Hugo Tuya’s guards are hunting the remnants of a deepfolk raiding party outside of Estala in the southern spine mountains. After being ambushed in the mountains northeast of Estala, they are close to an observatory that is said to be inhabited by an Astrologer and his small and cultish group of followers. The cast for these two sessions:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

The guards had defeated their ambushers relatively comfortably, and with few injuries decided to push on after only a short break. They climbed through more switchbacks and edged their way along more mountain trails until they reached a flat stretch of bare stone at the edge of a chasm. On their right this bare plateau vaulted up into stony cliffs, and on their left plunged into an abyss. Ahead of them stood a few small stone buildings, clustered around a bridge over the chasm, and on the far side of the chasm they could see the observatory itself, a squat octagonal tower. The area was deserted, silent and still. In the still air the mountainside, buildings and the tower itself were wreathed in a foul-smelling mixture of smoke and fog, and from where the stood at the edge of the cluster of buildings they could see smoke from fires inside the observatory tower, drifting lazily out of its shattered gates and falling in wisps from its ramparts. It seemed that a fire had been set here perhaps a few days ago, and its last smouldering dregs combined with the mists of the mountains to form a thin haze that obscured their view across the canyon.

They moved toward the cluster of houses on the near side of the stone bridge, and soon realized that these houses too had been looted and burned, though the fires had not taken properly to the buildings’ stone walls and the small cluster of fires had long since exhausted themselves in the cold mountain air, leaving only tendrils of smoke drifting through the narrow ways between the houses. The road through the centre of the cluster passed through an arch of off-white structures that looked disturbingly like the teeth of some huge beast, rising from the ground to arch menacingly over the road. Itzel moved forward to investigate one, and as she approached a swarm of reanimates emerged from the buildings. The previous occupants of this small community had been mercilessly slaughtered, and their undead bodies left as a trap for any who came here.

They were surrounded, but the battle was brief and decisive. Soon they stood in the muck and stinking gore of 12 dead reanimates, tired but only lightly injured. The fate of this place was clear to them now, though they had had little doubt when they first saw the smoke. Deepfolk had raided it and killed its occupants, then reanimated them. They expected to see worse in the tower across the chasm. They searched the houses and found them already looted, all coin and valuables stolen, mirrors stripped from walls, glass shattered and removed. They moved carefully across the bridge, and entered the octagon of the observatory itself.

The Immolata

They passed through the shattered gate and into the observatory compound itself, where they immediately found the source of the smoke. A circle of six of the same strange tooth-like stone statues stood in the centre of the courtyard just inside the gate, and a huge bonfire smouldered under those teeth. The deepfolk appeared to have formed a pile of wood and furniture, covered it with huge quantities of books, and set the whole thing alight. From the teeth they had hung four of the tower’s residents, tortured horribly and chained facing the fire, and at the last they appeared to have thrown the body of the tower’s chief Astrologer onto the pyre, leaving it to burn. The fire was now just a smouldering pile of ash, stifled by rain, snow and cold, and the dead astrologer lay at its foot, having fallen from the flames as the pyre subsided.

The group split up. Some of them went to the outhouses of the tower to look for possible reanimates, while others stood around the pyre and wondered at the cruelty of the deepfolk. Calim moved forward to check the body, to see if this many had been dead when he hit the fire …

… and as he checked the corpse it twitched to life, rose up and grabbed him by the face with a burnt and scorching hand. Its eyes snapped open to reveal shadowy pits, and it raked him with claws of fire-hardened bone. At the same time the reanimates emerged from the outhouses to attack the party, and the trap was sprung.

This undead on the fire was not like reanimates they had fought in the past. It was blindingly fast, its touch burnt and sparked when it hit them, and it fought with feral intelligence. By the time they defeated it and its horde of undead accomplices it had seriously injured several of them, and when at last Kyansei was able to sever its head and hurl it back onto the smouldering ash heap they were all spent with the fury of the battle. Now they had learnt some more about deepfolk – that their necromantic powers extended beyond simple shambling zombies to dark rituals that could create much more powerful and dangerous creatures. Now, standing under a darkening sky against a tableau of torture and cruel arcane ritual, they realized that there was no depth of evil and savagery that the deepfolk were incapable of reaching. From now they agreed, they must always expect worse than they could imagine from these vile beasts.

