The Captive Settlers
Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith picked up hatchets and bows from the fallen Pict bodies. The primitive weapons were of poor quality compared to what the adventurers were used to carrying, but as the times were desperate they decided to make due. The Aesir lifted Dhak over his shoulder and carried him as the travelers pressed north. The lack of food the past day increased the difficulty of travel for the Hyrkanian, though the two barbarians seemed as if they could continue with empty bellies for days. The adventurers stopped near a creek to forage whatever they could find. Xacksmith stayed close to the Stygian and found dark red berries which looked safe to eat, though they tasted bitter. Cuana traveled east searching for game while Tullweim located animal tracks closer to the creek. The Aesir stopped in mid-stride as the creek came into view. Following the water was a group of 7 Picts leading 4 captive settlers, 3 women and 1 boy. Tullweim called out a curse at the Picts to get their attention. Arrows flew in response and though most bounced off the Aesir’s mail, Tullweim knew he was in no condition to fight the savages alone. The barbarian fled back to his companions shouting out a warning of what followed.
Xacksmith grabbed the hunting bow claimed from a fallen foe earlier and moved towards the Aesir, firing a bolt straight through a Pict. Once Tullweim saw the Hyrkanian was near he turned to face the savages. The Picts fired many shots but only the pack leaders arrow slowed the indomitable barbarian. Tullweim slashed at the Picts leader as Xacksmith shot another. 2 of the Picts rapidly fired 4 arrows at Xacksmith which dropped the Hyrkanian bleeding to the ground. Tullweim fought two of the Picts as Cuana arrived. The Cimmerian’s greatsword lashed down, splitting the club-wielding savages skull and with a backswing, cleaved into the pack leader, spattering blood and brains on the forest floor. Together, the two barbarians brought a brutal end to the savages. Cuana then tended to the Hyrkanian, announcing his healer’s kit would be empty woefully soon.
Tullweim returned to the creek as the Cimmerian revived Xacksmith. Though the settler women stood just as the Picts had left them, the boy, not more than 14 winters old, shuffled aimlessly along the water’s edge. The Aesir quickly gathered the boy and the women but saw no sign of the Pict the others had left behind. He kept a wary eye out as he spoke to the settlers, though they did not respond. Tullweim guessed their wits lost by the horror of the past days and being taken captive. The Aesir herded the boy, matronly woman in her middle years and the two young girls, one but few years older than the boy, back to his companions. When Tullweim returned, he gathered the Stygian and the adventurers continued north, their pace considerably slowed.
Scant miles were made when the day’s light began fading. Xacksmith stayed with Dhak and the settlers as Cuana and Tullweim hunted for game. The Cimmerian discovered a small group of boars, a mother and her piglets. The boar charged Cuana but fell quickly to the barbarian’s blade. The Cimmerian then prepared the meat and a fire was braved to cook it. The 4 settlers had to be forced fed, but after the taste of fresh meat hit their palate they began chewing slowly, their faces cast with a far-off manner. After the meal the settlers were made as comfortable as they could be in the middle of a hostile wilderness. Night watches were split up with the Hyrkanian taking the first hours.
It was not long after his companions fell to sleep that Xacksmith turned and noticed one of the settler women was missing from the camp. The Hyrkanian bounded up and shouted an alarm. With the dying lights of the fire Xacksmith discovered light tracks moving off into the forest. Not far from the camp stood the young woman, alone in the dark of the forest like a specter. The Hyrkanian looked for any sign of Picts just as a hatchet struck him from his flank. Xacksmith responded with a blow from the curious staff he’d been carrying as Tullweim and Cuana clambered near. The struggle was vicious but brief as the Hyrkanian drove the staff’s point into the savage’s body and with a final convulsive shudder the Pict stiffened, falling limp.
Terrors in the Night, Horror on the Morrow
Xacksmith slumbered through the wilderness in a dream of vivid detail. The Hyrkanian saw a village in Pictland, not more than a few miles from Thunder River. In the village Xacksmith witnessed a shaman, wild panthers and a beautiful Aquilonian girl of noble birth. A shadowy figure hovered near her, a white skull painted upon his powerful chest. Soon a fantastic chase through the forests began. Screaming Picts ready for the kill moved with murderous intent and the whole dream was overcast by a sense of ominous dread. The Hyrkanian felt if the girl was not rescued the entire Westermarck would fall. Xacksmith awoke with a start and noticed everyone else in the camp slept restlessly as well. As they rose from their slumber the Hyrkanian related his dream to Cuana and Tullweim. Xacksmith soon learned he was not alone with troubling dreams throughout the night. As they prepared for the days journey the Stygian moaned.
Dhak was helped to his feet by Tullweim and quickly told of the events since the alligator in the creek. The Stygian had no further insight to add, contemplating a moment on Yag-Kosha’s prophetic words outside Tarantia. The adventurers quickly broke camp and continued north. Night changed into a brisk morning and the travelers came to a farming settlement. Vultures circled overhead from a distance over a small house with a connecting barn. As the companions stepped off the trail into the clearing around the house they were assaulted by a scorching, blasting wind. Other than the sound of the hot wind the morning was unnaturally quiet. The vultures above were the only living animals, all others in sight, chickens, ducks, dogs, cattle, a pair of draft horses, rabbits and other vultures laid dead. All the crops surrounding the farm were withered and destroyed.
