As the sun begins to set in the west, the small caravan of three wagons pulled by draft horses begins to search for a safe place to set up camp. While the old King’s Road is relatively safe during the day, it is generally advised to move off the road at night and choose a more defensible location.
Tasnap, the caravan master, urges on his drivers with language that would make a sailor blush. His drivers, used to his style, simply make a rude gesture and move off the road. One of the outriders, a dwarf riding his warhorse off to the side of the caravan, looks at Tasnap with mild annoyance.
“You’re doing it wrong, Tasnap! That’s not how you get people moving. You need to be more personnal with your insults. Anyway, this road’s no good to begin with and the wagons will sink down to their axles in all this rain.”
“Yes Gurdil, you’ve already said it three times. I’ll ignore the fourth expression of your useless opinions just as I’ve ignored the first three.” Replies Tasnap, “Instead of sitting there pretending you know anything about wagons, why don’t you get your two useless companions and head up ahead. You’re the only ones with horses, you might as well make yourself useful since I’m certainly PAYING you enough!” he finishes with a large smile, laughing as if some joke.
“You can kiss my short hairy ass! ‘Don’t know anything about wagons’; my parents are merchants, I’ll have you know. BAH!” answers Gurdil gives as he turns his horse around and heads to the back of the caravan where two more riders wait. He approaches the riders, a dragonborn and a Deva, who eye him with obvious mirth.
“Still loosing verbal battles to Tasnap? You’d think you would have learned your lesson by now. We left Fallcrest several days ago and he’s gotten the best of you in every exchange” Says the deva.
Gurdil looks at the deva in annoyance “Asha, if you hadn’t volunteered us as guards for his caravan FOR FREE, he wouldn’t have half as much ammo to use against me! Free! If you and Aurum hadn’t managed to make me sign that contract to take on caravan duty for absolutely no money at all, while I was drunk; we wouldn’t be in this stupid forest!”
The dragonborn, presumably Aurum, suddenly becomes serious:” The Raven Queen does not send visions lightly, Gurdil, and both Asha and I both received the same vision of Tasnap heading into the setting sun. Surely this means we were to accompany him as he travelled west. Yet we could not charge the man to take us on when the Raven Queen herself has charged us to do so.”
Gurdil visibly deflates and “What you charge him is your business. It’s my fee that I’m worried about” He sighs “If not for that contract… Anyways, he’s asked us to take point in case the Dark are off the road or something”.
Asha grunts, “The Dark indeed! More likely good old fashion brigands, since no one has seen any part of the Dark in nearly a century. Perhaps Ingold Inglorion did defeat them”
To which Aurum replies “Great Gurdil! You set him off again. He’ll be days trying to remember past lives and who did what when and how. He’ll wrack his brain trying to remember the last Coming of the Dark and he’ll be miserable because he can’t.” He spurs his horse forward. “Let’s go check for campsites. He might as well be warm and dry while he stares into space”.
With that, the three riders pass the caravan as it turns off the road and head into the woods a few meters further.
An hour later, the three wagons are positioned in a small gully, the King’s Road still visible through the trees two hundred meters away. Tasnap goes from wagon to wagon, instructing the drivers where to tie off the horses.
Nearer the road, Aurum, Gurdil and Asha huddle around their fire, trying to get dry and warm.
“Not much we can do about the wagon tracks but, hopefully, they won’t be seen in the Dark” says Aurum.
“Fat chance of that! Most brigands have the means to see in the dark, one way or the other.” huffs Gurdil.
“Perhaps, but…” begins Asha, stopping to stare at the top of the slope behind the wagons. The merchants and guards suddenly realize that they are being watched by several figures standing among the trees. Thirty pairs of glowing green eyes peer out of the darkness, the light of the watch fires reflecting from their slitted eyes. The complete silence is broken by Gurdil’s muttered “I told ya they could see in the dark!”.
One of the figures moves from the shadows into the light if the fires and revels himself to be a male longtooth shifter. Clad in bearskin armour, he looks over the camp from the top of the hill. Spotting Tasnap, he yells “Tasnap! You old horsethief! You dare park you travelling circus on our land!”
Tasnap, looking a bit confused, stumbles forward and squints at the new comer “Cairn? Is that you?” Having moved closer, his face changes suddenly “Cairn! You old hound dog! You should be ashamed of yourself, scaring an old honest merchant like that!”