The Observatory’s Secrets

Itzel and Kyansei searched the hot ash pile, hoping to recover any scraps or fragments of books that might be useful to her, but found only one, in a language Itzel was unfamiliar with. Though they found little, it became very clear from the structure of the fire that the intent of this ritual had been to burn the books – and Itzel suspected that the creation of the Immolata had been only a happy side effect of the book burning, that the deepfolk had taken advantage of rather than planning. The guards knew little of deepfolk culture, so they could not answer the question of whether deepfolk always destroyed human books when they raided, or if there had been some specific desire to destroy hidden or forbidden knowledge in this particular bonfire – they could only speculate as to the motives of such inchoate evil, but they were assured that the burning of the books was purposeful.

Having exhausted all avenues of exploration around the strange fire they began methodically searching the tower itself, hoping to learn something of what had happened here, but the place was thoroughly looted and yielded up few of its secrets. The chief Astrologer’s bedroom had been looted and its sole surviving clue, a chest, exploded with a trap as soon as Quangbae touched it, destroying all its contents. The library was empty, thoroughly divested of all its learning. The only clue they could find was in a strange laboratory-like room on one side of the building. In this room they found fine wires hanging from the ceiling, which appeared once to have ended in ornate coloured balls of blue, yellow, white or red, all hanging at different heights from the ceiling and at seemingly random positions in the room. These balls had been stripped from the wires, many of which had also been torn down, and now these balls, and more balls from a large supply held in baskets on shelves, had been cast all over the floor. There was nothing else in this room except a blackboard, which had been torn from the wall and cast on the ground, where it broke. Acting on a hunch, Calim put the pieces of the blackboard back together, and saw that someone had hurriedly erased some writing from the blackboard. The chalk duster they had used was nearby, covered in blood, and he guessed they had erased the board as the raid began, but been interrupted before they could flee. What message was so important that it must be erased even when a deepfolk raid was afoot? Calim carefully traced the shadow of the erased words, and discovered this strange message:

Seven deadly sins

Seven ways to win

Seven holy paths to hell

And your trip begins

Seven downward slopes

Seven bloodied hopes

Seven are your burning fires

Seven your desires…

It made little sense, but he copied it regardless. Had this message been erased to prevent the deepfolk reading it, or had it been scrubbed because it was forbidden knowledge that must not be left written down where future rescuers of the site might find it? They could not tell, and all they could do was record the words themselves.

They searched the remainder of the tower and found nothing. All its telescopes had been carefully removed and taken by the deepfolk, who had also taken all mirrors and any glass they could easily carry, all the coin, and anything else of value. The place had been stripped bare, its knowledge destroyed, its secrets buried in ash and blood and its treasures carried away by unholy and savage raiders. There was nothing for them to do here except ponder on the barbarity of the deepfolk mind, and the enigma of this place’s lost purpose. As night fell on the peak and a storm rolled in, they withdrew into the inner sanctum of the tower to contemplate these mysteries, and to prepare to leave.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have set off into the mountains as the month of Storm enters its last, tumultuous week. They are chasing the possible remnants of a deepfolk raiding party that they destroyed in the caves just outside of Estala, on the request of that town’s doughty Myrmidon. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They decided to travel to the Observatory first, on the eastern face of the mountains, then take the high passes from the Observatory across the peaks to Cauldron Lake. The journey to the Observatory takes two days of carefully picking narrow paths through culverts and gullies, along switchbacks and sparsely-forested mountain faces, then into thickly forested sheltered canyons that are perfect ambush spots for raiding deepfolk. They traveled slowly and carefully along these usually-peaceful pathways, mindful of heavy rainclouds above and wary of the dripping stillness of the mountain pines. At the end of the day Itzel and Kyansei sought camp, but with little success: they passed a harsh night sleeping on rough stones in a windy rock outcrop, eating cold food with no fire for fear of being seen by any deepfolk scouts that might be about.

In the morning they were glad of their chilly fastness, though, when they descended the rockface to find the footprints of a large animal in the mud at its base. The creature must have been looking for them at night but failed to find the path, and after coursing the ground at their base in confusion wandered off. They were glad to have hidden, because each of its prints was easily larger than a bear’s, something like a huge cat with what looked like scales on the underside of its paws, and many wicked claws. Though they had been cold and damp, they had escaped a vicious fight they could ill afford to risk.

