Year of the Bounding Lamb, 5th Waning, Day 4 – The Escaped Rout Pt. II.
Ah, there is nothing like the aroma of a cool Spring morning! The crisp air invigorates the body, and the sounds of the songbirds clear away the shadows and cobwebs from a burdened soul! I have always relished greeting the sun as he first peers over the horizon, though it appears that several of my compatriots find more comfort in the embrace of their bedrolls. The only two who are awake, besides myself, are Sir Ravenmantle and Lady Proudfinger. She kneels in prayer, arms raised in supplication towards her God. She spends far more time praising her God and interceding for others than I would think necessary; certainly more than any other novitiate I've known. It seems to work for her, though, and her demeanor can be like a soothing balm after a hard day. Sir Ravenmantle certainly appreciates it. He's supposed to be keeping the final watch of the night for the whole camp, but I suspect were we to fall under attack, his priority would be to protect the holy woman. It's natural, I suppose; I believe they were traveling together before they fell in with the doomed militia.
Hmmm... I should probably be memorizing spells, but my mind is still awhirl with the events of the previous day. So While my friends slumber, I'm glad to take this opportunity resume my account of the yesterday's madness, in hopes that doing so will give rest to my troubled thoughts.
When last we left your heroes, they (we) had escaped by the whiskers of our chins from a massacre in Boscogne Pass. We fled down into a system of caves, with several of our party guarding our retreat. Last to disengage was Squire Scott, a warrior whose combat prowess is exceeded only by his estimation of his combat prowess.
Once the good Squire had caught up to the rest of us, and it became apparent we would not be followed further by friend or foe, we continued deeper into the caves. Down and down again we went, through the twisting network of branching tunnels. Zeb's weasel familiar was a perpetual sniffing machine, constantly testing the air for the scent of moisture, or other, less pleasant, odors. The minutes stretched to hours until the Pig Farmer cried out in shock and alarm. A fleeting surge of annoyance drained away as I saw what prompted the outburst. Lying crumpled in a side-tunnel were the dessicated remains of a long dead... something. It was a humanoid of some sort; man or elf, judging by the size. Time and scavangers had scoured the bones clean; no hint of flesh or hair was visible. Curiously, the leather armor still worn by the corpse seemed on first inspection to still be in perfect condition. Zeb was the first to notice this, and quickly relieved the deceased of it's defensive garments. Upon donning the leather, it seemed to shrink to fit the mage's slight frame. Zeb cackled with glee. A valuable find, though I must confess I failed to see the cause for such delight. That stiff leather would play havoc with his spellcasting.
The mage was not alone in divesting the body of its' possessions. Slarti quickly overcame his fright and seized a small pouch that lay tied to skeleton's belt. What it contained, I could not say, as it instantly vanished down the farmer's own pouch. Slarti also picked up a scabbard and sword, rusty though they were.
We continued onward until we encountered a small cavern, about 30' or so in diameter, that abutted the side of the tunnel. The chamber was filled with water; apparently the weasel's nose had found an underground lake. Sir Ravenmantle leaned over the edge of the water to peer into the depths below. He turned around, grinning through a thick layer of grime and gore. "Fish! Pale and small, but fish nonetheless!" I think it was the first time I'd ever seen him smile. Now, you might wonder why mere fish would elicit such an excited response, but you have to understand that none of us were carrying much in the way of rations. Since a basic assumption of the battleplan had been that we would execute a fighting retreat back through Boscogne Pass, all of our supplies packs had been left at the main camp. The camp that had, by that time, been overrun by the invading horde. In fact, even now I grind my teeth at the thought of some thick-witted ogre devouring my little stash of cured hams and smoked cheeses graciously given to us by the Lord Gimideen.
