Lowlanders

Chapter One [Scenes 11-13]

[Scene 11 – Smoke]

With the distinct smell of smoke drifting into the room, J’onn stands and approaches the window. Thirty metres from the inn, smoke curls from the temple entrance. The drapery on the near-side window is alight. Without hesitation, J’onn reaches over and shakes his brother awake.

“Bjornin. Fire…”

On the brink of a hangover, Bjornin struggles with words, but finally accepts that danger is near and that he must stand and at least attempt to walk. J’onn is half out the door when Bjornin calls him. J’onn turns and finds Bjornin staring at his hands. The silver link is glowing dark blue, the runes displayed in bright blue etching.

“Take it – I’ll catch up.” says Bjornin, tossing it to him.

“Okay.” J’onn enters the hallway. Bashing twice on each guest room door, he dashes for the inn entrance. Bones, his dog, drops from the end of the bed and follows him.

At the unexpected noise, the others wake; the smell of smoke is obvious. Harvic panics and scrambles half out the window before realising the smoke is coming from the temple. Returning inside, he enters the corridor and calmly exits the building.

Maram, looking across at the temple, screams at the top of her lungs and bolts for the door.

“Eshara!”

She is twenty metres across the town square by the time the others are assembled at the entrance to the inn.

J’onn and Harvic nod at each other. Schnake, having scaled from the window, is five metres from them, looking into the eastern darkness. A spot of firelight hangs in mid-air about 30 metres from them. Clearly separate from those encircling the village square, it begins to move toward and across their vision. A flaming arrow! It whizzes into the inn at a sharp angle and a column of flames conceals the doorway. Maram stops only to cover her mouth before plunging through the flames into the inn.

At the entrance, J’onn runs in the direction of the arrow, but is distracted by a hissing noise from his left. Two grotesque corpses charge toward him out of the darkness with short swords. Behind them, a ghostly visage of smoke and shadow forms into a screaming humanoid figure – emptiness pooling at the eyes and mouth. He raises his throwing axes above his head and screams, deftly cutting between the skeletons and pitching both axes toward the ghostly figure. A blue curl of smoke flicks outward and the two axes deflect to the sides. The empty mouth emits a horrid scream.

“Get the woman! We’ll come back for the humans later!”

Another skeleton careens out of the darkness toward J’onn. It’s skull is held together by iron bolts, and it’s mouth hangs open as if talking, is a collection of piercing fangs and incisors.

Inside the inn, Bjornin is still reeling from his condition. As he exits the stairwell, he collects a wine-skin from the bar and drinks it in a gulp. Taking his sword and shield from his back, he dashes outside. Two arrows from the east glance off his armour as he stands toe to toe with one of the corpses. Schnake turns to the east, draws back his bow and looses an arrow toward the edge of the square. Thwack! Two small blue wisps brighten and fade again into the background.

Harvic moves up to assist Bjornin, collecting a skeletons sternum with his morningstar – splinters of bone spray into the air. The skeleton springs toward Harvic, parries and pushes it’s sword into Harvic’s flank. The warden Tarl Dale charges from the nearby building.

“You have decided to fight now, boy? Good!” he bellows, placing a foor into the skeleton’s back and pushing it to the ground. Harvic retreats and bleeding heavily, navigates through the battle toward the inn.

Behind Tarl Dale, J’onn parries past the fanged creature and charges toward the figure, connecting with nothing but smoke and shadows. The chain link sparks slightly and goes dull. He turns to deal with the fanged skeleton and it hisses at him, spraying gobbets of acrid green spittle. It leaps toward him with its claws extended. J’onn steps aside, takes his axe from his back and swings a circular uppercut through its pelvis. The creature shudders in the air and lands on the ground in several pieces, thrashing at the dirt.

J’onn walks over and calmly crushes it’s skull into the ground. Blue swirls fizz out of its eye sockets and dissipate into the night.

Inside the inn, the heat and smoke are intense. Her vision straining and hands badly burnt, Maram collects Eshara and Arda, steering them toward the rear window. Outside, all three of them splutter up a nearby hill.

