The Company had no clue as to the lie of the ‘land’ away south of the campsite — having been led in from the north by the Wood-elves. Ecthelon perfectly happy — indeed, for his own part, more confident — to investigate at night, even if he couldn’t see as clearly as in broad daylight. But he made no attempt to persuade the others, who were in any case adamant that they were not exploring a swamp where unknown creatures had tried to lure them and then departed — or, worse, remained lying in wait — when they could not even see in front of their own feet. They sat tight.
Double watches for the rest of the night after the strange lights finally went away and didn’t come back. Breakfast cooked up early, since they were awake anyway, but meagre fare from the reduced provisions they’d been able to bring away from their boat before the elves disappeared. It did little to raise their moods in this forsaken tract of darkened land.
[IN FACT CORRUPTION ROLLS ALL ROUND LEFT MARION AND FJIAR ACCRUING +1 SHADOW POINT EACH.
I WAS HOUSE-RULING THAT IT’S TOO STEEP FOR THIS STRETCH OF M-E TO REQUIRE A ROLL OF FEAT + 1d6 / WISDOM vs a TN of 14 OR ACCRUE A SHADOW POINT EVERY DAY. THE 50% OF PCs WHO FAVOUR VALOUR OVER WISDOM HAVE V. LITTLE CHANCE OF MAKING A TN of 14. SO I MADE IT EVERY 3 DAYS.
I THINK I SHOULD HAVE MADE IT DAILY BUT vs A TN of 10.]
[First rule of Shadow-lore: don’t talk about the Shadow.]
As a grey light slowly raised the blackness of night to the gloom of day, some time well after dawn, the five looked for sign of what creatures had been out there during the night.
They found not track nor slot nor spoor.
At length Fjiar the dwarf surprised both the keen-eyed Ecthelon and the seasoned tracker Marion, pointing to a trail of some three-toed wading bird’s footprints in the top of the silt that lay a foot beneath the surface of the water. This delicate substrate proved that nothing larger than an insect had been out there last night.
“But those were no fire-flies!” insisted Yngwi (who had seen the fire-flies that Bofur Ironhand bred for their glowing glands).
“Nay,” agreed Marion. “Marsh-lights, like I’ve heard tell of among the folk on the Great River.”
The Wood of Hanging Trees
Return to the search for Framleidandi.
The campsite was on the southern end of a gentle spur of dry land that rose away to the north and west. South of them was a tract of worsening swamp which was mostly flat water drowning the tangled boles of hoary crack-barked willow-trees that grey so densely the searchers could rarely see the sky.
After wading only a few hundred paces, Toki pointed out how easily they could become lost in such a tract and never find their camp again. (If they didn’t trip and drown anyway, Yngwi added softly, for his own ears only.)
Tóki and Fjiar agreed a plan to create a fire that would make a smoky beacon that anyone’d they’d be able to see just by climbing one of the taller trees. Fjiar had everyone collecting sodden fuel even as they trudged back, then swiftly made a fire, banked it and heaped the wet stuff over it to smoke, then dry, then eventually burn. No one argued with the dwarf when it came to fires, and Fjiar said that this one would smoke on till nightfall, barring a rainstorm or the interference of treacherous elves.
For the first half of the day the five fanned out in a broad line and waded and squelched their slow way through the darkling mire without finding the faintest sign that anyone had ever travelled it in a hundred years. They ate a cold lunch perched on mossy logs, relieved to get their feet out of the water even for a brief spell.
But they stuck at their task, and later in the day as Yngwi clambered up over a tangled mass of exposed roots, he spotted that the usual moss was missing from a broad swathe across them. Marion came over and identified a deeper scoring across the bark of the roots, a continuous line a couple of fingers wide, like the keel-timber of a light boat. A thin layer of slime proved the boat not to have been dragged over here less than a week ago, but nor was the moss grown back.
“It’s Framleidandi, I’m sure of it!” concluded Toki.
They changed their line to trend a little further west, following the line the bot had been dragged, and rewarded later in the day by another discovery.
After hours of hearing nothing but the rhythmic sloshing of own wading legs, the monotony wasbroken by a sudden cry of surprise and pain from Toki. Both Fjiar and Yngwi immediately lurched in his direction, bellowing out to demand what had happened.
Ecthelon and Marion were concerned too, but Ecthelon remembered himself [HOPE] in time to see a twitch of movement in a pile of mossy growth on a limb a Fjiar approached to pass beneath it.
“Look out!” yelled the elf.
Fjiar felt a pendulous vine of moss touch his cheek and, forewarned, threw himself his full length into the water on his left. The thick vine was pulled up into the air with an audible snap, to disappear back onto the branch overhead.
“Gallows-weed!” gasped Ecthelon as Fjiar pulled himself back to his feet and let swamp-water drain out of his sleeve.
Tóki — his cry of alarm momentarily forgotten by the others at Fjiar’s narrow escape from being hanged by gallows-weed — proved to have barked his shin on something submerged beneath the water.
This was the gunwale of a sunken boat, a skiff that would take two men, which they manhandled out of the muck. Righting it and setting it on the surface of the water, they found it intact, but with its seams ruptured and slowly shipping water. Looking at its underside, it bore numerous scars made by something sharp (but not as sharp as a blade) and the wood of the gunwale-rail had been crushed to splinters in a few places. They reached the conclusion that the damage was caused by claws and bites.
“Can you fix it?” Fjiar asked.