"Excellent," smirked Zeb. "Now we just need a hook, a line, and some bait. Anyone happen to have that with them? I'm fresh out." "Ah, little man, that's only if you want to CATCH fish!" came Beorn's booming reply. "The Hrölgundr are not ones to sit idly by and hope to trick the little fish into hopping onto the plate. We HUNT them!" Zeb arched an eyebrow. "Oh? And how do you go about 'hunting' fish?" Beorn smiled broadly as pride swelled out his chest. He always delighted in rambling on and on about his tribe, named the Hrölgundr, if you hadn't guessed. "With net and with spear! Here, I will show y--" Beorn broke off as he reached for something behind his upper back, and grasped only air. The blood drained from his face, and his eyes stared straight ahead in shock.
To understand what happened next, gentle reader, I need to explain something about Hrölgundr warrior society. I know, I know, who wants to know about the ettiquette of savages, but bear with me. The lesson, and the pain, will be short. Every Hrölgundr warrior carries with him a spear. Whenever a warrior enters battle (not including the tradtional tavern brawl before bedtime), he casts the spear far over the heads of the enemy, to land upright behind them. He does not miss on purpose, this is a symbolic act proclaiming his will to victory. He declares that he will not run, he will not surrender, he will fight through all who are arrayed against him to recover his spear. Naturally, these spears are highly prized and personal possessions. Hrölgundr warriors frequently decorate them with tokens of past conquests, whether it's the ear of a vanquished foe, a tattered shred of enemy banner, or just a small notch carved into the shaft. To lose one's spear is to bring great shame upon one's self in the eyes of the tribe, who then will view that one as a coward.
As Beorn had now realized, and as you have now surmised, the big oaf had lost his spear.
Now, don't judge him a coward. In the days that I've known him, Beorn has proved as brave as any sane man. When he cast his spear, I'm certain he had every intention of hewing his way through to reclaim it. Beorn's problem is two-fold, and very unusual for his people. He is, first, not stupid. Not smart, mind you, but he recognizes the benefits of a tactical repositioning. Thus he was willing to duck into the caves to avoid being caught out in the open and surrounded by a vastly superior force. Many of his people believe any plan beyond "charge and attack" is unnecessary and unmanly, so give Beorn points for being more open-minded.
Tragically, he is also quite absent-minded. Or, more accurately, he tends to forget that which is not his current focus. I'm certain that when he entered the caves, he was focused like a ray on avoiding a tactically unsound position, and once inside the caves, his attention shifted to navigating the twisting tunnels. Only now that his attention has wandered back to his spear does he realize that he has left both it and the battlefield far behind. This kind of problem, in various forms, has actually plagued him for quite some time, and is the reason for his travels. Beorn has confided in me that he's lost his spear several times before, though never quite like this. Once, after a particularly hard fought battle, he immediately began celebrating his victory. Someone handed him a skin of mead, and his mind was flooded with drink, drowning all other thoughts. Upon sobering up the next day, he found to his horror that the spear had been burned on a pyre along with the corpses of the fallen. On another occasion, Beorn related how he once launched his spear, completely unmindful that his opponents had been backed up to a cliff overlooking the sea. The spear arced beautifully up and over the enemy, and then down to the rocky waters below. Beorn was so stunned by the unexpected loss, he didn't attempt to defend against the first sword thrust his way, and barely survived the encounter.
The only way the compatriots in his tribe could make sense of this was to decide that he must be cursed as unlucky. Born under an evil moon. His skill in combat was undeniable, so a doomed fate was the only reasonable explanation. His own people began, if not to shun him, at least to give him a wide berth. Beorn was tormented, and decided that he must go in search of a truly great victory to prove his worth, and to show that his forgetfulness was a mere trifle, not an ill omen. So he cut a new spear, and had been adventuring with it many months since.
"Lost something, big fella?" asked Zeb, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Beorn glanced at him, glanced at me, then looked back toward the tunnel we'd come through. The blood flooded back to his face, now with reinforcements. On my honor, it looked like his stomach had cast a fireball at his head. "MY SPEAR!!!" he roared, and started towards the rear tunnel. I dove for his legs, and managed to grab one before he got going. I had been dreading this moment since we first made out escape, so Beorn's reaction was not unanticipated. If he somehow made it back to the pass, he'd either be slaughtered or tortured into guiding the enemy to our position. More likely, he'd just get lost forever beneath this mountain. Either way, I'd be losing a friend, not to mention the only worthy fighter I trust right now.