They ate another cold meal, decamped and continued climbing into the mountains. Around midday their path turned into a wider, heavily forested canyon, ideal for an ambush – and of course it was here that they were ambushed. A fusillade of arrows struck them from both sides of the road, striking Itzel down instantly, and as they set themselves for battle another huge Orc warrior came screaming out of the trees, barreled straight down into the path and slammed into Kyansei. Remembering their last encounter with these monsters, Kyansei, Quangbae joined Kyansei in battle immediately while Bao Tap tried to find the archers, and Calim frantically healed Itzel.

Fortunately this time they found the archers quickly, and Bao Tap was able to charge into the trees with his summoned monster to fight them. On the other side of the road Itzel, brought back to consciousness by Calm, used her magic to pick off archers, and Calim alternated between healing Kyansei and shooting archers. The archers were Grig, the small pale-skinned and large-eyed creatures they had slaughtered in the cave. They were good at hiding and shooting, but frail and easily downed. This time the numbers were in their favour, and they soon killed all the Grig and brought the Orc champion down, Bao Tap returning from killing the Grig to join the brutal butchery. Just like the last Orc, this thing had supernatural endurance, and long after even a wildling Berserker would have collapsed it kept fighting, hopelessly weak but refusing to give in. Finally Quangbae tore its arm off and it collapsed in a heap, snarling weakly as it died.

They had prevailed, but it was obvious now that the raiding party they had destroyed near Estala had been part of a manoeuvre, and there was more happening in the mountains. They turned their faces to the higher slopes of the mountains and pressed on. The observatory was up there somewhere in the high cold air, and they began to have a very bad feeling about what they would find on those stony heights …

I have just finished reading The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler. I found this book because I stumbled on some tweets of his that suggested he actually had a nuanced view of China, which is highly unusual for a western journalist. He is a journalist working at the New Yorker, who spent several years in Beijing, and this book is his account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded as he was living and working in Egypt. Hessler is also unusual for a journalist from an elite publication in that he actually learnt the language of the countries he reported on, and attempted to meet people outside the expat bubble, something which is incredibly rare in journalists in Asia and I’d guess (especially now) even rarer in journalists covering the middle east. So I was interested in finding out what he had to say about the Egyptian Revolution, and how he linked it to the archaeology of Egypt’s ancient sites.

The book is divided into three parts, which describe the events immediately leading up to and around the revolution; the fallout and subsequent collapse of that revolution and Morsi’s rule; and then the long-term consequences for Egypt. Through the three parts he weaves together accounts of his own life in Egypt, the lives and tribulations of the Egyptian people he knew, and the things he learnt about the ancient history of Egypt, in particular a specific lost city in the desert that appears to reflect many of the classic mistakes of modern Egypt. This style of storytelling is engaging and interesting but also infuriating, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at times and you can’t feel that the guy is making a point; as a result I had to go away and come back to this book several times, when my interest in what he was trying to say overcame my frustrations at his failure to get anywhere closer to saying it. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little plot or structure to this book, just a series of anecdotes laid out in approximately temporal order, with some interesting asides.

The most enjoyable part of this storytelling conceit by far is the tales of the Egyptians Hessler meets. He studies Arabic with a man called Rifaat, who is a cynic out of place in modern Cairo, and practices his Arabic with the local waste disposal man, Sayyid. He also gets help in the early years of his stay in Cairo from a gay Egyptian man called Manu, until his Arabic is good enough to work by himself, and also meets people associated with these men. Later on in the story he begins to meet and talk to Chinese lingerie merchants, using his experience of China and Chinese people to learn about Egypt through their eyes. These people are all fascinating individuals, leading complex and compromised lives in the face of a social system that is extremely different to our western ideals, an increasingly authoritarian state, and in Manu’s case the constant threat of physical harm from the extreme prejudice he is constantly exposed to. Some of the people in this story have extremely disappointing, even distressing, endings, and Hessler describes them with sympathy, empathy and care, which makes their stories simultaneously powerful, entertaining, and frustrating, and sometimes ultimately disappointing in different ways. Through them we gain some insight into how Egyptian culture works and how Egyptians view their own problems, and we also get a very personal sense of how the overbearing patriarchy and the increasingly intrusive authoritarianism affect ordinary people’s lives and decisions.

