached we heard the sounds of a couple comforting one another. Vlad and Trask snuck closer and discovered only an ahuizotl trying to lure us closer into its trap. “Aw, it’s a rat!” Trask exclaimed before killing it. Nearby we found a half-eaten man. We buried him after emptying his pockets of 7 gold and 5 silver for the orphans' fund.
Opening our folding boat, we crossed the lake to its southern shore where we saw a large settlement of boggards. We landed, setting up camp for the night well away from the settlement.
“I’m not up for genocide quite yet,” Trask observed pulling the blanket up and immediately falling asleep. Which is what I intend to do as soon as I finish this letter.
Love to you and your Mother,