“Run!” Maram yells at the women. From her new vantage point, she pulls the drawstring of her bow and shoots several arrows into skeletal archer at the edge of the square. It thunks to the ground with the same ghostly blue glow.

A strange wind and sucking noise encircle the square and Bjornin and Tarl Dale clash swords as their enemies collapse into piles of bones before their eyes.

Harvic emerges from the rear of the still alight inn. He brushes dust from himself and begins coughing as he grasps his side and walks.

The sound of horse hoofs are audible over the crackling wood. Someone is approaching.

[Scene 12 – The Messenger]

“Ho there, Tarl.” The man glances around the square and climbs nimbly from the horse. “I saw the flames, but it seems I could not make it into town for the fight.”

“Garrett. Why are you here?” Tarl looks around the village and nods as the locals filter out in search of buckets and water. The inn’s outer walls smoulder, almost alight; the inside is a furnace of broken furniture and drapes.

“First things first, Tarl,” he gestures at the scorched and wounded party members and extends his hand in greeting. “Who are the heroes in your midst?”

“A group of travellers Garrett. They leave for the forest in the morning – there was some trouble with the Dalish recently. This attack is likely related.”

“Of course it is!” yells Eshara, stumbling into the square. “I said he was coming, did I not?!”

“Arda may have said that”, agrees Tarl, “but if I put faith in every dream I had, well…”

“Who is this mann, Tarl Dale?” asks J’onn, looking at Garrett.

“Ah. I apologise. My name is Garrett. I am a messenger of Bann Ceorlic.”

“And what message do you bring exactly?”

“There have been reports of attacks along the southern border towns and even as north as South Reach and Lothering. Some claim they were monsters – darkspawn – or wild beasts that normally shy form humans. The Bann is offering 25 silvers per head of darkspawn presented to him or his representatives.”

“What of these, then?” asks Schnake, presenting a crushed skull and some finger bones.

“They are gory, certainly, but not proof enough. The Bann may not be liked, but he is not a fool. If we allowed just any bones to be presented, poorer or less honourable people may stoop to grave-robbing.” Pointing at an all but complete skull, he continues, “Perhaps that one.”

Noticing the glint in Schnake’s eye, Tarl turns to him. “And the forest? Do you still intend to go?”

“Of course, but what help can you offer? Can you come with us?”

“You would ask for help while our temple burns down around us. No, I can not offer my assistance or that of any men. We have wine to prepare, exports and the rest will be helping to rebuild the temple.”

“Can you spare a riding horse then?”

“No, we have few horses. What we have are farm animals, fit for drafting, no more.”

“It would lighten the load.”

“Fine. You may lend one from the stables. Please, go rest – you should start early.”

“Look, Warden, if you haven’t noticed, I have three arrows in my chest. I need some healing before I can rest. Where is your priest?” Arda, talking to a nearby villager walks over and assesses Schnake’s wounds.

“You will be fine.” She walks away.

“But-” Schnake is interrupted by Tarl, “Your companion is a healer, is he not? Assuming he is not cowering from danger somewhere.”

“Your are too harsh, Tarl Dale. Did you see him fighting earlier? He doesn’t deserve such treatment.”

“He has the manner of an arrogant boy and I treat him as such. You, on the other hand, whine like a farmhand, when you are clearly more. Lick your wounds, noble.”

Seething, Schnake leaves the square muttering, before returning with Harvic, agrees to treat Schnake and the others inside.

With that, the travellers retire to the inn. As they enter, Maram looks back at Eshara in the square. “Eshara- you need somewhere to sleep. There is a spare bed my room.”

Eshara nods and follows her.

Inside, Schnake is approaching the bar.

“A pint o wine before bed, Haran?”

Haran eyes them wearily and glances outside at the smouldering remains of the temple. “Only one. I am tired and we must rebuild tomorrow.”

“We saved your town, Haran. Serve us some more wine.”

“Of course, thank you. But I really cannot. I will give you a bottle of wine tomorrow morning.” He leaves and the party return upstairs to their rooms.

