The Wretch’s Boon
Tullweim heavily set the bardiche haft on the ground and used the weapon as an aid to keep his bruised and bloodied body steady. Cuana offered to patch the Aesir’s wounds and the barbarian nodded in agreement. Xacksmith asked of the groaning from the altar-hut but before Dhak could answer, the Stygian was stricken by tormenting agony. The sorcerer’s head felt as if it was aflame and the demonic mark on his chest burned as if all the fires in hell were about to burst forth from Dhak’s black heart. As the Hyrkanian moved to aid the bewitched Stygian another figure lunged from a nearby hut. For a brief moment Xacksmith doubted his eyes as he witnessed a Hyborian woman with tawny locks and blue eyes, dressed in the manner of of a Pict, charge the sorcerer with a spear. The woman howled as she plunged the point of the weapon deep into Dhak’s belly. The Hyrkanian responded by slamming the hilt of his arming sword onto the woman’s skull, robbing her of her senses. Xacksmith quickly bound the woman with the rope he carried. The Stygian’s blurred vision began to clear as he spoke aloud in the Demonic tongue of his master, “Dekanawidah, Lord of worms, a sacrifice has just made herself known to me.” Dhak plunged his arming sword into the unconscious woman while intoning further dark words in the horrid tongue of infernal creatures.
Weak groans still issued forth from within the grim altar-hut and the Stygian entered after he wiped his blade clean and Xacksmith looked on in shock. Inside the disgusting daub-and-wattle hut decorated with skulls and other ghastly relics of past sacrifices and rituals laid a tortured form. Dhak asked the wretch if he could speak Aquilonian and the man answered in the affirmative, saying he could speak many tongues both noble and dark. The Stygian narrowed his eyes in response and asked who the man was. The mutilated man spoke through broken lips and stated he was a Ligurean druid who was captured by the Wolf Picts and was to be a great sacrifice to Machk’s demon masters. Dhak told of the slaying of the Pict shaman and the druid solemnly nodded stating it was strange days when the lights best chance was for evil men to war with evil men. The Ligurean then asked if the Stygian intended to slay the Paramount Chief of the Wolf clan, Sagoyaga. Dhak stated his blade indeed thirsted for Sagoyaga’s blood but Machk had let it known the Paramount Chief was near Velitreum with a strong force of warriors ready to put the fort to the fires and it seemed the Stygian would have to collect the Pict’s head another day. The Ligurean chuckled and said he could help the Stygian collect his trophy this day and to look for a white stag which would lead the party to their fate. The druid then used the last of his strength weaving a sorcerous incantation, the final words croaking with his dying breath.
After the Ligurean passed on to whatever gods he worshiped the Stygian searched the altar-hut for anything of use. Dhak made note of the wall of feathers from a variety of birds found in Pictland, all pinned in a design which resembled the spread arrangement of a peacock’s plumes. The Stygian was well aware of the significance the Picts attached to feathers and of particular note were a pair from a white heron. Dhak believed that when displayed, those particular feathers were used among the disparate tribes of Pictland to approach another tribes village or camp in peace. After tucking the white heron’s feathers under his arms the Stygian tore the altar-hut apart for any other items which could aid the adventurers. Dhak’s face broke into a large smile when he found a clay pot with a familiar paste of alchemical quality. A paste which could aid in binding wounds and restoring strength. Finding nothing else of use the Stygian unceremoniously left the corpse of the Ligurean in his grim tomb. As he emerged, Dhak explained the Ligurean’s cryptic message of following a white stag to Sagoyaga. Cuana and Xacksmith were about to demand answers for the slaying of the Hyborian woman in Pict garb when the Stygian produced the clay pot of rejuvenating poultice. The Cimmerian quickly forgot his questions with the thought of treating his many wounds. Cuana stripped off his armor and immediately began applying the ointment.
Xacksmith was not so easily distracted and was about to continue his questioning when he was stopped mid-sentence by the appearance of a pale white stag of regal bearing. The stag seemed to regard the adventurers with an impatient look. The party quickly gathered their belongings, along with a few items off the dead Picts, and approached the animal. The beast reared and turned away from them, dashing quickly into the swamps. The adventurers followed with a quickened haste, moving faster than they believed any man could possibly run. The Pictish wilderness blurred as they quickly moved through the terrain. Within a minute they were past the swamps and into the thick trees. All were amazed the undergrowth which had in the past impeded their progress was barely noticed. The adventurers dashed through the forests, leapt over shallow rivers, felt the lash of branches and brambles against them and passed near-deserted Pict villages without incident. Alligators and other animals of the forest watched, but none attacked in the brief moments before they were long left behind. Within a short time the party approached the Black River and for but a second they believed they would have to wade the dangerous body of water, but the stag quickly led them to several abandoned canoes and swam ahead of them. In an astonishingly quick amount of time the party saw smoke signals hanging in the air and realized they had arrived behind the lines of the Pict’s siege.