“When I find him, I’ll apologize!” replies Cairn, stepping down into the gully with Tasnap. Tasnap, turns to the rest of the caravan and says loudly: “It’s alright, everyone, they’re friendly, keep setting up the camp.”
Within half an hour, the camp is set up for the night, the new comers helping the caravan to finish setting up the camp.
Sitting at the campfire with Tasnap and Cairn, Aurum, Asha and Gurdil listen to Tasnap explain the presence of Cairn and his tribe: “They’re a hunting for nomads.” he points at Cairn “Too lazy to clean up after themselves, they just move whenever their current location becomes too fouled to live in”. Cairn howls in laughter. “More likely we move on when the likes of you comes around. Seriously though, we are moving out of the area soon. Several attacks have taken place against our pa’sh-ta’ri brethren and even your kind. Several isolated holds have been wiped out and no one knowns why. There even talk that it is the work of the Dark since that is the way thing started the last time.”
Tasnap looks troubled. He asks “Should we expect trouble?”
“I don’t think so” replies Cairn, “We’re too well armed and we’re too many. Besides, what ever is causing this, they’ve always attacked stationary targets or our tribes at their traditional winter camps. Places where they knew there would be people. Surely a caravan of 3 wagons is too small to be noticed in that way.”
“Indeed” replies Tasnap. “Still, I’ll strengthen the guards for tonight though”. He and Cairn rise and sets off to get the guard rotations organized. When he returns, he says to Gurdil, Asha and Aurum:” The three of you are first watch. Cairn’s group will take second and last. The other guards will take third.”
With that, he heads for his tent and, soon, the sound of his snoring can be heard from across the camp.
The three get up and begin their rounds. After 2 hours of walking in circuits around the camp, they wake their three shaper replacements and lie down to rest for the evening. Just as their replacements begin their rounds, a hail of arrows whistles in, striking the 3 guards several times each.
Gurdil screams the alarm but it is too late. From behind a tree, a large hobgoblin steps out and shouts as he punches the air in Gurdil’s direction. A wave of force centered around Gurdil lifts him and the two others and throws them across the camp. Gurdil smashes into a tree and rolls under some bushes, knocked out. Asha falls on top of one of the wagons roof. The lack of movement would seem to indicate he too is unconscious.
Aurum slowly rises to his feet, dazed from the force pulse when behind him appears a bugbear, who bashes his morningstar on Aurum’s hastily donned helm. Blood bursts from his face as the unstrapped helm cuts him deeply and he falls face fist into the dirt.
...time passes slowly…
The morning sun rises as the stench of burnt flesh greets Gurdil as he crawls out from the bushes where he fell. Still unsure of his footing, he staggers over to the body of Aurum who lies in a large, now congealing, pool of his own blood. Gurdil kneels next to him and turns him over.
Aurum’s face is partially covered by the helm which pitched forward when he was hit. The helm is still stuck in the large gash across his cheek bones. As Gurdil manages to remove the helm, fresh blood pours from the wound. Gurdil swears and speaks loudly: “ Get up you overgrown Lizard! Or would you rather I take off with your RavenQueen symbol and see how much I can get for it?” [Inspiring Word]. Aurum gasps loudly and awakens with a start.
“Damn! I won’t get to rob you. Somebody else beat me to it.” says Gurdil. Aurum sits up shakily. Looking around, he says “It’s probably the only reason your fingers aren’t in my purse but why hasn’t anyone stolen our very lives? We didn’t put up much of a fight last night”.
“Probably thought you already were dead. You’re certainly made a mess big enough. Come, get up!” Gurdil says as he helps Aurum to stand. They survey the camp around them. The wagons still rest at the same spot they were the night before. Much blood lies around but few bodies.
“Where is everybody?” asks Aurum. “Don’t know but I think that is Tasnap” Gurdil replies as he points to a large burnt corpse in the main firepit. “only he is big enough to look like that. Guess he won’t be winning any more arguments with me”.
Suddenly, a voice comes from above : “Probably the only way for one as dim as you to win a verbal contest against him: for him to be dead.”
From the top of the wagon, Asha rolls off and jumps to the ground, landing heavily and nearly falling. A large red-purple bruise across his face testifies to where he hit one of the crossbars on the wagon.
