I rise long before dawn. My clothes are clean and outside my door. As suggested, I pack Darlene’s dress in the bottom of my bag, trying to protect it a little and leave a silver piece on the nightstand for her. The other guests are still asleep as I descend the back staircase to the kitchen. I hear the family having breakfast before the guests start to rise. Again I startle the middle boy with my sudden appearance. This time we all laugh along with his brothers.
“Up early.” Chris says as he grabs another plate and hands it to me.
Nodding as I fill my plate, “I’ve got a lot of distance to make up, I’m running behind.”
“Thought that was the case, but with all the troops moving up to Griff I figured you were busy with whatever is going on up there.”
“Yeah, I was….but it looks like they’ve got it covered now.” I say diplomatically.
“I guess things didn’t go as expected last night.” Darlene finally joins in and looks at me sympathetically. She actually seems more down about it than I am. I smile and shake my head.
“Not surprising, he has things on his mind. And I’m not really the kind of person he’s looking for anyway. It’s alright, I’ve trained for this job my whole life. It’s what is important right now.” I give her hand a soft squeeze, “I do appreciate the dress tremendously though. I will enjoy wearing it at my other stops when I can.”
“There were some men who appreciated it too,” interjects Chris. “You were just sitting with the wrong one.” Both Darlene and I get a laugh out of that.
My breakfast finished I start to leave when Darlene insists on packing me some more for the road. “What should we tell Lieutenant Smith when he asks about you?”
“Just tell him I started early, I have work to do.” I take the proffered biscuits, ham and sausage. She even thrusts a hunk of cheese at me. “You need to put some weight on.” She mutters with the last bit.
I say my goodbyes; an unexpected bear hug by both Darlene and Chris, bashful handshakes from the boys. It is still dark out and extremely cold, my breath frosty. Low hanging clouds are in the horizon to the Northeast where I am heading. I check my map and there is a large farm about 5 days away. They might be a target for a raiding party, further away from the garrisons to provide help. I plan to go there first and then circle back towards the west to check on a couple of homesteads, a small silver mine and a hunting lodge. My next few weeks will be busy.
As morning breaks the clouds linger and it actually gets colder. I eat the breakfast leftovers in my food pocket for lunch and keep moving, the running is keeping me warm. In the early afternoon however I hit a major snag in my plans, specifically a 20’ raging icy cold river. The water is actually low due to it being winter, but it is still deep and fast enough to freeze and drown in. I start following it straight east for awhile looking for a place to cross. Before discovering a crossing I find a nice clearing that would make a good camp area and decide to stop, fish for some dinner, and stay the night. Remembering how the lumberjacks made baskets to catch their fish; I whip together something similar and walk away with a good catch….without getting myself doused in the water [successful Athletics rolls]
I’ve not seen anymore tracks so I risk a fire and smoke the fish, eating two for dinner, saving one for breakfast, and one for later. It doesn’t occur to me to season it at all until after I’m done. So much for Lex’s cooking lessons. I’m not much of a savory cook anyway, baking is more my thing. After eating I clean my gear, write a bit on my next report (the tracks leading into the forest) and set up my hammock in the tree. [Alarm spell set]
Now that I can sling a warning alarm I sleep better and awaken well rested. It is extremely cold though; it feels like my bones are creaking when I stretch in my tree perch. I consider starting to sleep on the ground for more warmth and insulation, but the idea makes me feel so vulnerable I reject it for now. I start a small fire for tea and to warm my last fish for breakfast. I have oats…..I decide to make a small bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar too. A bigger breakfast means I won’t stop for lunch, the last fish secure in my pocket.
[Game note: I do have to declare meals for Lilykai. If I forget and she starts missing meals….the dreaded Constitution rolls start again. So both cleaning gear to prevent rusting of chainmail and weapons, and eating meals is something to remember to do. I may not disclose it in the journals every time, but believe me she cleans that sword and chain daily.]
