PBeM report 8 – Long Winter Shadows ~ A Single Step

Continuing the events detailed in the gripping scroll of Marlin Tyrell’s autobiographical tale, “The Kobold Lair”

A Harsh Journey~

The GM:

“We are ready.”

Setting off the collapse, according to the dwarves, will not endanger the prisoners, although they have ensured there will be collateral damage to the arena. All that remains is to organize how to free the prisoners under the controlled circumstances desired.

Player the first:

That rest has provided me with renewed mystical vigor, which is better than before, certainly.

“I suggest we escort the prisoners out one cell at a time and have them wait by the riverside. I can stand guard outside with them. They do not know about the troll’s lair or our horses stationed there, so those animals should be fairly safe. As they pass through the Guardroom, we can hand out weapons as needed. What say you to that? We can lay torches from the prison corridor to mark the way out, possibly.”

The GM:

“Fair enough. You take the first lot, through, and we will bring up the rear, collapsing the tunnel behind us once we are out,” the dwarf replies.

A rough head count shows that there could be as many as 40 prisoners jammed into the tiny spaces of the cells. They are packed so tightly that they cannot lie down, or sit. They clamour… in a weak and exhausted way, for release, as you make preparations to free and equip them. There are enough small knives for each prisoner, and the kitchen stores hold enough basic vegetables to keep people from starving and give several men something to carry. There are 6 rucksacks for provisions. You turn up 3 useable short bows, and 4 times that many useable quivers of 12 arrows in the guardroom. There are 5 light crossbows with a dozen quarrels each. In addition to all of this cheap and workman-like weaponry, you uncover 6 functional lanterns, with a limited amount of lamp oil for each. The Kobolds had no real use for them in their personal lives, but seem to have hung on to them for reasons of their own.

Among the prisoners there seem to be no women, and calls for men-at-arms or men of magic turn up few responses, none being of any magical profession. Most men seem to be sailors, river-men, or general laborers. It doesn’t take much to guess that those with more fight in them were eaten first.

The entire group of captives is comprised of humans.

The elder dwarf takes you aside and mutters, “They will need someone to rally ’round. Your profession ‘n your race have just nominated you. You motivate ‘n steer them, ‘n let them see you consulting wit’ me about what is to be done. Ah’m the general, and you’r the lieutenant. Ah’m the one wha’ has to persuade the Pennington men to accep’ tha job is done, tha route is safe, ‘n ’tis time to pay up. Tha word o’ these men will help. Good?”

Player the first:

“Here is what I propose then. We get these men out of the prison cells, arm them with what we have stashed in the guardroom, and lead them out through the main gates. Using ropes and the coracles there, ferry them across the river. Once all are across, your son can close and lock the gates behind us as we start leading them to the troll crossing. Your son can follow behind us, coming out of the ambush holes and concealing them behind him. That way no one but we three know the way in to this warren when it is time to return. What say you to that?”

The GM:

He looks at you appreciatively and replies, “Ah say, AYE – so let it be done!”

Each of you goes about your tasks.

The collection and preparation of the rope is tedious, and sometimes frustrating due to the condition of the ropes you have to use, but several of the prisoners are skilled rope-makers. After quenching their thirst with cool water, and their hunger with some…fresh… vegetables, two in particular rise to the task and are almost done by the time the coracles have been inspected, moved into position, and each man outfitted with what he will have to carry. The men are in worse condition than you thought, and many bear old wounds which were left untreated and have become infected.

From your basic geography lessons, and the grunted commentary from the elder dwarf, you feel confident in predicting a journey of around 70 miles. You will be surprised if this crew can manage 3 miles per hour, and doubtful they can maintain any sort of march for more than 6 hours per day. Skills in the group seem limited to boat handling, knot tying, lifting, toting, whoring, drinking, and bleeding.

By the time everything is ready, it is quite late in the evening. There are some swayed by the good arguments for staying put and leaving at first light, and there are some among the prisoners who do not wish to stay a moment longer than they have to in these halls. Mention of a hungry troll ends the debate, and everyone settles down to the task of making the liver-shaped room comfortable for resting… it has the freshest air.

