The Call to Arms
It was not a rooster’s crow but a blood-curdling scream which cut the chill morning air in Schondara. No warning was given of the Picts attack. No alarm raised. Settlers were shot down as they fled their homes or slaughtered in their beds. Their scalps collected by the savages as they called out their war cries, their war-drums pounding. But some in the settler’s town stood and fought. Cuana took a glancing blow from a Picts hatchet and the Cimmerian responded by thrusting his greatsword through the savage. Dhak fired his Stygian bow at the Picts outside, sinking 3 arrows into one and ending the feral man’s miserable life. On the other side of the inn, Tullweim and Xacksmith awoke from a Picts primitive hatchet bashing apart the door’s lock. The Aesir grabbed his Akbitanan greatsword and blocked the entryway as Xacksmith fired his Hyrkanian bow. After fleeting seconds of bloody combat, the Picts at their doors were slain and the adventurers gathered their gear with great haste for they all noticed the embers falling from the burning roof.
Baraccus cried frantically to be released. Dhak responded by pressing his hand against the fugitive ranger’s face and draining him of his wits to fuel the Stygian’s sorcerous power. Cuana grabbed the senseless fugitive and hurled him, still tied to his chair, out the front door as a large piece of rafter fell on the Cimmerian’s back. Cuana shook off the blow, grabbed his armor, and fled the burning building. Tullweim and Xacksmith finished off the 3 Picts outside their door, gathering cuts and bruises for their efforts. The Aesir noticed the flames licking the ceiling and threw his armor as the Hyrkanian cast his backpack beyond the flames reach. The companions exited the Laughing Boar’s rooms and saw the carnage being laid to Schondara. Buildings were ablaze with fire, captives were drug out of their houses, and those who fought were cruelly slain. The town was in chaos. Dhak fired at another group of Picts who had spotted the adventurers and urged Cuana to attack them. The unarmored Cimmerian began to charge but was struck by multiple Pict arrows which bit deep. His various wounds were soon to be more than even the Cimmerian could bear. Cuana knew there could be no victory by staying to fight and so he left his companions as he ran northward.
Dhak called after the Cimmerian but did not follow. Instead he cast powder from a pouch which caught the Picts leader in flames. Xacksmith arrived shortly thereafter and engaged the feather-adorned savages in melee. One of the Picts overran the Hyrkanian while his party brought their hatchets and clubs down upon Xacksmith with a bestial fury. With the Hyrkanian fallen the Picts rushed Dhak. The Stygian could not stand before the unwavering onslaught. Tullweim rounded the corner to see two of his companions motion-less on the ground and a Pict holding up Dhak’s Akbitanan arming sword, whooping in victory. The Aesir let his smoldering anger rise and charged with a fighting madness. He slashed the Pict’s leader with a murderous blow as the savages surrounded him.
Cuana had not traveled far from the ruins of the Laughing Boar when he ran into the old Thandaran Ranger, Gault. Multiple arrows jutted from the rangers back and the Cimmerian could tell by the cast of Gault’s face that he hovered at death’s door. The Thandaran clasped Cuana’s shoulder, thrust the curious staff he held towards the Cimmerian and said, “Sir…you must…take this staff out of Schondara. Don’t let it fall into the Picts’ hands. The fate of the Westermarck may well depend on this task. This is no mere raid, but the onset of a full-scale war. Go north with it! Go north to…” Gault’s words were silenced by a Pictish arrow in the back. Cuana picked up the staff and turned around to see Tullweim’s plight. The Cimmerian charged, dropped the staff on the way, cut down a Pict and cleaved into another. With their immediate enemies felled, Tullweim grabbed the Stygian as Cuana retrieved the staff and picked up Xacksmith.
As they fled Schondara the two adventurers saw the Pict’s war chief leading the assault in the distance, fighting soldiers from the fort. The soldiers were badly out-numbered and it was obvious they fought their last battle. The party passed other soldiers present in the doomed town, half dressed in their armour, attempting to help. Some directed the women and children out of the town, trying to make a safe path for them. Others armed the men and encouraged them to fight. Confusion hung in the air on the parts of the various soldiers, all of whom were now leaderless and having to form their own strategies and initiatives. One soldier called on the adventurers to stand and fight but neither Cuana or Tullweim stopped. The soldier shouted after them, “cowards,” as they traveled into the cleared land outside the town. The forest stood only a half-mile in the distance but the Aesir and Cimmerian saw north-bound fleeing women and children ambushed by Picts. Tullweim grit his teeth at the hopelessness of the situation and the adventurers gauged the safest path of egress out of the damned town to be to the east.