After breaking down camp I continue along the river looking for that crossing. It is snowing, light but constant. The forest is quiet, but it’s that really cold day/snowfall quiet. Not everything has been eaten by huge Crickets quiet. I’ve learned the difference. I wonder how the engagement with the hive is going. After a few hours I find a giant tree that has fallen that’s made a natural crossing over the river. Halfway across, I stop and use my fish basket to catch a couple of medium size river trout. That will be a good dinner. I leave my basket by a tree, I won’t be following the river anymore. Maybe some other hunters will come along and use it, you never know. I start moving Northeast again, a direct diagonal from the Dancing Bear to the Norman farm. The rest of the day is uneventful and I’m able to start a fire and have my. This time I use some of those spices and techniques that Lex showed me and cook a handful of rice to go along with it. This is probably the best camp meal I’ve ever made since I’ve been on my run. Even still I feel I’m missing something but quickly push that thought away. I climb a nearby tree and have another restful night of sleep.
It’s a cold and snowy morning. I might as well get used to it. This is winter in the Northern District after all. More oatmeal for breakfast. I have bacon and ham packed but choose to wait until I’ve gone without meat to break it out. Dousing my fire and covering it, I resume course to the farm. At this pace I’ll get there ahead of schedule.
I spoke too soon. After only 2 hours running this morning I pick up the smell of smoke. There is a lot of smoke, must be green wood or something large burning. I slow my pace and begin to creep along making sure my steps are silent. [Stealth rolls] Finally I come upon the camp. It’s Orcs.
There are 5, lounging around on the forest floor grunting in their language to each other. My stomach clenches when I see that one of them is holding a human leg in his hand and cooking it over the smoldering fire. This is the first time I’ve faced Orcs. They’re much bigger in person than when I studied them. I mean they’re exactly what I studied, but reading 6’5” and seeing a 6’5” Orc is a completely other thing….seeing 5 of them is different still. I take a deep breath, still myself and reach for an arrow. My bow had naturally found itself in hand when I spied my prey.
I drop one instantly with two arrows and move to another set of trees before they realize from where the attack came. They are dumb and I intend to use that to my advantage. I’m able to sink another arrow into the side of a second one but miss with the next and they spot me among the trees. The remaining 4 charge in my direction as I dart between the trees. One is close enough to take a swing and I dodge it; lodging two arrows into him in return, he doesn’t yet fall. Another Orc manages to close in on me and the strike from his sword hit’s me fully on the shoulder. I stagger back and draw my own longsword, dropping my bow at my feet. I parry his next strike and then come at him, both blows landing. The one with two arrows sticking out of him tries to take a shot at me and misses. I see a flash of movement and notice the one I shot in the side is trying to circle around behind me and the fourth is coming to stand alongside the one who cut me already. I need to start moving quickly or I’m done for. I feel a surge of magical energy and mark the one who cut me.
[Hunters Mark, which can be cast as a bonus action and can be moved from one target that is killed to the next as a bonus action. Adds a d6 to a weapon attack/hit. Basically its a first level spell that lets you get an extra d6 per hit; ranged or melee],
“You’re next” I sneer at Cutter Orc as I lunge towards his midsection, stabbing through and into his spinal column in the process, he drops like a bag of rocks. I move to position his body as a barrier between the one that just arrived and me. I move the mark to him and slice through his thigh. Stepping back to stay out of his weapon range I feel a thunk in my back and hot, searing pain. The archer. In a swift motion I drop to one knee, scoop my bow that I had dropped and release two arrows in a blur. The archer falls. I only have moments to react before I feel the breeze from a longsword near my face. That was close. At this range the arrow I send up into the Orc goes into the bottom of his chin, through his mouth and sticks out the top of his head. He rears back to strike at me again before he realizes he’s dead and drops backwards. That leaves me and the last one that tried to flank me. I spot him about 8 feet away right as he releases a spear in my direction, I hold my position and sidestep at the last second; watching it stick impotently into the ground beside me. “My turn.” By the time I’ve uttered the last syllable there are two arrows poking out of his heart. One to do the job and the other to make sure.
Holy shit these wounds hurt. I am forced to break off the arrow sticking out of my back and force it through to pull out the front of my shoulder. Once that’s done I can take one of the healing potions I got from the garrison. I only took 3 when I was there, I didn’t feel like they could spare many since they were going into battle. I can sling some low level healing, but considering I can only sling three times a day I’m going to hold off on that. The first thing I do is inspect the leg. I know, that’s disgusting, but maybe there are clues to it. It’s a man’s leg, they stripped off the boot and clothes so I can’t tell if he was a hunter, soldier or what. I bury it away from the fire.