You have not cataloged the items or wealth which you stowed away as there was not time. You know there is more than 1000 in gold in the payroll chest, and a large quantity of gems of all the common types (diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires) whose value you have not the skill to estimate.

As the hours pass, you and the two dwarves meet to discuss how much in coin, and how many gems of which types should be divided as travelling funds before departing, and how much should be given to each survivor.

Player the first:

I propose holding off on the coin and gem giving until we reach Luna Beach, to avoid anyone thinking it better to simply take all of it off our hands en route. The Dwarves and I can discuss this along the way, but the idea to give each man 20 pieces of gold and an appropriate amount of the gemstones is what I think. That way, when we reach Luna Beach, we can basically rent out a few inns and feed them before setting them free to cause whatever trouble they feel like getting into.

The GM:

The night passes as nights tend to do in very dark places, with that sense of timeless forgetfulness. You sleep deeply, and meditate, but unless the lamps are lit – which they rarely are due to the desire for sleep among the former captives, time has an elusive feel to it.

The younger dwarf comes to rouse you at “dawn.” Although disoriented to be awakened in darkness, you feel well-rested and bristling with mystical resources. A light is struck, and the center of the cavern swims slowly view in the warm glow of lanterns.

The juniour dwarf has clearly been circulating for the last few hours of his turn at watch, bandaging and cleaning wounds. As a group, everyone looks cleaner, neater, and less desperate.

Some of the tougher, or perhaps they are just more recent, captives are passing out boiled eggs of some kind to be shared 1 to a pair, while others distribute water. Being one of the heroes who liberated everyone, you get to have an entire egg to yourself, and a cup to hold your water.

The elder dwarf comes to you, finishing the last of his egg, and downing his water. “The gates are open, and the rope is strung across the river. It will hold. Ah have done two passes to ‘n fro cross the damn thing. The current is wicked quick, but a man with strength ‘n wits about him – or who can float like a wee l’il airy-fairy creature, will have no trouble.” His face remains placid throughout. “We leave now.”

With that he nods to you and to the assembled men, and heads on out of the cavern, toward the gates. It is fairly obvious that he intends you to coordinate getting everyone there and the operation underway.

Player the first:

Marlin’s snide remarks are kept well under his breath.

The GM:

Doing so is not hard, as everyone wants to leave. Within a half hour, the first men are crossing hand over hand. The fourth to cross is the first to lose his grip, but he is able to ride the coracle a-ground not too far from the Troll’s lair with no damage to himself or the coracle. The sixth man too, loses his grip, but also beaches the coracle safely. The 19th man is not so lucky, and both he and the coracle are lost; the man to a tangle vine just past the troll’s lair, and the coracle to the current. You may see it again closer to town. The 35th man passes out from exertion most of the way across, and although his coracle runs aground near the lair, it is damaged beyond the means of quick repair. With just one coracle remaining, tensions run high, but all the others make it across. The rope is released and retracted, and the gates closed, just as the first light of dawn breaks over the mountain peak.

A hawk screams in the nearly cloudless sky, folding its wings and diving out of sight.

A quiet man, stands slightly apart from the others, surreptitiously eating fried moles cold. Although he offers to share, no one takes him up on the offer.

Within the hour, the troupe is on the move, headed past the Troll’s Lair. The horse and ponies are where they were left, and seem none the worse for wear. The package is intact and untouched.

After a brief pause, the horse and ponies are loaded with the best of the Troll’s fairly consequential loot. The bits of armour and weaponry are all crap, but some of it can be spread among the men. A cache of meat is the stuff of real nightmares, but the collection of skulls is the prize-winner… Perhaps that is what the boiling pot was for…? Cleaning the bones? Despite all of this horror, and the desire to look away which it inspires, there is no way to hide the prodigious amount of silver and gold the Troll had acquired. The men eye it hungrily as the dwarves pack it. Not easily carried, scattered as it was over the back of the Troll’s ‘cave’ it amounts to at least several thousand in gold and silver coins from at least a dozen principalities in the Dominion of Man and beyond. Many trips have to made with brimming handfuls to stuff into saddle bags, and sacks.