[Scene 13 – Into The Forest]

In the morning, as the group is waking and assembling, Schnake approaches Haran at the bar.

“Ah, you’re up, here is the bottle of wine I promised.” The bottle is dusty. On it’s side, an imprint of the four armed indicates that it was bottled in the Blessed Age, over 30 years ago.

“Thank you, Haran. A fine gift. Do you know where I could purchase a crossbow?”

“It is what I could find in the time. The smith should be open – turn left on your way out and follow the road around behind the inn.”

As he approaches the inn, Schnake can see a young man observing Coalan as he works a sword over the forge. The young man rushes over.

“Hello, you’re staying at the inn, aren’t you? My name is Dorn. My parents own the inn – they have told me much about you.”

Pushing past, he approaches the forge. “Coalan, I wish to speak with you.”

He responds, still looking at the sword on his forge. “You can talk to my apprentice, Dorn – he is more than capable of dealing with your needs.”

“No, I think not. I need somebody who knows what they are doing – not an apprentice. I’m interested in buying real weapons, not toy ones.”

Coalan stops, looks up and smiles. “If that is what you need, then I agree. What can I do for you?”

“I need a crossbow.”

“That is all? I have several – they are 25 silvers each.”

“Do you have anything of higher quality?”

“I do. The next most expensive is about 50 silvers.”

Unperturbed, Schnake continues. “And your most expensive? Made with the finest materials and to the highest of standards.”

Coalan stops to think. “Out of your price range.”

“How much?”

“My finest? 2 sovereigns. You could collect it in 3 weeks.”

Schnake coughs. “Oh. Can I see the model you mentioned earlier.”

“Dorn!” He gestures and Dorn totters into the shop and returns with two crossbows, the second darker than the first, with a more solid frame. “The first is 25 silvers; the second is 55.”

Sighting the two crossbows at a nearby target, the second is clearly the better weapon. Its sight requires less correction, made of harder wood and metals.

“I’ll give you 40 for it.”

“Sir, if I could afford to bargain, I would live in the cities. 55 silvers. If you try my patience, it will become more expensive.”

“Do you drink wine, Coalan?”

“No.”

“It’s just that, well, I have this bottle of wine. It will only break if I take it with me.”

Peering over, Dorn spurts out “That’s from father’s cellar. He gave it to you?”

“Yes.”

Yielding, Coalan gestures with his hands. “Fine, let me see it.”

As Coalan studies the wine, Schnake continues “It would make a fine gift for a wife or mistress.”

“It would. I accept your offer, this bottle and 45 silver pieces.”

“Excellent. Here.” Schnake hands over the money and as he leaves, Dorn follows him.

“Er, excuse me, how much discount did he give you?”

“10 silvers.”

Dorn emits a sharp guffaw and returns to the smith.

. ~ .

The others watch as Schnake appears from the corner, a new crossbow slung across his back.

“Well, are we ready?” he asks. Nobody laughs; they walk around him in silence toward the forest.

The forest is further than Harvic assumed from the map. By early afternoon, they can see the treeline on the horizon. The pines are dotted sparsely at first, growing into a thick wood about 500 metres.

As they pass into the heavier forest, Eshara starts talking “It wasn’t long after we entered the forest that we were attacked. About 500 metres now, I guess.”

Schnake offers to scout ahead. The path forks after several hundred metres. To the right, the paths follows the lay of the land down, dimming as the thicker trees blot out more of the light. Ahead, the ground is flat and in the distance, Schnake can see a hollowing of the trees and a campsite. He continues ahead.

The camp site is a semi-circle of large caravans with fixtures to be drawn by animals. The outside are painted in swirling patterns, matched by ornate fabrics. Crockery and makeshift furniture are strewn around the pit fire site which holds a metal pot. In the pot, a rat feasts on an unknown green vileness. Schnake ransacks the caravans in search of valuables. His pack slightly heavier, he sits on the edge of a caravan and waits for the others.

The others arrive together, Eshara at the lead. “This is where we camped.” She kneels, “there are some drag marks here. They were probably taken that way.”