Now to check out the orcs. They’re pretty well armed, swords, bows and spears…and it looks like they’ve recently seen some action, there are chips on the blades of two of them and blood on three. On each of their bodies I find a couple of silver coins. They close in size to Ratik minted coins but they have no markings on them whatsoever. They are completely clean. Interesting. I put them all together in a bag and put them in my pack. I think they’re important but I don’t know why.
I find the tracks that lead from their previous location to here and renew my trek. There are no signs of wargs at all. Peculiar. Perhaps they left them somewhere else. I begin following the tracks in hopes of finding more clues and their mounts. It is late afternoon when I reach their other camp. It is here I find the rest of their victim. It is heart wrenching to see one of my fellow countryman torn apart by orcs. Unfortunately, I am not able to recognize him for identification. The only clue I find at this location is the scrap of parchment, a corner, that appears to be from a crude map.
I step away from the foul camp of the Orcs to a opening in the trees nearby. It is true winter now and the ground is frozen solid. I pull my folded shovel from it’s holster and snap my wrist, which immediately unfolds and locks it into place. Frozen ground is no match for Dwarven steel. I still need to find the wargs, but making time to properly bury the victim comes first. As I dig the afternoon sun starts to breach the low clouds here and there with sunbeams; I take it as a sign I am doing the right thing. Gathering the pieces of the body into my blanket I use it for a burial shroud. As the grave is filled with dirt my heart grows heavy, yet another person in my district lost. The best I can do to give his death meaning is discover how a party of Orcs arrived in the heart of the North and what they’re trying to do. Once finished with the burial, I find I have no words to give the dead, nothing to ease him onto his journey. “I’m sorry,” I croak out to the fresh grave before turning to follow the Orc tracks again.
Day is done and the temperatures are dropping dramatically [weather roll]. I light a fire at my camp, the Orcs are dead so I really don’t have anything to fear, but find I’m too tired to cook anything for dinner. I eat rations. I can’t believe I temporarily forgot how awful these things are. Must hunt tomorrow. Realizing that I buried my only blanket earlier today I pull out my waterproof cloak as a cover tonight and rig up my rope sling to hold me aloft in the trees. I watch the fire from above and fall into sleep as it burns low. [Alarm spell set: silent/mental]
There is a nudge in my consciousness, like I just missed someone yelling in my ear to ‘Wake UP!’. My eyes fly open but I don’t move a muscle. I hear shuffling and grunting below me. Very slowly I turn my head so I can see through the branches to the ground beneath me. Goblin. What the fuck! Goblin? First Orcs, Wargs, and now Goblins. In the heart of the North. I watch him snuffle around, inspecting my burned out fire, where I sat and ate. Luckily I left nothing down below, my pack is with me up here. I watch him intently, ready to leap (fall) into action if necessary and practically holding my breath hoping I won’t have to face him just yet, not until I’m ready.
This is the first time I’ve studied a Goblin closely. He moves constantly….bouncing on the balls of his feet. He wears leather that looks as though it’s just torn up scraps, strapped onto his body with cord and pieces of rope. I fought the goblin raiders at night at Artus farm. They were running and screaming for full effect, there wasn’t an opportunity to study them like I can this one. He is less feral, more dangerous in his investigation of my camp. I watch as he kicks at the fire, seemingly in frustration, and then runs off into the darkness.
My instincts are to leap out of the tree and follow. Common sense prevails. Is he bait? Are there others waiting in the woods to jump me once I’m on the ground? Goblins aren’t known for their patience so I stay awake the rest of the night. I’m not too worried about finding the goblin again. His lack of covering his trail makes me confident I will be meeting up with him in a few hours at least. I forgo breakfast and hit the trail right before dawn. The sky is cloudless for a change and I can tell it’s going to be a warm day. After an hour or so I find where my prey’s tracks meet up with another group. Spending several minutes in the area, my senses heightened…listening for footsteps….I search the tracks and determine that there are 6 more. That makes a total of seven goblins loose in my woods. The thought makes my blood boil. First Orcs and Wargs and now goblins. The boldness of their invasion, if only a small party of raiders fuels my fury. I follow the much larger and easier trail they are leaving now. It doesn’t take long for me to see that the Goblins, in fact, are following the Orc’s trail I was on yesterday. Maybe they are trying to meet up? What is their game here?