“Ah! I see the bandits improved your profile. Now your face matches your breath.” Says Gurdil, starting to feel better.
“Whoever ambushed us last night sure isn’t making much noise” adds Asha. “Are we alone?”
The trio proceed to search the camp. They come across the body of Cairn, back to a tree with 5 arrows in his chest. As they approach his corpse, a booming voice calls out “Halt!”.
As they turn toward the voice, two shifters, male and female, step out from behind some bushes across the camp. They both have bows in their hands with knocked arrows pointing at Gurdil, Asha and Aurum.
“Who is responsible for this? Who has done this to our pa’sh-ta’ri?” demands the female shifter, to which Asha responds “We don’t know, we were all ambushed in the night. It would seem that we are all that is left of your hunting party and our caravan.”
After careful examination of the three, the answer seems to satisfy the two shifters, who introduce themselves as Urzula (the female shifter) and Bark (the male).
Forgetting their differences, the five scour the camp site looking for other survivors. They find none. Curiously, few corpses are to be found. Of the fifteen members of the caravan, only Tasnap’s corse is found, immolated in the fire pit. Of Cairn’s hunting party, only Cairn himself remains. No other corpses are present.
“Why take some of the dead but not the contents of the wagons? “ Asks Gurdil “They’ve looted almost all the equipment, they stripped Cairn of his weapons, they even took my shield and hammer. Yet they left the salt, the wine and the iron ingots. All of which are valuable. ”
“Not to slavers” replies Asha “Notice they took all the food too? Even our rations? What little food and equipment we did find was either hidden under something or simply too common to care about. We found enough to equip ourselves but anything heavy was left behind on purpose. I suspect that any of our companions that was even remotely ‘alive’ now has a collar around his neck. They even took the horses.”
“Slavers!?” spits Aurum “What stupidity is this? Most can barely provide enough food for themselves these days, surely more mouths aren’t wanted?”
“I can’t say” replies Asha “but it is the only thing that fits. Elatar, one of my previous selves, saw the same pattern..oh, about 500 years ago in Alketch. Raiders leaving behind valuable merchandise but stealing everyone and everything that could be moved quickly. Why they would do so in a time where food is so scarce is beyond me but I can think of no other explanation”
“Well, all this is interesting but if our kin still live, we must free them!” affirms Urzula.
“ We won’t catch them on foot” replies sadly Bark “We could try and free them but any tracks have been obliterated by the rain, we are half a day behind and they have a least a few horses and we have none. Even if we do catch them, then what? Our friends here are wounded, barely armed and we are only two. We cannot do anything even if we did catch them”
“We shall get the rest of the tribe then” says Urzula.
“No”says Bark. “They are too far. Cairn sent them north a week ago when I first joined you and we began our hunting. We were supposed to meet them by the Winterbole forest. That’s several days away and with many of our warriors now slaves, your tribe cannot spare the warriors for the chase. No, my friend, it is just you and I now. Or perhaps, we are not alone?” He looks in askance at Asha, Gurdil and Aurum.
The three of them look at each other. Deva says flatly “I would save anyone from the fate of a slave. I have been one, it is a fate worst than death”.
Aurum adds “Death need not be feared, but if it means so much to you, I will help. Surely this is the reason why the Raven Queen sent us with Tasnap?”
“What?! Are you 2 out of your mind? We have a small fortune sitting here in this caravan and you want to leave it behind to go play in the woods with these 2 doggies?”
“There are no horses left to pull your wagons.” States Bark flatly, seemingly used to dwarven insults.
“But… Argh! Damnit! (long series of dwarven curses )… Allright, allright. I’m going. But only because I want my shield back!” growls Gurdil. “I had just broken it in! Do you know how much it cost me to find one that fit? And beside, I have unfinished business with that Hobgoblin. Nobody tosses a...”.
Gurdil does not finish his sentence as his companions look down at him, disapprovingly
“Then it is agreed. We will seek to free our brethren and your companions. We will need to gather more resources and then, we will find them.”says Urzula. “Winterhaven is but two days west. From there, we can regroup, rest up and acquire what we will need to help us in our quest”
The group packs what little they have and begins to walk west, toward the village of Winterhaven.