Hessler tells these stories and the experience of the revolution with a genuine respect and empathy for the people involved, and without much of the usual patronizing interventionist snootiness of western journalists reporting on other cultures. He is very clear about his position on various moral issues but does not allow this to cloud his understanding of what these people who grew up in this system believe and think about the world around them. His tone is very much like the tone I am familiar with from foreigners living in Japan who actually love and respect the country but aren’t foolish enough to think that the only way they can fit in here is by being and thinking Japanese: a kind of detached and respectful love and simultaneous exasperation, and an appreciation of how differences can be simultaneously frustrating or crazy but also necessary and beneficial, and enough humility to understand that his own perspective is not universally right or effective. Through this perspective he tries to understand values he doesn’t share, actions he would never take, and decisions that on first blush look completely crazy.

Hessler also approaches the revolution from a relatively open-minded standpoint (for a westerner, and especially an American). He talks to people from all sides of the political battles, and he attempts to identify facts and understand patterns and systems where most journalists would just look for confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Through his careful work we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstating its membership and its charitable works; that many Egyptians came to think the Brotherhood was an American plot; that many people in leadership positions on all sides had no plan or system for the revolution; and that much of politics in Egypt did not change with the revolution. We get a street-level view of how mistakes happened and how some decisions and responses were inevitable or uncontrolled, and we see how events or processes that from the outside looked carefully planned and executed were actually happenstance. This is interesting and insightful stuff, and the first time I’ve tried to understand the Arab spring in any detail.

For this insight into the revolution and the stories of the people he knew, this book is definitely worth reading. However, it suffers from a couple of flaws that I think are all too common in journalistic work. First and foremost, just like the other book by a journalist that I recently finished, there is no real conclusion and a poor logical structure. I don’t know what journalists learn at school but a common flaw of opinion and discussion pieces by journalists is that they don’t know how to build up from evidence, using logic, to a conclusion, and this seems to happen in their books too. In this case I don’t necessarily need to see logic or some kind of scientific method of Egyptian revolutionary studies, but I’d at least like a conclusion, and the book just kind of fizzles out without saying anything. Like much of journalistic work, it ends up being a discussion of a big national event through how it affects 3 or 4 random people the journalist knows. That’s a nice story but to my mind it’ s not saying anything. Choose a different 3 or 4 random people and I’d get a completely different set of consequences of the revolution, a different sense of its importance and its effects, and a different understanding of the world. That’s well and good as a story but it’s also very limited as a form of essay about a revolution. I want more! And somehow I don’t get it. The stories get wrapped up but nothing else is finished or even said, in the end. It’s a strange feeling to read 100s of pages of non-fiction and come out having learnt a lot and seen a lot but simultaneously having learned nothing. Kind of like reading a modern newspaper, I guess.

But besides this, and the slightly loose way in which the narratives of the different people and ancient cities intertwine, this book is excellent. It is sensitive to the people, it gives a feeling of being in Cairo without losing the sense of being an outsider, it’s not patronizing or chauvinist, and it gives people outside Egypt an insight into the revolution that is aware of its own limitations, careful about its own subjectivity, but thorough within the limitations of its writers frame and abilities given the context in which he collected his stories. I strongly recommend this book as both a series of biographies, an account of the revolution, and a study of a country. Despite its flaws and its ultimate lack of conclusion, it’s a powerfully empathic discussion of a difficult time that has already been warped into propaganda by western governments and media, its truth lost to time. At least with this book we can dig up a little of the truth, even if only glimpses, and understand something of the archaeology of the revolution, just as its title suggests.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have destroyed a nest of deepfolk and rescued the villagers those deepfolk abducted. In this session they returned to Estala to collect their reward, recover and repair their gear. Unfortunately they found no reprieve here: the night of their return the Myrmidon Armestra came to them and asked them to depart immediately in the morning to scout the surrounding areas. She expected that there might be some deepfolk left in the area, and wanted to find where the deepfolk emerged from, so they could seal their tunnel. She also feared there would be more deepfolk coming, or that they had despoiled the homes of independent trappers and forest folk living in the woods.