Into the Little Wilderness
The Cimmerian and Aesir stayed low to the ground as they neared the forest trees, crowned by a sliver of morning light. A final look at the smoldering ruin of Schondara was taken as they left the last vestige of civilization for miles around. Though not rangers, the barbarians were accomplished woodsmen and pressed on for another hour. The fury of the drums and the Picts’ war cries sounded less in their ears so they took the chance to stop and tend to their disabled companions. With wounds sewed up, poultices applied, and water passed from the Hyrkanian’s backpack both Dhak and Xacksmith were successfully roused. The Aesir and Cimmerian then donned their hauberks as the Hyrkanian donned his leather. Cuana handed Gault’s staff to Xacksmith as the Hyrkanian had lost all his weapons in Schondara. The Cimmerian felt enough time had been lost by their stop and urged his companions to continue moving to the east to put further distance between themselves and the savages.
The forest grew thicker as they moved further into it. Trees loomed high, dense foliage formed a shaded canopy, and the thick undergrowth slowed their progress. Every footfall the Stygian made crunched leaves noisily underneath. The others cringed at the sound but even the carefullest among them put much concentration in not doing the same. Shortly thereafter, Cuana heard a strange sound from their rear. A sound as if something sharp blazed against a tree. The Cimmerian silenced the others and waited a moment to listen, but heard nothing else. The Hyrkanian was not so fortunate. Xacksmith heard the strangest sounds on the wind through the trees, sounds that chilled his blood. It was as if the trees were whispering to him in a blasphemous cacophony. Cuana had to break the reverie the Hyrkanian was in as Tullweim asked the Cimmerian what he had heard. Cuana responded that there were worse things in the forest than Picts and back-tracked to where he thought he’d heard the noise. A few moments of searching revealed a tree which had deep claw marks scratched into its bark. Neither the barbarians nor the borderer knew what had made the marks and there was no evidence of it other then the carvings in the tree. Baffled, the party decided it best to keep moving.
A mile of travel further into the Little Wilderness led the adventurers to a large creek. The current was swift and the barbarians were about to doff their armor to wade it when Dhak warned them to stop. The Stygian told tale of large lizards living in the streams and rivers of this forest, similar to those in his homeland. Dhak advised they find another means to cross. Cuana looked up at a nearby tree and suggested throwing a rope and grapple to a tree on the opposite bank. Xacksmith volunteered the rope of dead woman’s hair from his pack and Cuana climbed the tree, securing one end of the rope to it. The Cimmerian then cast the cord to the opposite tree and pulled firmly. Cuana tested the rope and once satisfied it could hold his weight he attempted to cross the river. As Cuana crossed, Tullweim and the others once again heard the scraping noise from behind. The adventurers exchanged knowing looks and attempted to once again listen for any further sound which would betray whatever was following them. Dhak and Tullweim heard nothing, while Xacksmith once again shuddered at the strange whispers that seemed to surround him. The Aesir noticed Xacksmith’s disposition and backhanded the Hyrkanian to once again free him from the profane sounds which held him fast.
Dhak was next to attempt crossing the creek. The Stygian tested the rope and believed it would hold sure enough for him to keep his balance as he tight-roped across. He traveled a few paces when his foot slipped and only his quick reflexes kept him from tumbling into the drink. But his dangling foot tempted the alligator below and it lunged out of the water biting down on the Stygian’s leg. Dhak was able to utter an arcane word which held the alligator still with a terrible fascination. The Stygian then lost consciousness. Tullweim wasted no time and plunged into the water to retrieve his ally. The Aesir noted several more pairs of water lizard eyes breaching the surface of the creek and thanked Ymir they were held by the Stygian’s floating form as well. Once Dhak was returned to the shore Tullweim attempted to patch the Stygian’s wounds, but they were too great. The Aesir feared his companion was being called to whatever dark god he worshipped’s side. A faint glow was then noticed from the Stygian’s belt. Tullweim pulled the heart of the elephant out, noting the gem seemed brittle and had lost all of it’s crimson color. And to the barbarian’s astonishment the gem crumbled in his hand and blew away with the breeze. Tullweim didn’t know what to make of that event, but when he checked Dhak for signs of life he felt the shallowest of breaths. The barbarian lifted the Stygian’s body over his shoulder and made his attempt to cross the creek. Tullweim’s mighty thews carried both adventurers across the rope safely. Xacksmith followed, though carrying Gault’s staff made the effort more difficult, he was able to cross without falling. Once on the other side the adventurers discussed what to do about the rope. It could not be retrieved without losing precious minutes and the party felt they’d lost enough time as it was. In the end, they left the cord as they moved further into the Little Wilderness.
Several more miles were trekked and the scraping sound followed still, without a trace the adventurers could find as to what was causing it. The party continued on and came across the body of a slain Hyborian soldier. The soldier bore a leather jerkin and the livery of a courier. The soldier’s scalped crown was undoubtedly the work of Picts, as was the bent sword left on the ground. Cuana picked up the courier’s dispatch bag but found it empty. Xacksmith noticed two scraps of parchment several feet away, presumably dropped by the savages after the attack. The first missive appeared to be an official dispatch which read:
Commander Dirk Strom’s son,
My orderly has learned from Arisawe that Sagoyaga of the Wolf is preparing for war. Schondara is in immediate danger. This will not be a mere raid. The involvement of thousands of Picts is the suggestion we have received. Rouse the rangers and get the people inside the fort. Machk is supposedly brewing up some sort of magic but keep that to yourself. Some of the men actually believe those barbarians can truly speak to spirits. Diviatix does not appear to be among the Ligureans, but word has reached us through a Mitran priest that the druid is returning. Expect reinforcements from Thenitea by the dawn of the second day.
