The Hunter Hunted
It had been many weeks since Cuana, Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith left Tarantia for the wild places west of Aquilonia. With Publius’ promise of work on the Westermarck the adventurers traveled to the Bossonian Marches in search of their erstwhile ally Fuldonus. They heard tale of their friend having taken a position as a Sheriff in the Oriskonie province. It took a week of travel to get to the province where the party again met the soldier who had lopped off the demon Kara-Prama’s head in Shadizar years ago. They were greeted with open arms and Cuana and Tullweim recognized Fuldonus’ wife as the same bar wench he had left with in Numalia, holding the retired adventurers young son proudly in her arms.
After a meal was had and stories swapped Fuldonus convinced the adventurers to help him with a local law-enforcement matter. It seemed a ranger named Baraccus was wanted for questioning about the disappearance of 3 local women, one little more than a girl. The ranger knew the frontier wilderness well and had stolen out of the province in the cover of night. The scarce tracks found implied the ranger traveled south. Fuldonus offered a generous sum of silver if the adventurers tracked and apprehended Baraccus. The only obligation was the ranger had to be brought to the Oriskonie province alive so he could be interrogated. If the missing women could not be recovered still breathing Fuldonus wanted to be able to retrieve their bodies for proper burial. The next morning the party set out for weeks of travel following rumors of a ghost of a man through the Westermarck.
Arrival at Dusk
The adventurers saw the handsome frontier-town of Schondara in the distance with the dwindling light of the day. No wall surrounded the town and the area had been cleared for a half mile in all directions. On the outskirts of the town sat a fort and above it flew the spread-winged hawk standard of the Schohira province looking as if it would take flight with the summer breeze if it were not secured to a post. Several groups of cavalrymen patrolled around the town but paid the party little heed, their eyes ever on the verdant forest surrounding them.
The loud, boisterous activity within the frontier town could be heard as the party approached. The smell of horses, donkeys, and oxen mingled with the evening air among the white-washed log-cabins and small cottages. Men wearing animal skins bartered as women in moccasins talked amongst themselves and watched their children play. The larger houses that sheltered the land-owners and aristocracy stood at the end of Schondara, closest to the gardens and orchards amid the largest house called the Hall. Past the Hall stood the fort which stationed 50 soldiers and borderers commanded by Dirk Strom’s son, known to be stubborn and haughty, though his reputation held he was more than capable in battle.
In search of food and ale, Cuana caught sight of a ranger in his middle years with a patch over his right eye. The ranger held a curious staff and appeared to be waiting impatiently with an unnerving manner about him. The Cimmerian approached the ranger, offered his name and asked about a watering hole where he could allay his travel-parched throat. The Thandaran ranger plainly stated his name as Gault. He looked at the roads which led into town, sighed, and said he would lead the Cimmerian to the lone tavern as he could use a drink himself. Cuana called his allies to him and Gault cast sidelong looks at the heavily armed and armored Aesir, Stygian, and Hyrkanian. The ranger asked if the party were mercenaries looking to kill Picts and Dhak nodded saying, “we’re hunters looking for prey.” The Stygian then inquired about the odd staff Gault held. The staff was as tall as a Hyperborean with strange symbols carved into it, a sharp point at the butt and a single healthy leaf growing out the top. The Thandaran ranger said only that it was an item he held for a friend.
Tullweim questioned Gault about the ranger’s missing eye. The Thandaran told of losing it to a panther when he was young while fleeing from a Pict raiding party. The panther had stalked the Thandaran ranger when he had thought he’d lost the Picts. It pounced with unnatural fury as he was drinking from a stream. Took his eye. The beast almost took his life too but he buried his axe in its neck. Gault smiled grimly and said that was many years ago and he was now known to the Picts as the one-eyed death. The Aesir asked about Pict battle tactics, having heard bloody tales of the savages destroying better equipped, experienced Hyborian soldiers. The Thandaran nodded and said the first mistake many new-comers to the Westermarck made was being weighed down by too much equipment. Most of the soldiers in the fort wore mail shirts and some cavalry donned medium armor, but traveling in the Pictish wilderness in anything heavier would be a fatal mistake. The sound of the creaking heavy armor, like Tullweim wore, would give away a soldier’s position to any Pict in the area and the weight of it would mean no chance of fleeing. The Aesir challenged the ranger, saying the armor would surely protect a soldier from the primitive weapons of the Picts. Gault chuckled and stated over-confidence in a soldiers superiority was the second most common mistake. He agreed that heavy armor may turn the stone hatchets away, but the ranger then asked what the Aesir would do when 5 Picts pinned him to the ground and sliced the crown from his head? The experienced woodsman related tales of Picts seeking glory by taking down mighty opponents, scalping them and claiming their weapons. Gault spoke of his experience fighting the three tribes which lived in the forests near Schondara, the Panther, Turtle and Wildcats. With a chill running down their backs from the tales of Pictish savagery the adventurers saw the welcoming glow of a torch-lit tavern sign.