Harvic, raising an eyebrow, motions about him. “I thought you said you were with them when they were attacked.”

“Yes – it was late, darker than this, we were surprised by the creatures from town.” Hesitating, she continues “We should eat before we continue. We may not get another opportunity.”

Agreeing, the others begin to unpack their rations. Schnake groans. “There must be something else in this forest.”

“Have you eaten had’lath before? I am sorry. I do not know the name in your tongue. It is a medium size creature – like a large weasel, but smaller than a deer, with muscular legs.”

“Oh, yes. I have eaten that.” Schnake replies, a heady claim.

“You have eaten had’lath? Really? I did not think they came out of the forest. It is unusual. I will see if I can find one.” Drawing her bow, she creeps into the forest.

While the others eat rations and talk, Harvic searches the caravans. Becoming progressively more disappointed, he enters the third and final caravan empty handed. He considers the curtains and pillowcases. The materials are arguably worth several silvers, but are unwieldy, so he changes his mind. As he is turning the pillow, a small book falls out. Flicking the pages quickly, he almost dismisses it, but a name on the last page jumps out at him: Zathrian, the name of an elderly elf he once knew; a friend and confidant. Written in elvish, the entry is the last in a series about a meeting of several clans. In the middle of the entry, one sentence: “Zathrian’s speech was enthralling: imagine.”

Tossing the book onto the nearby bed, Harvic walks out of the caravan as Eshara returns from the forest with a stout creature, presumably the had’lath.

“Eshara, do you know anyone named Zathrian?” he asks her.

Passing the kill to Maram, she looks at him sideways. “Zathrian? Why do you ask?”

“I knew an elf once by that name. Is it a common name?”

Agitated, she tries to busy herself with skinning. “It is not a common name, no. My mother knew someone named Zathrian, but it could not be him. He was a Dalish. No, it could not be the same person.”

“Who was he?”

“Who was he? He was a lorekeeper, my mother said. It makes no sense. He disappeared – there was an accident with the templar. It couldn’t be, anyway! No.” In disarray, she flings her arms into the air.

“I’m sorry. I just wondered.”

“It is fine. Zathrian is dead.”

While the others listen with interest, Maram has started butcher the meat. She picks a few leaves from the ground and places them in the pot with the meat.

“What are you doing? have you ever cooked this before?”

Dipping her finger into the pot, she stirs it quickly and tastes the brew. “It’s an old recipe. My mother taught me. Trust me, Eshara.”

After the meat has cooked, Maram passes chunks to the group. The meat is surprisingly tender, but very gamey. “I can cook it well, but the flavour is hard to mask.” Maram comments, to which they all agree and start packing to leave. As they stand to leave, Eshara bids them to wait a moment.

“I need to get something.” She enters the third caravan.

As ruffling noises come from inside the caravan, the group stand in the clearing, watching the forest.

A twig snaps to their left and a quiet gibbering issue from the trees.

“D’you hear that?”

“Which direction?”

“Can’t tell.” Edging toward the treeline, they ready their weapons.

The forest darkens to an eerie twilight and a wind curses through the clearing. The fire flickers and goes out.

Bending down, Harvic applies his flint to the twigs. As the fire leaps in front of him, a shadow moves beyond the treeline. A back, a thick mat of fur, but on two legs like a man.

“I’m going to check on Eshara.” He stands and backs into the caravan. Inside, Eshara is searching frantically for something.

“You need to come outside, Eshara. What are you looking for?”

Opening a chest, she exclaims “A book! My mother’s diary – it was in the pillow.”

Picking up the book from the bed, Harvic tosses it at her. “This one?”

“Yes, that one. Here. Here.” She points at the page. “Zathrian. I remember. He is dead – mother told me.”

“Eshara.”

“Yes?”

“There are creatures outside?”

“Oh.”

As they return into the clearing, a directionless mocking laughter is coming from the forest. From the twilight, gnattering beasts appear. Upright jackals with long faces and short, pointed teeth, their eyes are glowing as they close on the adventurers.

~ ... ~

Footnotes

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