Hugo Tuya’s Guards desperately wanted to rest and take a few days to recover, but they had no time. The rest of this session was spent discussing the clues they have picked up so far, healing, asking questions about town, getting what help they could, and preparing to leave for the hills. They have been given three locations to check over a period of 5-7 days:

  • The Observatory, to the north east,
  • The high passes, which stretch from the observatory to
  • The Cauldron Lake, in the north west

In the next session the guards will choose a direction, and head off to secure the lands around Estala while its people fortify its walls in preparation for another onslaught. Truly, there is no rest for those who do good deeds …

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

Siladan the Elder

Sundered Cliffs

Third watch road, the red house

11th of the Still, 1009

Regald

Ell’s Hamlet

The Estala Road

Old friend,

I hope this letter finds you well, and apologize for my tardiness in writing these past two years. I have taken on two apprentices and my work in the academy grows in detail and depth, and as a result I have forgotten some of the more pleasurable parts of my private affairs. Indeed, at the end of a long day poring over illuminated texts I have found it difficult to raise a pen in my private hours, and for this I sincerely apologize.

With the onset of these new responsibilities I have decided to clean out some space in my personal laboratory – needs must, in fact, because the second apprentice cannot continue sleeping in the stables during the Still month! I have cleared out some material and set my apprentices to reviewing others, but in the process I found this cache of old documents that I believe we discovered when we ambushed a deepfolk warband. It belonged to a scholar they had looted, but I vaguely recall when we tried to return the documents the scholar, too, was gone – perhaps eaten by those same scurrilous vermin in whose possession we found the documents. In any case, they are written in ancient elvish, which is beyond my capacity to fathom. I know you grew up near the elves and speak a little of their tongue, so I thought perhaps you could make headway in reading them; or, if you cannot, perhaps you could return them to the elves from the great forest, from whence they will no doubt find their way into whatever passes for libraries among those folk. I am loathe to turn them over to my own academy, as they have few members who can read elvish and a rather poor manner in dealing with manuscripts they are not able to read. I trust you will treat them better with your weary swordhand than they would with their delicate and soft ink-stained paws!

These documents have mouldered in my cellars for years now so there is no need to make time for such an errand, but should you luck upon a chance to read them, I should be very interested in their contents. I will pay you for a transcription should you find one, and determine it to be more interesting than some dull elvish genealogy (please do not bother me if it is just stories of which of them begat which other of them in olden times – such horrors need not be shared!)

In cleaning out the apprentice’s new rooms I stumbled on other documents we uncovered during the time of the Ashentide. Remember those documents by that fellow with the picturesque name, Aveld the Foul? I think I will spend the next winter trying to crack their code, and find out why he earned such a descriptive suffix. Let us hope that he is not just a duckherder with a poor pen hand and a penchant for numerology! In any case, if I find anything else that concerns your time with the Ashentide, I promise to send it to you. Until such time, please be assured that I remain,

Your comrade in arms

Siladan the Elder

Ell’s Hamlet

Having destroyed Argalt’s raiders in the fens near Miselea, Hugo Tuya’s guards were now ready to return to their main journey. They would travel to Ell’s Hamlet to rest and investigate the raiders’ purpose, then they would travel on to Estala where they hoped to receive payment for the first third of their services, and take a few days to rest and enjoy life off the road. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith
  • Yoog, changeling scoundrel

Ell’s Hamlet

After their successful battle at the waterfall they rested only briefly before returning to a worried-looking Hugo Tuya on the road to Ell’s Hamlet. The journey from there was short, passing through the same complex of low hillocks and slightly marshy hollows that they had passed through the previous day, and where Rimgalt and his raiders now lay rotting. Towards late afternoon they reached Ell’s Hamlet, easily in time to clean up before the evening meal. Ell’s Hamlet was a small and secure village of only a few score buildings, set inside a combined stone wall and wooden palisade atop an ancient earthworks. The entrance road passed through a small complex of raised mounds, on which stood empty wooden archers’ nests, and passed through a wooden gatehouse in one of the few gaps in the earthworks’ lower barrier wall. From there they passed through a switchback road up to a higher level, overlooked by a smaller internal palisade, before entering the small village area itself.

Ell’s Hamlet had a single small hostelry called the Ell, right at the centre of the town, which was the primary purpose of its existence. Behind the Ell was a small barracks, and spreading out from this central square the various homes and warehouses of the local farmers. From the outer palisade of the earthworks they could look out over a mixture of good farming land broken up by small, bare hillocks and water-logged hollows. To the northwest the low peaks of the southern end of the Spine mountains vaulted into the sky, looming over the landscape like distant shadows; to the east the land stretched out in a rough and wrinkled patchwork of grey and light green and browns until it merged with the distant, darker swathe of the great forest. Everything was cool and peaceful, though a new storm threatened to gather over the sea far to the east, and they all knew that to the southwest lay the broken corpses of a squad of raiders. Looking back on their journey thus far, they thought this peaceful landscape held many secrets, and a great deal of danger and dark magic was buried beneath its bucolic scenery.