Player the first:

I will make at least a few comments during this process to the extent that it is sad that the elder dwarf’s son had to die in that terrible fight with the troll. Hopefully this will put some of the men’s thoughts to rest and remind that that they owe their lives to us. At one point, while in the cave, I will ask the elder dwarf, “From the loot from the Kobold warren, do you think we should divvy up some of the gold and gems to the men now, to allay any desires to take what is not theirs to take. Desperate men do not often think clearly and this maybe too tempting for some of them.”

The GM:

The ears of the men not so tired as to be mere ghosts on exhausted feet perk up at your question and hang on the elder dwarf’s reply. Many have the sense and good up-bringing to look guilty for the thoughts you so correctly deduced they must have been having. Some try to look innocent.

“Aye – a man can hardly call himself a man when all he had has been stripped away, including his certainty of living. Pay them the share we discussed, as their due for hardship endured, on behalf of the Pennington Mines and Quarries.” He falls silent a moment, but you know he has more to say by the deep frown on his brow.

Lifting the first of many stones from the tightly wrapped corpse of the fallen brother-in-law, he continues. “More can be earned. If ye have the skill, the trustworthiness, and of course,” He grunts as he lifts the bundle of once-living dwarf free of the earth, “if you live to see Luna Beach. Help us kill tha which stands between you an’ safety, and you’ll be paid.”

He doesn’t seem to think it worth his time to describe what will happen to those who do not help defend themselves.

He returns to his work of tying the body to a pony, and keeping a sharp eye on the band of newly freed men.

Player the first:

I will see to the handing out of what arms and armour can be used from this Troll cave, in addition to what has already been handed out from the Kobold warren, and try to take stock of what we have here in terms of a fighting force. While no man-at-arms, I have been around Grath long enough to have a decent idea of what these men might be capable of doing. I also divide up the Kobold loot and make sure the men know that it is from the good heart of the dwarf, and on behalf of the Pennington Mines, and that courage on the road to Luna Beach will be rewarded.

From those men, I would like to see who is the strongest and most alert and then assign them positions in our marching order along the flanks – point guards if you will. Any who think they can hunt and not get eaten whilst doing so should be sure to have a bow and be given the duty of providing food. We should keep my horse and the Dwarves’ ponies in the centre of the mass.

The GM:

Three hours after regrouping at the Troll cave, your rag-tag band sets off toward Luna Beach. Being clever, and having endured your own fair share of weapons training, you can’t help but have a certain degree of confidence in your selections of guards, watchmen, and hunters.

In many cases, being entrusted with a weapon is one more incentive to rouse themselves from the shock and trauma of their captivity. Being that close to each man in the full light of morning, also reveals more of what that captivity was like. More than a few, perhaps closer to most, bear injuries which can only be pinch and bite marks.

While there was certainly something odd about the leaders of this warren – more highly educated than your lessons with the Abbott prepared you to expect – the gaolers and workers seem to have been more depraved and cruel than his lessons would have had you believe as well.

The initial pace is brisk, but the first flush of enthusiasm fades quickly to be replaced by a sodden trudging. The track you must follow is cruel, alternating between damp and slippery from the river water, to dry and slippery from the sand and pine needles. Each step is hard work, and has thousands upon thousands more to follow it.

Before two hours have passed the first man falls prey to a tangle vine and it is not the speed of the plant which is so horrible, but his near-silent acceptance of his fate as it pulls him closer to its maw.

The three men closest to him, after a moment of incredulity, seem to awaken from slumber, and start to hack the vine with their kobold weapons. Hack and hack and hack…

Player the first:

I will approach and take a callous moment to watch and see how effective the men are, and then add fire to the attack as necessary.

The GM:

While pausing, you catch the eye of the elder dwarf, who moves his hand slightly to indicate waiting.

As you approach, and line yourself up for a clear shot at the centre of the hardy, dangerous, and tenacious plant, more of the former prisoners move in to cut vines, drag their comrades free, and move in on the body of the plant themselves.

You are certain you will need to assist them, but perhaps doing a certain amount of the work themselves will assist them in a different way.