The forest is quiet as I move through it; always on guard, ready for a goblin ambush. My bow loosely held in one hand as the other idly brushes across the arrows in the quiver at my hip, keeping time with my steady stride. Only the slightest sound of crunching fresh snow under my toes gives any indication I am there at all. There is a brief flicker of movement to my left, I immediately halt my stride behind the nearest tree. Peeking around I see a glen with 6 sleeping forms. The Goblins. Of course! They are nocturnal and are sleeping through the day. I chastise myself for not remembering that from school. There is the movement again, their lone sentry while the rest sleep. He is sloppy, and bored.
I pick up a fallen pinecone and toss it at some low branches on a tree near their camp. Sure enough the disturbed branch loses some of it’s snow, getting the attention of their guard. He takes one….two…three… steps towards the edge of the clearing and then “Twang” the distinctive song of my bow barely breaks the silence. Before its note ends the “whump” of the goblin body falling gracelessly into the snow is heard. I turn towards the rest of the party. Not one of them has stirred. Slowly I stow my bow and draw my longsword, beginning to creep in their direction. I kill 2 of them in their sleep before one wakes enough to call the alarm. Surprisingly, in spite of outnumbering me four to one, they simply start running. Dropping my sword I take up my bow again and slaughter the lot of them without making a sound, not a word was spoken. I realize just seeing them in my forest has renewed my ire. I am simply offended at their arrogance; thinking that they could come into my forest, my district, and harm those I have sworn to protect. Quite frankly, I’m seething.
Checking their bodies I find a map and my stomach drops. There are only a few landmarks noted on it, the road, the river, and two X’s. One is in the middle of nowhere, I can’t make out what is important about it…the other though….I know where that mark is on my Ranger map.
“Fire Cleanses All” is a common expression in Ratik. It developed during the horde war when settlers and soldiers would pile up and burn the bodies of the monsters after battle. The common thought was they bred disease and this helped prevent any spread….or at least I think that was the rational explanation. I think, if the way I’m feeling right now is any indication, we just burn them because we’re pissed off, and we want to make them dead dead. I look at the scattered corpses and find I don’t have the time to pile them up, gather wood, start a fire and make sure it burns safely. That doesn’t mean I’m any less pissed off, so I do the next best thing. I cut off their heads. I find a few fallen limbs, not enough for each goblin head, but three that will do and I hammer them into the ground. I retrieve three heads and slam them into place. I don’t know if there are more of these creeps around but if they follow the tracks they will see what end awaits them. Then I take off full speed towards the cabin.
On my Ranger Map is a newly established Palmer cabin. According to the notes of my district it belongs to a retired soldier. More than that, I do not know. As expected the Orc tracks lead all the way to the door…..which has been ripped off it’s hinges. There is blood on the threshold, the door; hanging from a hinge, thrown open. A smashed crossbow lays just off the porch in the snow. The snow is bloody with drag marks leading the way I came. I now know the identity of the victim, where he came from. Carefully, quietly, I move onto the porch. The construction is sound and it doesn’t creak at all under my weight. I peer around the doorframe into the cabin. Snow has lightly blown into the room, there are no footprints in it. I hear no sounds from within at all, the fire has long burned out and it’s very cold in here. Nevertheless, I am cautious as I slink inside.
The cabin is a large single room with a loft. The bedroom I suppose. There are narrow stairs to the side and back of the room leading up. There is a large couch in front of the fireplace and a nice sized carved wood chair. The back of the cabin kind of kicks out and there’s a small washing up room and storage place. To my right is the kitchen. It is airy and cute. There is a rather large iron stove that I can imagine cost a pretty gold piece at least to get all the way out here. There’s a rug and table with four chairs in the center of the kitchen. I still haven’t heard a sound, if there was anyone hiding in here they haven’t moved a muscle. Slowly, I creep to the stairs, my sword drawn. Like the porch, the steps are so well made they don’t make a sound as I stalk up to the loft space. There is a large bed centered against the back wall. There is a wardrobe and a chest at the foot of the bed. A soldier’s footlocker. I check under the bed, inside the wardrobe and in every nook and canny in the cabin. It’s a good hour of sneaking and searching the grounds until I finally relax and convince myself there is no one else here.