And so they set about plumbing the depths of those secrets. Rimgalt and his raiders had been sent to the Hamlet to find a man called Regald and bring back any documents he possessed, and any necklaces. Their scouts had entered the Hamlet and learnt that Regald died a year ago and his daughter had left town, so were returning to Rimgalt to tell him and find out what to do next when they saw Tuya’s caravan and made the mistake of assuming it would be easy pickings. Hugo Tuya’s guards suspected that Regald was the owner of the necklace they held, and that his daughter who left the town had died in the woods north of Ebara with her elven lover. They wanted to find out for certain, and word of valuable documents in his possession drew their attention like moths to a flame. So they sent Yoog through the town, in her generic human form, to ask questions and find out what the story was with Regald. After some time and painful conversation at a coffee shop Yoog returned to tell them that Regald had died of a heart attack and his daughter had left his house only a little later, apparently on a quick journey – she had not prepared the house for a long time away, neither preparing it for winter nor sealing the storm shutters nor putting up protection against wasp nests, and all her neighbours were angry at her when she did not return promptly. Following Yoog’s information, they set off for the house.

One of the Gull’s Sketches

Regald’s History

They found the house quickly and after some confusion and unsubtle approaches were able to break in and start exploring. It had only three rooms: a large, comfortable kitchen and eating area, a messy and cluttered study and a small loft bedroom above the eating area, set off from the main room by a curtain. The study was obviously Regald’s comfortable room, and clearly undisturbed for a long time. They explored it thoroughly, finding tools and weapons suitable for the study of a retired adventurer. In amongst this general clutter they found:

  • A partial map of the Middlemarch, with a single cross marked on it
  • A set of books describing the towns and geography of the west coast of Hadun, referred to generally as Azale’s Almanac, which is generally considered accurate and useful
  • A folio of sketches labeled “The Gull’s sketches” which contain pictures of a changeling, a human astrologer, a human explorer, and a human warrior, with probably a dwarven stormcaller they guessed was “The Gull”, because these pictures seemed more like self-portraits
  • A letter, two years old, addressed to Regald and left opened and read beneath the folio

The letter suggested that this Regald had been sent some important documents and had never translated them. But even more, they realized that the man Verbere whose widow they had robbed in Ibara was also a member of the same group as Regald: both had been written letters by Siladan the Elder, and their lives had come to bitter ends soon after.

The room above the living area was a young woman’s bedroom, in a state of genteel disorder as of a slightly messy girl preparing for a short journey. In her small desk they found a small bundle of letters written in very simple elvish from a man called Haltzel, which Itzel translated with some scorn at the way he simplified elvish grammar for a human reader. These letters confirmed their suspicions: that this girl, whose name was Azagald, had been the lover of the elven man Haltzel, and it was their remains (and her reanimated corpse) that they had found in the woods north of Ibara. The last letter from Haltzel suggested Azgald had taken Regald’s documents to him to be translated. Presumably they had met in the woods north of Ibara for a tryst and to exchange the documents, and there they had been set upon by deepfolk and cruelly murdered, with Azgald’s body left reanimated as a trap for any elves that came looking for Haltzel’s ruins. Hugo Tuya’s guards assumed also that the deepfolk had stolen the elvish documents.

Why were those documents so important? Regald and Verbere’s group had taken them from a deepfolk lair and then left them unopened for years; Siladan had found them when cleaning his study and sent them to Regald for help translating, but Regald had died of a heart attack before he could read them; after his death they guessed his daughter Azgald had been cleaning his room and found the note and documents, seized the chance to visit her lover Haltzel, and been ambushed and murdered by deepfolk north of Ibara. Had those deepfolk known she was carrying elven documents stolen from deepfolk? Why would deepfolk care about elven documents? The story confounded them. Furthermore, in the year since he sent this letter to Regald, Siladan had translated some of the work of this Aveld the Foul, learnt of buried iron, and told his old comrade Verbere about it – but Verbere had been ambushed and died on the way to the location of the iron. Was Siladan organizing the death of his former adventuring colleagues? Was the whole group cursed? Or was it just poor luck? They all agreed that they must find him in Estona and learn the truth about his past and his actions.