The white stag stopped and looked at each of the adventurers. It then motioned with its head towards the forest from which smoke signals were being used to communicate with the Pictish war tribes in the immediate area. Each of the adventurers knew what the white stag was telling them, that Sagoyaga was there, telling his troops to mobilize. Then the stag turned and bolted in the opposite direction, back into the dark forest. With the Ligurean’s beast gone the sorcery which quickened the parties’ movement abated as well and the adventurers crept forward. It was not long before the party came before a small collection of temporary Pict dwellings where weapons were being sharpened and a large bonfire was being manipulated with blankets to send signals to the heavens. A quick count was made and 30 Wolf Picts were counted, a few bearing captured greatswords, a few with Bossonian longbows, and others wielding axes and clubs. But the figure who drew their eyes stood next to a fierce wolf, similar to the one controlled by Machk. He was a powerful-looking Pict, he was in the process of covering his face with a war mask with a single eagle feather in an upright position and a stag antler head-dress further decorated with fantastic ostrich plumes and eagle feathers stained red. Wolf teeth were weaved into his shaggy hair and adorned his weapons. Even having never before seen the man, the adventurers knew this was their prey.
The Assault on the War Camp
The adventurers pulled away from Sagoyaga’s camp silently as panthers. They then quietly weighed their options. It was quickly argued that a full on attack would be folly and the adventurers decided Xacksmith would approach the Pict camp showing the white heron feathers and hope Dhak was right about the meaning of the gesture. The Hyrkanian was understandably nervous about such an uncertain ploy and insisted Cuana and Tullweim flank him. Dhak would trail behind to hide the presence of the curious staff which Dekanawidah had empowered to defeat Sagoyaga. The hope was that Sagoyaga would present himself and stand before the Hyrkanian allowing Dhak dangerously close to spring upon him and hit him with the staff. And so the adventurers walked out, with Xacksmith displaying the heron feathers in the lead, one heavy step after another, towards victory or certain death.
The party made it little more than ten paces before they were challenged by a Wolf Pict sentry. The scout quickly called out to his brethren and the adventurers were met with almost the entire camp of savages. Sagoyaga indeed stepped forward and demanded to know why the adventurers dared to sully their camp, did the Hyborians in the fort wish to surrender? Cuana replied, “we bring important news from Machk.” But the Cimmerian’s bluff was weak and the Paramount Chief saw through it when he noticed his shaman’s scalp on Tullweim’s belt. Sagoyaga roared, propelling his warriors to action, as Cuana roared back and charged. The Picts rushed forward with their weapons drawn and murder in their eyes and a furious melee ensued. Cuana batted aside attacks from two Picts and staggered one with a furious slice. Xacksmith dropped the heron feathers and drew his bow, piercing a Pict with an arrow. Tullweim swung the greatsword recently picked up in Machk’s camp and landed 2 heavy blows on the unarmored savages. Dhak searched for an opening in the swarm of Picts but could find no safe egress to Sagoyaga.
Cuana tore through a Pict’s belly with his blade, shorn the head off another, and split a third’s skull like a ripe melon. The Cimmerian tried to maneuver closer to the Paramount Chief but Sagoyaga’s wolf lunged at Cuana, sinking its teeth deep into the barbarian’s leg. The beast had not the strength to trip the Cimmerian though, and was met with a gash down its side. Tullweim was assailed by 2 greatsword wielding savages, not even his hauberk could completely turn those heavy blades as they tore through his flesh. Xacksmith rapidly fired 3 arrows into the melee and though the close proximity of his allies kept all 3 from landing, 2 found their mark and felled a Pict warrior. Dhak rushed to Sagoyaga and swung the staff which seemed to writhe in the Stygian’s hands, seeking its quarry. But the Paramount Chief uncannily dodged the attack and responded with several swings of his club and hatchet, which rattled the Stygian, despite the expenditure of sorcery to deflect the weapons. Determined to get to Sagoyaga, the indomitable Cimmerian charged forward, taking several arrows in the process, and slashed into the Paramount Chief’s side. Sagoyaga responded with sorcery of his own and Cuana felt his own body bloodied instead. 2 mighty swings of the Aesir’s greatsword sliced a Pict in twain as Dhak again tried to strike Sagoyaga with Dekanawidah’s staff, which impossibly bent as if alive, and again the Paramount Chief easily danced aside.