I drop my pack in the living space and turn towards the door. I want to start a fire but not before I’ve secured the cabin. I found a bucket, rags and a toolkit in the small cleaning area during my search. There is a large metal washtub here, and laundry area; I spy a clothesline across the space. Getting the toolkit I assess the damage to the door. They must have surprised him before he could bar the door, it is still leaning against the frame on the inside. One hinge has been completely torn free of the wood doorframe and hangs limply from the door itself. I try to realign the door as best as I can and put a couple of new nails in while it is shimmed into place. There, that did it. OK, it’s not great, but considering I was trying to hold the door in place AND hammer the hinge back in, it will do. At least it closes and stays closed now.
Time to make a fire and warm up. I gather additional logs from the woodpile and bring them inside so I will not have to restock in the night. While I’m out I check the smokehouse, it’s been ransacked. Not surprising. On my way back inside I am struck with how cute this little cabin is. The soldier who built it really loved the place, you can tell by his craftsmanship. There is a lot of pride in it. I catch myself standing on the small front porch looking out on the vista before me. It’s sad to imagine he put so much into this place and was taken from it so quickly. By the looks of things he hasn’t been here more than a couple of years at least.
I bar the door as I come inside with the wood. Then set about making a fire in the fireplace. It’s river rock, maybe even from the large creek that flows a little ways away. I get the fire started and as I turn back towards the room I see a shimmer of light reflected from the fire on something under the couch. I kneel down and look under it, there is his longsword. It was knocked under there during the fight. That explains why I didn’t find it on the Orcs, and the goblins hadn’t made it here yet which is why the place isn’t ransacked. Somehow the thought of those creatures here in his space makes me angry all over again. To calm my nerves I light the stove and set a pot of water on to warm. I also get a teapot going while I’m at it.
As my tea steeps I proceed to wash away the blood on the floor. It just doesn’t seem right to let it stain. Palmer took pride in his house and I won’t let him down. I couldn’t save him, but I can do this. Maybe it’s as much to assuage my guilt than anything else. At any rate, in another half hour or so the place is cleaned up, porch too. I take my break at the kitchen table and ponder the space as I drink my tea. It strikes me a little odd that the only rug in the place is under the kitchen table. If I were to have a rug in my cabin, it would be in front of the couch near the fire. Traditionally that is where rugs go.
I realize that I’ve seen a smokehouse, but no pantry or root cellar. I walk near the fireplace and look back towards the kitchen, studying the floor. [Perception: success] Moving the chairs away from the table I lift the edge of the rug and notice a seam in the floor. I move the table aside and roll back the rug completely. There is a trap door! Glancing at the front door I double check it is barred and the shutters on the windows are closed. I get my sword ready and quickly throw back the trapdoor, nothing happens. It is pitch dark but I can see with my Darkvision that it is an empty cellar. I climb down and find a lantern to light. There are shelves of canned vegetables and fruits. My stomach starts to growl as I look at them. I really need to eat dinner. But first, explore the area. I find buckets down here and a pickax. That’s weird. I cast light around with the lantern and see where one of the racks has been moved away from the wall before. [Perception success] Moving all the jars from it to another shelf (there is plenty of room) I’m able to safely slide the rack away from the wall. As it moves I can see a rough hewn hole dug into the stone and earthen wall behind it. This is the wall that backs onto the ridge behind the house. There is a shimmer to some of the stone in the hole, but I have no idea what it is. I turn and sit down, my back against the earthen wall, looking across the small room. From this perspective I easily see the large cloth bag with two books beside it sitting on the bottom shelf of the rack across from me. It would be easily missed unless you knew where to look, or were sitting on the ground across from it. I crawl across the floor and pluck the bag and books off the shelf. Climbing the ladder, I place them outside the hole before returning and grabbing a couple of jars. Green beans and peaches. No, not mixed together. I return upstairs and go to the fireplace where the light is better and the air is warmer. Sitting on the floor in front of the couch I study the books as I eat peaches, then green beans..straight from the jar… One is a Dwarvish to Common translation book. The other, based on my poor translation is a Dwarven book of Mining. Aaaah, I think I have an idea of what I just discovered. Next, I open the bag. It is full of raw, uncut opals. A small fortune to be exact.