With that, unable to learn anything else, they left the house and Regald and Azgald’s secrets, and returned to their hostelry.

Smoke in the mountains

They set off for Estala the next morning, eager for rest and payment. From Estala they would cross the mountains through the pass known as the Middlemarch, which was supposedly safe, and arrive in the western side of Hadun before the end of storm season, from there to travel comfortably down to Estona along its eponymous river. Before the trials of the mountain crossing they would take a few days to re-equip, to rest, to make offerings, and to discuss their next plans. They made good time on the road to Estala, spurred on by the storm behind them and the promise of a good bath ahead. Towards late afternoon, however, as they crested the first of the foothills of the Spine mountains and Estala hoved into view, they realized that their plans had been confounded. Estala had been raided.

Estala lies in the bend of a river, its southern flanks protected by this deep and fast-flowing river and its northern side guarded by a stone wall that stretches from the eastern to the western edge of this large curve in the river. All of Estala is nestled inside the twin barriers of wall and water, with the northern gate of the town looking out from the walls at the looming mountains, while the southern entrance is possible only through four fortified bridges that are all separated from the mountain side by the river itself. Within this oxbow and its northern face, the town is said to be secure. Yet here they could see multiple smouldering fires, and when Quangbae used his telescope he could clearly see that the northern gate had been smashed in. The fires now smouldered, likely lit in a raid the night before and damped down during the day. He could see frantic activity in the town, as people repaired the damaged gates and attempted to make the town safe before nightfall. Hugo Tuya became very agitated at this report, and urged them into the town; convinced by Quangbae’s reconnaissance that it was safe, they headed down the hill to the river’s edge and the dawn bridge, from which they would enter the town’s south eastern suburbs.

They entered a town in quiet uproar, but did not disturb its busy residents until they had safely ensconced themselves in a hostelry near the north gate. There they learnt the horrible truth: the town had been raided the night before by deepfolk, who had overcome its defenses and broken through its northern gate, then despoiled the town itself for a few hours while the town’s defenders organized themselves. Before a solid counter attack could be mounted they had withdrawn, taking with them 10 hostages and leaving behind 10 dead citizens and 14 dead soldiers from the local levy. They had broken through the defenses using batriders, who had come over the walls in silence in the depths of night and taken the gatehouse by force before the guards knew of their presence; with the gate then open, the rest of the deepfolk force had been able to enter the town and do much damage before the remaining troops of the levy could be alerted and coordinated.

A terrible circumstance indeed but nothing they felt would affect them personally, until Hugo Tuya called them together within the hour and confessed to them the horrible truth: Hugo Tuya had no money, and had been expecting to call in a debt from his brother when they arrived in Estala. Unfortunately, his brother was one of the 10 hostages, the money Hugo Tuya had been hoping to take from his brother was buried somewhere, and if his brother died he would never get it, which would mean his guards would go unpaid, and his journey to Estona would end in penury here in Estala.

Itzel asked about the money he had made on the journey here – the reward for defeating bandits, payment for killing spiders, and so forth. He confessed that he was seriously in debt in both Miselea and Inorat, which was why he was journeying to Estona to sell iron in the first place, and when he had arrived in Miselea he had used the extra money he made from the guards’ valiant efforts to pay some of the principal on his debts in Miselea, thus buying time to pay the rest. So he had no money. The last of his coin had been spent on their hostelry in Estala, and if they did not find money soon his journey was over. So it was that they would have to rescue his brother.

The town’s chieftain and its Myrmidon were heading to negotiation with the deepfolk in an hour, Hugo Tuya had talked his way into their entourage as a concerned family member, and the guards were to go with him to see how the negotiations proceeded. Hugo Tuya was concerned that the chieftain would refuse to negotiate, out of some misguided principle, and his brother would die. If so, he wanted his guards to rescue his brother – or at least to find out where the money was buried.

In truth Hugo Tuya seemed more concerned about the money than his brother, but then so were his guards. They agreed to his request, on the condition that their contract be significantly rewritten in their favour, and so an hour later they found themselves heading out to meet the deepfolk.