Dhak and Xacksmith looked through a window in the farmhouse and saw a man hanging from a rough rafter. The Hyrkanian broke the window and entered the house with the Stygian as the barbarians waited with the settlers outside. Inside the house Dhak and Xacksmith viewed a gruesome sight. The settler’s wife laid in bed, black and shriveled. Her stomach showed she was pregnant when she died. The Stygian cut the rope bound around the male settler’s throat. Dhak spoke arcane words of necromancy and the man’s face animated with life. The dead settler gasped and wailed as he saw his wife’s black form on the bed. The Stygian pressed the corpse for answers and was told only that his wife grew sick with a terrible speed. She died an hour after purple blotches formed on her body and shriveled in a grotesque manner. The man did not wish to continue his life without his wife and child and so he hung himself that morning. The settler’s corpse wailed uncontrollably and the Stygian ended his sorcery, returning the house to the stillness of a grave.
The Hyrkanian and Stygian searched the house for supplies, gathering clothing and moccasins for the settlers they traveled with. Dhak searched the cupboards and discovered a clay pot holding an herbal poultice. Outside, Cuana discovered a sharp axe and well-made Bossonian longbow along with arrows. Tullweim was keeping his eye on the surrounding forest when he heard a thud nearby. The Aesir rushed to where he thought the sound had come from and found the teenage boy’s form on the ground. The boy’s flesh was a deep purple and his skin shriveled and blackened before the barbarian’s eyes. Tullweim called out to his companions who rushed to the barbarian’s side. The Stygian suspected foul sorcery was the cause when Dhak too felt a strange miasma overcome him. Xacksmith saw purple splotches begin to cover the Stygian’s skin. The Aesir and Cimmerian quickly moved the three women towards the northern ring of the forest as Xacksmith aided Dhak, who wheezed and coughed with the effort of moving, leaving the boy’s body among the other carrion in the wind-blasted field.
The unnaturally hot wind continued to blow, and dead wildlife could be seen with greater frequency in the forest. Dhak took a moment to compose himself, then remembered the clay pot taken from the farmhouse. Not certain, but guessing the herbs inside the poultice would aid healing, he lathered his wounds and purple blotches with it. The effect was instantly noticeable as the blotches began to fade, though the Stygian’s constitution was weakened. The other adventurers quickly treated their wounds then continued north, hoping to move past the blasted winds and the plague it brought with it. Other settlements were passed with similar situations as the first. Neither man nor animal were safe. Eventually the adventurers came to a clearing in the fading light where the air felt still. They decided to make camp there, repeating their hunt for game and watch rotation. That night brought more unsettling dreams of the Pictish village to Xacksmith. Though this time, the dream was accompanied by blasphemous whispers and moans departing dark secrets no man can safely know without jeopardizing his immortal soul. Fortune smiled on the Hyrkanian, as he once again awoke shaken but thanked his gods the dream had done him no harm. Though he knew he could not escape the task the vision had given him. The noble lady had to be rescued.
Crossing the Thunder River
Xacksmith spoke of his dreams and what he thought they meant to his companions. Their own troubled dreams along with the past days horror led them to agree with the Hyrkanian’s instinct to cross the river which separated the Little Wilderness from Pictland. Cuana used the axe he found to break up some fallen trees and felled several on his own. Tullweim cleared the branches from the trunks and Dhak and Xacksmith cringed at the racket the barbarians made. As such, the Stygian and Hyrkanian were unsurprised when arrows began to fall from the wilderness. Dhak took up the Bossonian longbow and returned fire, though he felt the heavy balance of the bow cumbersome. Xacksmith assisted by firing his hunting bow and calling for aid from the barbarians. One of the Picts was wounded badly and withdrew from the combat. Tullweim rushed to his companions side as Cuana scaled a tree and urged his comrades to draw the Picts out. The Hyrkanian and Stygian were forced to fall back to cover from the savages arrows and Tullweim stepped in front of them. The Picts then rushed forward with hatchets and clubs. The Aesir took some glancing blows as did the Hyrkanian and Stygian. Cuana dropped on a Pict from above, skewering the savage to the ground below. Several more bloody blows were exchanged and the three remaining Picts fled the battlefield.The two barbarians doubled their efforts at constructing a raft knowing the Picts would soon return in greater numbers. They pushed the crude raft held together with tree vines out into the water and braved to step upon it. The Stygian sounded his uneasiness at stepping foot on the raft when more arrows fell upon them. The settler women were quickly carried to the float and Cuana used a tree branch as an oar. The river’s waters buffeted them along but the Cimmerian was able to keep his course. Arrows continued to fall and one struck the young woman in her side. Tullweim shielded the girl, calling for everyone else to lay prone. Cuana remained standing and with one last push brought the raft to the shore just as the vines holding it together broke loose.