The Laughing Boar was a large building constructed of thick logs. Past the doors could be heard the raucous of large groups of men and women reveling drunkenly. Loggers, borderers, and carousers of all types were found inside, deadening the pains and aches of frontier life in a tankard of Gunderland mead or Bossonian whiskey. Large bouncers kept watch over the tavern and stage where minstrels plucked at strings. Men gathered about the tavern’s battered tables, playing at dice and calling out cries of victory or anger upon the luck of a single roll. The adventurers would not know the frontier was ever short on women at the sight of the lovely dancing girls on tables and the men who ogled over them. The large bar was full and it seemed the weight of patrons at it would tip it over. The air was heavy with smoke, the scents of Gunderland-style sausages, bread of all kinds and Tauranian cheeses mingled with the stale sweat of the Laughing Boars patrons.
The party sat near the front of the tavern, ordered food and drink from the scantily clad serving wench while keeping their eyes open for any sign of their quarry. As the drinks arrived Gault asked again what the adventurers were doing in Schondara. It was obvious he did not believe they were in the province to hunt Picts. Tullweim related the tale of the kidnappings in the Oriskonie province by Baraccus and showed Gault the writ they’d been given by Fuldonus, signed by the governor of Oriskonie bestowing temporary deputy powers to the adventurers. The Thandaran ranger nodded, saying he knew of Baraccus as a ranger who had fought well in several battles against Picts but did so with hot blood and seemed to relish in the slaughter. Gault said he’d seen Baraccus arrive in Schondara 3 nights ago with several other rangers and they’d spent most of their time in town trading pelts and Pictish jewelry for ale and whores. He then smiled, saying the party was in luck as he gestured to the back of the tavern at a tawny haired Hyborian with a full beard and mustache, wearing a tribal tattoo on his bare chest. The Thandaran ranger stated that man was Baraccus, though he called himself by another name in these parts. The 4 men around him were the rangers he’d entered into town with. 3 dancing girls flirted with the group as jewelry passed hands, a bouncer stood with arms crossed nearby, and an exit was noted behind the fugitive.
The adventurers quickly schemed a plan. Both Xacksmith and Cuana left the tavern and walked around the building to the door Baraccus sat near. Dhak, Gault, and Tullweim approached Baraccus’ table with a heavy step. The Aesir bellowed to the man with the tribal tattoo, showed the writ, and named the ranger Baraccus. The fugitive laughed, claiming his name to be Otho, while the rangers around him nodded as their hands went to their axes. The closest bouncer was about to intervene but was blocked by the sharp end of Gault’s staff, held to the bouncer’s chest, as the old Thandaran declared the adventurers to be deputies carrying out their duty. 3 of the rangers rushed at Dhak and Tullweim. The Aesir attempted to subdue an adversary with the flat of his greatswords blade, but missed, wrecking a nearby table. Dhak avoided an axe swing and responded with a slice of his arming sword. Cuana rushed in from the back door after hearing the combat begin. The Cimmerian followed Tullweim’s lead in attack, but his powerful blow was easily dodged by the fugitive and splintered a chair. Xacksmith stayed outside, his war spear ready should any attempt to leave through the door.
The fight was quick as Tullweim knocked two of the unarmored rangers unconscious and Dhak, though wounded by an axe swing, drove his blade through the third. Cuana killed the fourth ranger as Baraccus tripped the barbarian, followed up the attack, then tumbled past the Cimmerian’s reach. The fugitive ranger was quickly surrounded by the Aesir, Cimmerian, and Hyrkanian. With one last desperate attempt to escape, Baraccus again tumbled out of Cuana and Xacksmith’s reach but in doing so he left himself open to Tullweim. The Aesir bashed the pommel of his greatsword upon the ranger’s forehead, knocking him out cold to much applause from the bar’s patrons. Gault gestured to the bouncer and whispered to Tullweim that they should make an attempt at paying for the damage. The Aesir obliged with silver passing hands to the barkeep for the wrecked tables, chairs, and 2 rooms for the night. Baraccus was tied like a hog and taken to one of the rooms where Tullweim took first watch. The adventurers thanked Gault for his assistance and the Thandaran ranger grinned wolfishly, returned the thanks, finished his drink and left. Dhak used the patrons’ mood to entice one of the dancing girls to warm his bed for an hour while Cuana and Xacksmith enjoyed the drinks bought for them at the bar.
A Rude Awakening
Dhak had kept a steely gaze on Baraccus’ unconscious form for an hour. He had taken the final watch before the dawn and counted the ranger lucky for not being awake to hear Cuana’s snoring. The Stygian readjusted himself in his chair when the door to the room was struck. A primitive hatchet bashed its way through the doors lock. The hatchet’s wielder was a Pict, painted for war with a single eagle feather in his black hair and a string of wolf’s teeth around his throat. The Pict snarled at the Stygian and rushed as Dhak pulled his arming sword and shouted for Cuana to wake. Dhak struck the Pict a glancing blow and retreated towards the far wall as the Cimmerian grabbed his greatsword, bellowing out a war cry.