Defending the West

Dark and mysterious, lurking in dim forests and dank swamps, the Picts of the Hyborian Age are a primal force that will ultimately unleash its collective rage against civilisation and bring the whole of the Hyborian kingdoms down in flames and savage devastation. When a frontier fort and province falls, can the dreaming West be far behind?

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.

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 savage’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. 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 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 they 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 last glance 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 time and the party felt they’d lost enough of it to start with. In the end, they left it 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 they 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 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 his 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 their 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.

The Captive Settlers

Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith picked up hatchets and bows from the fallen Pict bodies. The weapons were of poor quality compared to what the adventurers had gotten used to carrying, but as the times were desperate the adventurers decided to make due. The Aesir then picked up Dhak and carried him as the companions 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 5 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 taken from a fallen Pict 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 Picts. The savages fired many shots but only the pack-leaders arrow slowed the indomitable barbarian. Tullweim slashed at the Picts pack leader as Xacksmith shot another. 2 of the Picts 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 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 scant few years older than the boy, back to his companions. When Tullweim returned, he gathered the Stygian and the adventurers continued north, their trek slowed to an incredibly slow pace.

Scant miles are made when the day’s light begins to fade. Xacksmith stayed with Dhak and the settlers as Cuana and Tullweim hunted for game. The Cimmerian quickly discovered a small group of boars, a mother and her piglets. The boar charged Cuana but fell quickly to the barbarian’s blade. It was quickly prepared 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, standing alone in the dark of the forest like a specter. The Hyrkanian looks for a sign of Picts and tuns just as a hatchet strikes him from his flank. Xacksmith responds with a strike 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 few miles from the 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 move with murderous intent and the whole dream is 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 in 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 and 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. Other than the vultures above, all the animals 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 triggered the crude lock on the door 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 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 alone 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 past 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. 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 told of his dreams to his companions and 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 club. The Aesir took some glancing blows as did the Hyrkanian and Stygian. Cuana then 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 battle field.

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 raft and Cuana used a tree branch as an oar. The river’s waters buffeted them along but the Cimmerian was able to keep his coarse. Arrows continued to fall and one struck the teenage girl in her side. Tullweim collected her underneath and shielded her, 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 began to give.

The Pictish Wilderness

Dhak, Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith dodged arrows as they carried the settler women off the breaking-apart raft onto the shore of Pictland. On the opposite bank a group of 13 savages fired as the adventurers fled behind the cover of trees. The Stygian stopped a moment to pull an arrow out of the young settler woman who cried out in agony. The matronly settler broke the daze she’d been in for days past and doted over the hurt woman as Dhak wrapped scraps of cloth around the wound. Cuana lifted up the young woman and all but Tullweim pushed further into the Pictish wilderness. The Aesir followed behind, pausing every few minutes of travel. Trying, desperately to conceal their trail as much as possible. At one of these stops Tullweim saw what looked like deliberate puffs of smoke from the opposite shore. The Aesir was certain the smoke was some sort of signal meant to alert the Picts on the same side of Thunder River the adventurers were on.

As the party moved through the wilderness Xacksmith stopped mid-step. The paths of trees seemed oddly familiar to the Hyrkanian and he realized he had been to this place before. Xacksmith informed the others that he knew where a Pictish village was. The Hyrkanian led the travelers to a barely noticeable path used by the Picts. The borderer and 2 barbarians determined that a massive group of savages had walked the trail towards the river a few days past. The adventurers surmised these were some of the same Picts who had attacked Schondara. Xacksmith blazed a trail, no civilized man could see, for several miles through the winding forest and whispered of the Picts village in his dreams.

Near a bend in the path Xacksmith was taken by surprise by a lone Pict who bull rushed into him. The Pict slammed into the Hyrkanian who planted his feet firmly in the ground and resisted the savages effort to push him into the bushes behind. Xacksmith plunged the point of the strange staff he carried through the savages gut as arrows flew from the trees. Tullweim shielded the women as best he could as Cuana and Dhak searched for targets. The Picts were too well concealed in the forest and the adventurers had to leave the trail to meet the savages in melee. A quick battle was had as Dhak sent sorcerous torment to the Picts pack chief while Cuana cleaved into the savages. After the skirmish the adventurers noted the Picts had different feathers on their head and ornamentation around their necks then the ones they’d encountered in Schondara and in the Little Wilderness.