"Beorn!" I shouted "You can't go back now, we've got to keep moving!"
"You know I have to go back!" came the strangled reply "You know what that spear means. Now let go or I'll kick you into that pool!"
"I know you better than that, my friend. Come now, you'll find another spear, and adorn it with the scalps of a thousand giants! Besides, the Hrölgundr are not gnomes or dwarves, you'd never be able to find your way back to the pass alone."
A malicious grin split his face.
"Well then, little Twinkle, it looks like you've volunteered to be my guide!" and with that, he strode towards the rear cave, dragging me behind. Checkmated by a barbarian. Oh the shame!
He took two steps when Squire Scott moved to block his way. "Hold, barbarian. A sharpened stick is not worth putting the lives of others at risk."
"My life is my own, to do with as I please. Those who wish to continue on are welcome to their path. Farewell." Beorn's half step forward was matched by Scott's half step backwards, and with a ring of steel, a sword was pointing at the barbarian's chest.
"It is not so simple as that, my friend. Your actions are foolhardy and imperil us all. I cannot allow that." Scotts voice was cool with the air of expected command.
And again, Bollocks.
Beorn is strong. Immensely strong. Immensely, impossibly, unimaginably strong, for a human. He is quite aware of this fact, and indeed, takes great pride in his physical strength. I've always thought that one reason he is always so jovial is due to his confidence that he's the strongest man alive. From my travels, I've never seen any reason to doubt him. Until, that is, we met Squire Montgomery Scott. Unbelievably, the good Squire is every bit as powerful as my friend, possibly even a bit stronger. Beorn, of course retains an unshakable faith in his superior might. But he's not blind, and he recognizes a rival when he sees one. In fact, given his search for a great victory, he's always actively looking for a strong foe, and were they not fighting a common enemy, Squire Scott would fit the bill nicely. You can see where this road is going.
"We are not friends, knightling," Beorn gritted through clenched teeth. He drew his own sword. "Stand aside or I'll show you just how 'not friends' we are!"
I began debating the wisdom of releasing my hold on Beorn's tree-trunk of a leg, when Lady Jane appeared from nowhere to interpose herself between the two giants, placing a hand on each of their blades.
"That is enough! Squire Scott, drawing your weapon on a companion? Such conduct does not befit one who aspires to knighthood!"
Scotts brow furrowed in frustration. "Milady, as the leader of C Company, this soldier is under my command, insubordination cannot be tolera--"
"You have no command, good Squire! The force you led has been vanquished. You and I both know that C Company and the entire militia have been destroyed. All that's left are we few survivors, and it's our duty to stay alive long enough to warn the rest of the peoples that war is coming. We cannot do that if we begin shedding each others' blood. For the sake of your duty, lower your sword."
A look of uncertainty wormed it's way onto Scott's expression; it was the first time I'd seen that happen.
"Woohoo! You tell 'em, Lady Sweetcheeks! Oww!" Zeb's jeer earned him a rap on the head by Sir Ravenmantle's gauntleted fist, though the Paladin remained otherwise a stoic, but tensed, observer.
Lady Jane gave no indication she'd heard, but instead turned around to address the barbarian. "And you Beorn son of Sigrun, though it pains me to say it, your spear is gone. You must accept that."
"Lady, I cannot. That spear was no mere pointy stick! It was--"
"I know what it was, Beorn. I know that it symbolized your defiance of the enemy, and your determination to press on and fight through no matter the odds. I know what the warspear means to you and your tribe because you told me yourself, remember?"
With a mild shock, I realized that she must actually have listened to him those nights spent around the campfire when the militia was marching towards its eventual doom. Beorn had been his typical garrulous self, boasting endlessly of the glories of his people and his victories in combat. Most of the people subjected to these unsolicited lectures merely smiled and nodded their heads, tolerating the ramblings as preferable to an offended barbarian.
But it appears at least one had paid attention.
"Then Lady, you know I must reclaim it; for Tyr and my ancestors' honor."