Player the first:

I completely agree with the Dwarf in this. These men need both the exercise and the release that this will bring. I also watch carefully to see how different people handle the fight. Specifically, I am looking for those who fight with too little effort (and therefore may be more ill off than previously supposed) and those who fight with a bit too much enthusiasm (and thereby might be on the edge of a nervous break). Unless I see someone in dire circumstances I will withhold any fire and let these men build a sense of camaraderie and self-worth in the fight.

The GM:

Their enthusiasm is high, but they simply do not have the stamina or strength to prevail against animate vegetation of this toughness and size. The initial team of three managed to free the captured man, and start to pull him away before other tendrils began to ensare them. While the late-comers deal with those and tried to avoid the attacks of the severed ends of tendrils and vines, it soon becomes clear to you that your fire will be needed to put an end to the plant once and for all.

The vines and tendrils seem to sprout from a flaring orifice ringed with spiked and sticky-looking reddish petals. The body of the plant lies below the surface and from the size of the ‘mouth’ must be larger than a full grown man… perhaps as large as a troll!

Getting into position, you rise on the power of the ley line to improve the angle of attack and minimize the chance of striking one of the men. Gesturing dramatically, and mouthing your veiled incantations, you set loose first one, then a second bolt of flaming death at the centre of the plant.

[7d6 = 5 + 3 + 4 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 5 = 25] [7d6 = 2 + 6 + 1 + 2 + 4 + 6 + 3 = 24]

The bolts steam and sizzle as they penetrate down into the soft, fleshy, pulp of the plant’s interior. Bits of charred petal, and other plant matter rise up suddenly, to settle slowly in the still air. The smaller tendrils begin to retract quickly, as do the ends, and remaining uncut tendrils – dropping their prey. The petals seem to be closing, the tendrils and vines will be inside once they have fully shut.

The exterior of the plant, the underside of the petals, is much like the vines – a tough, and rubbery looking material. Within moments, the plant has sealed itself shut, and the only sounds are the babbling of the river as it passes over loose rocks, and the heavy breathing of the men.

“Expect more of these,” states the elder dwarf to no one in particular, and sets off again.

Travel is hard at the best of times and these are not the best of times. Tired men make mistakes and these men are exhausted. Arrows and quarrels are wasted on impossible shots, men fall and cut themselves on the jagged rocks of the river banks. After the first day, you have to revise your assessment of how long it will take to get downriver to Luna Beach. At this pace, it will take closer to 6 or 7 days than the initial estimate of 4 to 5. The terrain is harsher than expected, and the men are weaker.

As the journey grinds on, men begin to separate themselves into smaller and smaller groups, but for the most part, everyone gets along – or is too tired to fight. At night, the men quickly drift off to sleep after eating. Few are able to be trusted with watch duties, but many volunteer. With each passing day, more and more of the basic chores of daily living are taken on by volunteers, and some men distinguish themselves by either taking on leadership roles, possessing a useful skill, or both. Others distinguish themselves by their embrace of being useless, being victims, and being dead weight.

Late on the afternoon of the third day, as the rocky terrain finally starts to give way to mud and wild grasses along the river banks, a few men – loud and strident – start inciting the others to stop and rest.

“It’s hot, and we are all exhausted. We can make a comfortable camp here, and catch our breath. What’s the rush? There is nothing in Luna Beach that can’t wait another day!”

The elder dwarf looks unimpressed, but casts a baleful eye over the three obvious factions in the group of survivors, the malcontents, the hardy ones, and those who are neither, before coming to rest on you. He raises one thick eyebrow and crosses his arms as if to ask, ‘What are you going to do about this?”

The younger dwarf slows to a stop, heaves a deep sigh, and throws his head back expressively, looking skyward. You suspect he is tapping his foot, but you cannot see it through the grasses about his feet. Such an overt display from this introspective young warrior has no precedent in your limited experience with him.

While you have often been drifting along, supported by the excess energies of the ley line, there are points where it descends so deeply below the surface that you must walk. As a result, you know one thing due to your survival training, which others in the group might not, but Juniour obviously does: there are signs of predators about… some more than big enough to stalk and kill an unwary man.

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