Warrior’s Retribution

As the daylight hours faded the adventurers came to an opening in the forest where they saw a large, labyrinthine, fortified Pict village comprised of many daub and- wattle huts with thatched roofs. The village was surrounded by a palisade and a ditch. Outside the palisade was a small hut on columns over-looking the nearby fields and graveyard. The adventurers could see smoke coming from several fires in the middle of the village. When Dhak asked of Xacksmith if this was the village from his dreams, the Hyrkanian nodded in assent. The Stygian suggested he and Xacksmith move through the fields stealthily to take out the likely guard in the hut on columns. The Hyrkanian acted odd at the Stygian’s plan of action, stating he would not leave the staff he’d been carrying behind. Tullweim then said, “If it’s the staff they want, why do we not just give it to them…or at least appear as if we are trading it for their captives?” Dhak thought the idea ludicrous. The Stygian argued the Picts would likely attack the adventurers on sight as the Aesir tore branches to make a hiding spot for the 3 settler women to hide. Tullweim stressed his concern for Lady Coelia as the wind carried the sound of a man’s tortured scream. The Aesir sprang forward and with him the Cimmerian and Hyrkanian. Dhak cursed and moved into the nearby fields with his Bossonian longbow.

It was not long before the Pict in the raised hut summoned the guard to the bridge. The smoke signs the savages had seen from their brothers across Thunder River told of these adventurers. And the Picts sent to meet them had not come back. Wanenaka of the Wolves led his pack to the lone entrance into Niyohontehsha to greet the invaders while the Wildcats strange drums continued to pound. Wanenaka faced off with Cuana, Tullweim and Xacksmith who held the staff with the leaf growing out of it. The Cimmerian spoke Pictish to Wanenaka saying, “Hey assholes, we want to see Machk.”Angered and about to attack, the war chief was stopped by Baraccus who had gone renegade. The ranger asked why he shouldn’t tell Wanenaka and his 20 men to scalp the adventurers and tie them up to the columns inside the village. Tullweim nudged Cuana to speak of the staff Lady Coelia wished to give to Sagoyaga and the parties’ willingness to exchange it for the Picts’ captives. Baraccus laughed and said Lady Coelia was to wed Wanenaka but that the adventurers would be seeing the other captives soon. The renegade then asked where the Stygian who sapped him of his wits in Schondara was. Baraccus would have been scalped if the Picts who found him hadn’t seen his tattoo and brought him to the Wildcats. Dhak responded by rising from his hiding spot in the nearby field and loosed an arrow at the renegade. All hell broke loose as Wanenaka called for his pack to attack and covered an incredible amount of distance as he charged Xacksmith. The Hyrkanian dodged the first vicious swing of Wanenaka’s club but the second caught Xacksmith across the chin. 7 of the picts fired arrows at the barbarians though Cuana dodged most and Tullweim’s armor and incredible fortitude blocked all pain from the stone-tipped arrows.

The Cimmerian went into a fighting madness and delivered two vicious blows to Wanenaka. 2 Picts, pack chiefs by their feathered adornments, whooped and charged Cuana and Tullweim. Both overran the Cimmerian and Nordheimer and knocked them to the ground. Many more Picts surrounded the prone barbarians, their hatchets and clubs ready to draw blood and hack bone. Dhak fired into the melee, wounding the Picts war chief. The Hyrkanian took a step back and swung his staff at Wanenaka. The heavily wounded Pict leader attempted to withdraw but the battle enraged Aesir slashed out with his greatsword and lopped the war chiefs legs out from under him. The Picts armed with bows sent another volley of arrows aimed at Xacksmith who dodged most of the bolts. Baraccus then engaged the Hyrkanian with his axe, slashing through Xacksmith’s jerkin. The culmination of the Hyrkanian’s wounds drove him to unconsciousness. The savages surrounding Cuana and Tullweim brought their weapons down with powerful blows, bashing and bruising the barbarians. The Cimmerian fought to stand up, which opened him to more attacks from the 5 Picts around him. Though he was bloodied, the enraged barbarian had strength enough to slice a Pict in twain. Cuana followed the attack by cleaving through the 4 others surrounding him.