"Tyr is honored by warriors, not fools."
Gasp! For a second, I thought I must have heard wrong. Then I surveyed the stunned expressions of all the onlookers, and knew my ears had not deceived me. Even Zeb's mouth was agape in shock. I felt light-headed, as one does looking down from a great height. Our little group was on the edge of disaster.
Beorn's face clouded with surprise and anger. "Lady, do you say I am a fool?" he rumbled ominously.
"I say that Tyr honors warriors who fight on against all odds. Warriors who are not daunted by any challenge. But returning now, alone, to an army encampment to recover your spear... that is nothing more than suicide. And for what? Will Tyr be pleased when your body is swarmed and broken by your foes? Will he invite you to his Greathall and drink to your pointless sacrifice? Or will he instead ask why you deserted your comrades in their time of need? Why you feared to face the REAL challenge? A horde of abominations is sweeping the land Provonce, and you yourself have seen its power. Will you strive to warn the peoples of Provonce, and the peoples of Nord, your homeland? Will you fight to rally them to meet this foe, to defeat it on the field of battle? Or will you take the easy way out and run to fall on the swords of a hundred orcs? We need you warrior; your people need you. Do not abandon the fight now."
I must say, it was a clever tack. Doubt flickered in Beorn's eyes for the first time.
"You speak and I hear, but still..." he began
"Squire Scott. Sir Ravenmantle, excuse, please. Beorn, come aside for a moment. My next words are for your ears alone."
With that, she took Beorn's wrist and led him a short distance away down the tunnel, just enough to be out of earshot. The rest of us were rooted where we stood; only Ravenmantle wore the ghost of a wry smile.
I could not see nor hear what was said. I've some ability to read the lips of a speaker and discern what they say, but Lady Proudfinger's back was to us, and all I got from Beorn were fragments like: "But how did--", "When did--", "You couldn't know--". Not particularly helpful. His face revealed more, as it raced through surprise, confusion, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, resignation, and settled on resolution. When they rejoined us, Lady Proudfinger announced that Beorn would remain with us, and given the gravity of the situation, we should put this episode behind us and move forward. I blew a sigh of relief; that could have been ugly. The others began to relax, as well.
"Oy, does rocks have eyes?"
The group froze again, as we processed the bizarre query. The questioner was Slarti, the pig farmer. Ever the multi-tasker, he was simultaneously probing the pool with his spear, while vigorously scratching his ass.
Squire Scott was annoyed. "What kind of damned fool question is that? Of course rocks don't have eyes, they're rocks."
"O yeh? 'En 'ow come this one 'ere is lookin' at me?"
At that moment, three large rocks burst through the surface of the water and reached for Zeb and the pig farmer with stony pincers.
Zeb leaped backwards with a curse. Slarti fell squealing, as one pincer snapped his spear in two. Sir Ravenmantle reacted with practiced calm, drawing his sword and stepping between Slarti and the advancing monsters. Beorn and Squire Scott rushed up to aid Ravenmantle, the rancor of the previous incident momentarily forgotten. The creatures were mostly out of the water now, and their true nature became obvious. A squashed, ovoid carapace supported from beneath by a nest of spidery legs. Eyestalks poking through the front of the shell, twitching this way and that. Enormous pincers, the size of serving platters, reaching out to snap and clutch. They were giant crabs, with a mottled grey and dark green coloring that resembled the stone of the cavern.
Ungh, and they smelled horrible!
The ensuing fight was, as fights go, rather unnecessary, if you ask me. The stonecrabs looked exceeding sluggish afoot (if that's the proper term for it). I actually tracked the leisurely arrival of reinforcements in the form of an even larger stonecrab, possibly the King of Stonecrabia, which was more than twice as large as the other three. I'd wager it took the big crustacean a full two minutes to cover 20 feet. We could have simply walked away, none the worse for wear, but instead we stayed and slew. I suspect that given the tensions of the day, the warriors were glad to vent their frustration against a foe that didn't outnumber us 100 to 1. The three warriors hacked and slashed at will, and were easily able to avoid significant injury. They were surprised at one point when the smaller crabs spewed a noxious substance that temporarily sickened them, but again, the crabs were so slow they couldn't capitalize on this advantage.