“No,” replied Tóki. “I mean: yes. Yes I can.”
Even with nothing better than mud and moss for caulking, within a few minutes he had the boat afloat again and letting in scarcely any water.
Having identified the appearance of gallows-weed lying coiled on a branch in readiness to seize its prey, it was easy to find another specimen and trigger it’s ‘attack’. The vine proved strong, resisting the cuts of anything less than a mattock or great axe, and capable of yanking upwards easily the weight of a large man.
“‘…Tread lightly…’” mused Ecthelon. “It would be bad enough to be suspended by the neck by this creeper, but if it had gained a purchase on Fjiar, he would have had the full weight of his dwarvish steel hauberk dragging down on his neck!”
By this time the day was done and the paltry light already dwindling into darkness. Ecthelon lithely climbed up the limbs of a sturdy-looking willow tree and confirmed the direction back to where the plume of smoke from Fjiar’s fire revealed their campsite.
Back at the camp the fire was remade for cooking, and a passable if uninspiring evening meal was prepared. But after the curious events of the last night, they were anxious for their safety again. After much discussion, it was agreed to use Framleidandi’s two-man boat, upturned, as a ‘hide’ disguised by bits of swamp-vegetation, in which Fjiar and Yngwi would install themselves ready to rush out with surprise on their side against whatever the lights of last night might be.
We Have a Swamp Troll
Sure enough, the lights returned again, a little before midnight as far as anyone could judge, but the ambush did not go entirely according to plan.
The lights were not as obvious as they had been the previous night. Fjiar [HOPE] spotted a dim glow in the faintly misty night, not a hundred paces out as before, but almost on top of them. Just a couple of lights were there, but not directly visible as they were in the lee of some obstacle. Then one of the lights bobbed forward a little and its radiance limned a scaly outline of a huge form easily ten feet tall.
We have a swamp troll! he thought bitterly, and sounded the duck lure that Tóki the Toymaker had lent him from the satchel of oddities he insisted on travelling with.
The troll proceeded onwards, a few paces to one side of Fjiar’s and Yngwi’s hiding place, heading for the light of the campfire. Ecthelon and Marion were in their bedrolls whilst Tóki sat up with his back to a tree, but he had failed to notice the approach of the troll, and failed to move even as the duck-lure was sounded. Tóki had been fast asleep on watch!
Fjiar surged to his feet, throwing back the shell of the skiff and hurling the Falcon Axe of the Dathrins in a double-handed overhead cast at the troll’s back.
“Baruk khazad!” he yelled.
The great falcon-bladed axe looped end over end to strike the troll squarely in the back, and spin on, disappearing through the trees on one side.
Ecthelon and Marion leapt to their feet, the elf dashing back to gain space for a bowshot Marion swining her axe right at the approaching troll, but the darkness defied her and the ill-aimed blow glanced off the troll’s scaly hide.
“A DWARF!” it bellowed thickly, ignoring Marion at the sight of Tóki.
Tóki woke from slumber at the last moment, snatching up his mattock and swinging out with it even as he scrambled to his feet, but his own twisting movement spoilt his aim and the mattock thunked deeply into the sodden turf for all the world like he was digging his own grave. Thrown badly off balance by his missed attack, that seemed all too possible.
Yngwi was up behind the troll with axe and shield, but his stroke went astray.
The flying axe carried on its course out in the darkness and now snapped back to the outstretched hand of Fjiar as he closed on the troll without a thought for his own defence, bent on hatred for the race that had taken his grandmother’s life. No sooner was it grasped than Fjiar buried it in the side of the troll, black blood gouting out in response to strike the wet turf with a hiss.
From out of the darkness, Ecthelon’s arrow struck true if not deeply in its armoured hide, and the troll let out a great bellow of anger.
It laid about it with a scarred and gnarled tree-trunk that served it as a club. “I HATE DWARVES!” it hollered, thumping the tree-trunk down with poor aim, missing Tóki by several inches.
Yngwi struck again, forcing himself to his best effort (HOPE) and planted his axe into the great troll’s thigh.
“Splitter!” came Marion’s gruff battlecry as she swung her great axe in a perfect arc and its heavy wedge-shaped head took the troll high in the ribcage with a great impact like the crushing of rocks. The troll reeled back, but split the night air with a roar or anger and continued it attack even with the black blood pouring down its chest.
Tóki pulled his mattock from the soft earth and swung ineffectually, then in the face of the troll’s anger Fjiar was between them. The tree-trunk swooped down with a stroke that would surely have broken Tóki’s skull but Fjiar had interposed himself — helm, hauberk and Falcon axe — in the path of the blow. Tree-trunk struck axe haft with a worrying crack and the weight of the blow carried through, taking Fjiar in the chest and sweeping him back off his feet to fall several paces away.
Ecthelon loosed again, sure enough of his aim to add an archer’s incantation. The arrow flashed silver in the darkness in the moment between leaving Ecthelon’s bow and striking the troll, but shy of a killing shot it merely lodged a couple of inches deep in the monster’s neck.
Yngwi Sandstone gave little heed to his own protection and hewed at the troll again, and more black blood sprayed in the night.
Then Tóki struck upwards at the body of the wide-stanced troll looming over him. His mattock crashed through the armoured skin of the troll and bit deep.
THere was an instant in which everyone was still, and pain contorted the ugly features of the stone-troll, and then with a final roar of anger it kelled over and fell to the ground dead.