Tullweim struggled to fight from his prone position, but managed to drop another Pict. Dhak sent more arrows into the melee as Baraccus engaged the Cimmerian. The ranger attempted to trip Cuana but the barbarian’s mighty thews proved immovable and the renegade was forced to drop his axe and flee. Cuana quickly ran after the renegade but was met by a group of 6 Picts who rapidly fired 12 arrows at the barbarian. Though much of the lethality of the bolts was avoided by the Cimmerian’s armor, the accumulated bruises dropped Cuana mercilessly to the ground, alive but unconscious. The Aesir finished the last of the Picts in melee with him and rushed forward to those who’d felled the Cimmerian with a leaping charge. The Picts did not long stand against the Aesir barbarian’s fighting madness and rapidly fired missiles from the Stygian’s Bossonian longbow. 4 Picts fell, 2 fled into the village, and only the lone savage in the watcher’s hut remained. The Aesir quickly scaled the side of the hut and stared down the Pict within, noting the 3 eagle feathers, 2 upright and the third tilted downward that adorned the Pict. Knowing full well how badly out-matched he was the savage leapt out the hut’s window and made for the village. Tullweim grabbed a hatchet from the hut’s floor and with a roar sent the hatchet hurtling at the fleeing Pict. Though the hatchet caught the savage in the back and was followed by an arrow from the Stygian, the Pict was able to reach the village.

Dhak and Tullweim quickly roused their companions. All knew they would face further obstacles from within the Picts walls. The Hyrkanian and Stygian moved silently as shadows past the bridge. Xacksmith was again struck with a feeling of familiarity at the daub and wattle huts. The borderer bade the Stygian follow him along the wall, where the Hyrkanian hoped they would evade the sight from whatever pagan ceremony was being performed at the heart of the village. The Aesir and Cimmerian walked into the village with no attempt at stealth. Tulleim was beset upon by a beast which sprang from the shadows. Human-like in height, the creature had teeth and claws which could rend metal, and a coarse coat of fur like that of a panther. The beast-man’s teeth ripped into the Aesir’s mail and flesh. Tullweim pushed the creature off of him and his eyes glowered furiously as he swung his greatsword with murderous intent. Though the creatures hide soaked some of the damage it was quickly felled under the crimson mist of the Aesir’s rage and the Cimmerian’s powerful greatsword attacks. The 2 companions rushed forward to the source of the pounding drums at the center of the village.

Tied to two ceremonial posts carved to resemble hooded women were two living Aquilonian males. Three dead captives were also tied to similar posts. Many Picts, mainly women and children, were gathered around the central ceremonial area where they sung and danced wildly. The captives had seen better days, having spent much of the day already being tortured, they were missing fingers, had smashed teeth, severe lacerations and both were missing eyes. The Picts wore paint on their back and feathered adornments which indicated they were from a different tribe than Wanenaka’s Wolves. Around the ceremonial posts the Picts danced and sang in a primal, unnerving manner. A trio of male drummers pounded away on gorgeously crafted drums. The shaman, replete with feathers from many birds and a gruesome forest devil mask, danced in front of the captives, making the strangest movements the adventurers ever had seen. Suddenly one of the Aquilonian prisoners bones seemed to snap as his body contorted into a bestial shape, his face elongated to form a snout, and his hands painfully grew into claws. With a roar the beast broke free of its restraints as the Pict shaman pointed at the adventurers and screamed for their scalps.

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Defending the West

The Nemedian Chronicles Flatscan