Zeb, Lady Proudfinger and I tried to assist as we could, but the three fighters obstructed our access to the violence. Slarti huddled on the cave floor, quietly sobbing. I can't blame the poor fool too much, little in his previous career as a pig farmer could have prepared him for the events of today.
When the final blow fell, the Sir Ravenmantle and Squire Scott wiped down their weapons and began cleaning their armor. The noisome sludge the stonecrabs had eructed had a sticky, viscous character, and would not come off easily. Beorn, in one last fit of rage, actually ripped one large section of the King Stonecrab's carapace right off of the body, and cast it behind him to the tunnel behind. Apparently still feeling "in the moment", he next snapped one of the legs off at it's lowest joint. Holding this jagged limb high overhead, he bellowed "Somi af Tyr!", stumbled back to dry ground, and promptly went to sleep still clutching his prize.
Not a bad idea, I thought, and settled down for a quick rest myself. Roughly a half hour later, Beorn was up again, cleaning out the crab shell and leg, and the rest of us were ready to forge ahead. Several twists and turns of the tunnel later, we were at another intersection. We were again testing the air to choose a path, when Sir Ravenmantle called for us to be silent. We listened. At first I could not hear it, but then my ears picked out the sounds of scuffling footfalls, echoing from the tunnel we'd just traversed. Quick glances all around showed all knew that several unknown somethings were headed our way. We slipped into position and awaited their arrival.
A band of roughly 12-15 kobolds and goblins rounded a bend in the tunnel, saw us, and surged forward with a crazed battlecry. It was no contest. The three warriors, positioned so that the enemy could not make use of their superior forces, ruthlessly cut down the wild assailants. When the warriors would slice through one kobold on the front rank, another would just immediately step in. They didn't so much as launch a single slingstone at us, jostling against one another for the privilege of being slaughtered next.
When the carnage was over, all kobolds and goblins save one lay dead on the floor. Squire Scott had bound the remaining enemy, and was attempting to interrogate it, but could only extract the information that the horde had planned to attack the town after going through the pass. The kobold mostly kept repeating how we were all already dead, and that when we did die he would feast on our flesh, eyeballs first, after raping the empty eye-sockets, etc., etc. I could have told the squire the questioning would bear no fruit; the look in the creature's own eyes, usually equal parts cunning and cowardice, burned with a fiery zeal, and confirmed my earlier suspicion. It had been charmed. Likely all the monsters that comprised the horde had been charmed. I flicked a glance at Zeb, to see if he had reached the same conclusion I had. His expression was unreadable, which I took to mean he HAD detected the effects of the charm, but was holding his tongue. Thinking this was perhaps wise, I decided to keep this knowledge to myself, as well.
"Slit its throat," Zeb interjected. "It's told us all it will."
"Are we savages?" sneered Squire Scott. "We will take him with us, and perhaps eventually he will see fit to loosen his tongue. Beorn! Hold the prisoner; I need more rope from my pack to fashion a leash." Scott shoved the gibbering creature across the room into Beorn's hands. Scott began rummaging through his supplies, when a loud snap ended the kobold's babbling. Scott spun around to see the kobold crumple to the floor, sightless eyes staring from a head twisted 180 degrees.
"What was that?!" he demanded, glaring daggers at the barbarian.
"Mercy," came the calm reply.
"You call killing in cold blood an act of mercy?" This from Sir Ravenmantle, who, despite normally being a practical gnome, was after all still a paladin, with all their typical hangups.
"What? No, not mercy for him, mercy for US. That little beast would have driven us insane with his non-stop prattle."
The two stared at him a moment. Squire Scott broke the silence.
"It appears we do indeed have a savage among our number," he said quietly.
Beorn shrugged and turned to Zeb. "Which way now?"
Another amused smile played on Zeb's lips. He clapped a hand on the barbarian's back. "This way, mighty warrior! This way!" he grinned, as off they strolled into a tunnel ahead.