This dispatch is official and sealed.
Odar Thorinn’s son, Commandant of Thenitea
The next scrap of parchment appeared to be a personal letter:
Sir Grim Brock’s son of Aethelsward,
I regret to be the bearer of ill tidings. Your noble patron, Lady Coelia, daughter of Dionysia, has fallen prey to the worst of fates. Convinced she could stop the war lord Sagoyaga and Machk with a certain staff being brought to her from the wilderness, our Lady, with a small armed escort, departed into the Pictish wild lands to meet with the bearer of this supposed holy artefact. I believe it was her intention, thereupon, to go to the Wolf village of Osekowa to trade with Sagoyaga; the staff for the disbanding of his savage army. Her escort was found slain in the most gruesome of methods. Decency forbids me from describing the wholesale slaughter. Our lady was not found among the dead, so she is presumed to either be captured or lost in the wilderness. A ransom is being offered to the Picts for her return, and, of course, a reward posted for her rescue. However, I do not hold out much hope. You have our sympathies and our sorrows for your loss.
Sir Gasparus, son of Gaspar, Knight of the Barrie Grange
The meaning of the undelivered dispatch was obvious to the adventurers. If only the messenger had made it to Schondara, perhaps the slaughter of the province town would not have occurred. Doubtless the town would have still fallen, but at least the soldiers could have gone down alert and fighting instead of scalped in their beds. The personal letter, on the other hand, fueled much discussion within the party. Who was this Lady Coelia? Was the staff mentioned in the letter the one which Gault had entrusted to Cuana with his final breath?
In a nearby tree a dark figure, man-like in form but gnarled and misshapen and covered with thick hair, watched the parties’ exchange. It saw that which it sought and pounced upon the unsuspecting Hyrkanian. Its long, black talons raked across Xacksmith’s chest, rending armor and the flesh underneath. The Hyrkanian howled in pain as he fell unconscious for a second time that day. The chinless, low-browed head seemed to hold a feral grin which was quickly lost when Tullweim, in a red-faced frenzy, brought his greatsword down upon it. The creature swiped at the Aesir but its talons could not pierce the barbarian’s mail. It then tried to flee back into the trees but Tullweim’s sword cleaved through flesh and bone and the creature went heavily to the ground with a strangled cry. Cuana searched Xacksmith’s backpack for the remaining dose of poultice he recently purchased. Once found the Cimmerian tended to the Hyrkanian’s wounds as best he could. Xacksmith was roused, Tullweim once again gathered the Stygian, and the adventurers set upon the trail, heading north in hopes that Gault’s direction was not made in vain by the information gained from the missives.
The adventurers traveled for another hour when the fading light of the day urged them to seek shelter. But all that was to be found were more trees. The party quickly decided remaining on the ground would not do. They located two tall, sturdy trees and climbed them. Cuana carried Dhak into one tree while Tullweim and Xacksmith scaled another. The Cimmerian used the rope from his pack to secure the Stygian and found a spot where he could brace his back against the trunk several feet below and hide. The Aesir and Hyrkanian similarly hid and secured themselves. They knew sleeping in the tree like a great cat would not be comfortable, but after the day of fighting and travel with no food in their bellies, sleep’s embrace would have to be comfort enough. The eerie sounds, unexplained crashes and the strange, compulsive beatings of far off drums echoing in the distance faded into the oblivion of sleep.
The slightest of movements in the morning air roused Cuana from his slumber. Below he could see a group of Picts with a similar arrangement of feathered ornaments as those which attacked Schondara moving silently through the forest below. One of the Picts had spotted Dhak’s form along the limb. The leader urged two of the other Picts to scale the tree and collect the Stygian. One was taken by surprise by the Cimmerian who wrapped his hands around the Picts throat and squeezed until the savage’s eyes lolled back into his head and his tongue rasped out a death rattle. The other Pict in the tree swung his club at the barbarian but Cuana’s hauberk took the brunt of the blow. The Picts below began firing into the tree as the noise of battle shook Tullweim from his slumber. The Aesir dropped to the ground and bellowed out a war cry. The Picts then turned their arrows to the Aesir. Though the savages fired rapidly only the leader’s Bossonian longbow managed to bite flesh. Once Tullweim was upon them, not club nor hatchet kept him from shearing Pict skulls like ripe melons. Cuana had difficulty wielding his greatsword in the tree but the Cimmerian kept his back to the trunk to maintain his balance and as quickly as the fight had begun it was ended.
The adventurers were badly hurt but they dared not wait. They knew the forest hid more Picts who sought their scalps and they would not find rest unless they could locate a settlement of civilized people. And so the adventurers quickly looted the Picts bodies for weapons and arrows. Tullweim gathered Dhak and the party once again set upon the trail north.