A rain of arrows fell and more Picts closed around the adventurers howling for their blood. Even with many savages guts spilled on the forest floor, the sheer number of Picts threatened to overwhelm the party. Tullweim managed to bring another down as Cuana attempted to shake off the wolf. Xacksmith stayed to the rear, firing death with every opportunity. Dhak felt Sagoyaga’s club again and again, and battered as he was he stepped away from the Paramount Chief and wove his necromantic arts to raise several of the dead Picts to fight for him. Many of the savages abandoned the fight once they saw the cold eyes of their fallen brothers grope for their flesh. Sagoyaga himself was given pause but the sight of the terror only enraged the Paramount Chief and his attacks on the Stygian increased with a berserker’s fury. As had happened to him in the past, Cuana could not steel his nerves against the sheer blasphemy of seeing corpses he had just sent broken to the ground with their guts hanging out shambling, and he too fled the battle. With the Cimmerian gone, Tullweim attacked the wolf which had harried Cuana with a fierce savagery, and his greatsword brought the wounded beast down with 2 sweeping slashes, then the Aesir turned his attention to the Paramount Chief.
The risen Picts slammed their dead arms into those who fled from them and had routed most of the camp away. One had grabbed a still-living Pict and was slowly squeezing his head together when the sorcery which animated the abominations ceased and the creatures again became the silent dead. The enraged Sagoyaga brutally struck again at the Stygian who was about to fall from the many wounds he’d received. Xacksmith sunk one of three arrows fired into the Paramount Chief’s hide and Tullweim followed up with a leaping charge, but still the Wolf Pict fought on. Cuana had finally shaken the terror which had overcome him and made his way stealthily to where he could hear his companions battle. All the adventurers could barely stand from the many wounds they’d received that day. Their vision was blurred and their swings were wide. Yet somehow, Dhak had managed to drop Dekanawidah’s staff and draw his bow. With all the strength he could muster he pulled back hard on the string and released an arrow into Sagoyaga’s neck. With a heavy thud, the Wolf Pict who had inspired thousands to slaughter the Hyborians on the Westermarck fell. The staff at Dhak’s feet ceased its writhing and the leaf which had shown as that from a living tree shriveled and died. With this, every Pict which had gathered to besiege Velitrium somehow knew their war chief was dead and fled into the wilderness from which they’d come.
Hail to the Heroes!
After Tullweim collected the Paramount Chief’s head the battered adventurers slowly made their way to the fort of Velitrium. They arrived several hours after leaving Sagoyaga’s camp and were questioned by the frightened soldiers on the walls who expected an attack at any moment. A showing of the Wolf Pict’s head brought loud cheers and the party was welcomed into the fort as heroes. In the weeks following the victory glory and honor were heaped upon the small band. Poets composed epics of their trials, drink flowed freely, and women let their desire to spend an evening with the heroes known. With plans to rebuild the fallen settlements the adventurers were told streets would be named after each of them. Certainly children would be named after the 4 brave warriors for years to come. The only trouble to be had was from Cuana’s heavy heart. The Cimmerian asked everyone he encountered in Velitrium of Hema and her sister, but no word had been heard. Many had been lost in the Pict’s belligerent war but Cuana held onto hope the Bossonian woman had found sanctuary east of the Westermarck and kept the purple scarf she had given him dear to him.
The highest honor to the adventurers came nearly 7 weeks after their great victory. Late in the morning the adventurers were awoken by a commotion outside their rooms. They each answered a rapping at their door, and in the lancing morning sunlight stood a soldier in the armor of the king’s own Black Dragons. They were each told king Conan himself awaited them in the governor’s hall. The adventurers quickly threw on their clothes and bid the previous night’s companions farewell. They followed the Black Dragon into the fort’s square, where a contingent of soldiers and more of the king’s royal guards stood at attention. Trumpets blared as the adventurers were led into the governor’s hall where every official of the Aquilonian crown in Velitreum awaited them. But all eyes were drawn to a mighty figure who sat in the middle of the hall. There was no mistaking the massive frame of the black-haired and sullen-eyed figure of the Cimmerian king of Aquilonia, Conan the Usurper. The adventurers bowed and the king quickly bade them to rise. He thanked the adventurers for the services done to his country not only in the Westermarck but also in the capital city of Tarantia. The king said he would be honored to have men of such indomitable spirit as knights of his realm and the adventurers gladly accepted. The knighting ceremony was followed by a great banquet with the finest of wines served by the comeliest of serving wenches all brought by wagons from the capital. The revelry lasted the entirety of the day and into the night as the adventurers told their tales to the king and Conan told the riveting tales of his adventures in the Fires of the South. Despite the copious amounts of wine imbibed, memories of that day and night would long live as a source of great pride in the minds of the 4 warriors.