The Orc captain

The Skydeath Clan

The town chieftain was a petulant, poorly-mannered and skittish man called Amygdal, sitting atop a fine horse and speaking to his underlings with haughty arrogance that barely concealed his obvious figure. He was thin, middle-aged, with a weak jaw and a brooding, aggrieved manner. The Myrmidon Amestra, leader of the levy, was a slightly overweight woman of similar age, dressed in chainmail and carrying a real steel sword. She also rode on a powerful horse, but with obvious comfort and familiarity. Behind them 20 of the remaining troops of the levy were gathered, looking nervous but determined. Amygdal ignored Hugo Tuya’s guards, but Amestra welcomed them into the group and rode alongside them as they headed north into the rapidly darkening hills. As they walked Amestra told them that the deepfolk would likely demand food and glass in return for the hostages, with the intention of making the townsfolk’s winter tough, and would probably not free all the prisoners unless a very good price was offered. Her relationship with her chieftain was obviously strained, but she was familiar enough with the burdens of leadership not to show it too much to her soldiers.

They found the deepfolk band after an hour of careful walking, as the sun sank below the mountains and the evening light faded to grey. One of the hostages had been impaled on a stake on a slight rise, and as their group gathered around it Amestra told them to take up positions; sure enough within a minute the deepfolk emerged from the darkness under the trees ahead of them, a horde of misshapen and vicious-looking miscreants led by a huge and violent-looking white-skinned orc. Amongst the horde they saw many Griggs, scrawny alabaster-skinned nightstalkers infamous for their perfect darkvision and magical skills. There were no other orcs, but a phalanx of goblins, grey-skinned monsters the size of humans, carrying scrap spears and sneering and yelling incomprehensible abuse at the humans from behind their shields. Behind the orc captain a goblin held a banner on a long spear. The banner was a blue field over a black field, with a ragged skull image painted in the centreline, and streaks of red tumbling down the blue field from the top of the banner.

Next to the orc captain a Grigg skulked, dressed in leather robes and dragging one of the townsfolk by his hair. This man was a middle-aged merchant type, his once-rich clothes torn and ruined and muddy and his face bruised. His thighs and upper arms had been shackled together so that as the Grigg dragged him around he was forced to duck-walk and stumble and squat-jump after the Grigg. Even in the grim half-light the guards could see his eyes darting about and feel his exhaustion and terror. It was their first experience meeting deepfolk, and his fear was contagious.

The Grigg spoke, calling out to them in the deepfolk’s harsh and incomprehensible tongue as the Griggs capered and the Goblins blustered behind him. Once his voice had fallen flat on the damp earth of the clearing they watched in horror as the human prisoner’s throat began to swell, his neck arched, and his eyes flooded with tears of horror. He coughed and spluttered and then spoke in a deep, horrible voice, spitting out words in the human language with bile and rage, his throat and mouth strained with the effort of forcing his voice to unnatural volume and gravelly tone. When his speech was done he fell forward, gasping, into the mud, but the Grigg dragged him back to his knees, and they saw spittle and mud smeared across his jaw.

We are here with our demands. You will heed!

Amestra gestured for Amygdal to be silent, and spoke in return. The Grigg seemed to understand her human speech but refused to speak even a word in response; instead it forced its human prisoner to speak with its unnatural voice of gravelly rage.

We want coin

At this Amestra seemed surprised. She looked over at the guards in shock, raised and eyebrow, and asked the Grigg why it wanted coin.

When a hunter of your wretched kind flays a deer, does the deer ask what the hide is for? Does it beg to know if it will be a rug on your filthy floor, or a ragged cloak to hide your spindly and disgusting form? No! It is prey, it gives what it is made to give. So!

This speech was too much for the prisoner, who coughed up blood and fell to his side in the grass. The Grigg dragged him up again and a goblin behind it poked him with its spear. He sagged again but had enough sense not to fall. As he dragged himself back up they saw he was bleeding from his mouth.

Amestra acknolwedged the sense of the Grigg’s little speech, and asked for a price. The Grigg made its demands, for a large amount of money for each prisoner. Then added,

Except this one! I will eat it when I am done with you

After he said that the prisoner heard his own voice, and broke down in sobs. The goblins laughed and another one jabbed him with its spear. The Grigg kicked him and said something else, and with a final, hoarse gasp he added,

We will return here tomorrow night. Bring the money or we feast on your kin

And then they turned and faded into the night.

The raid

During the journey back it became clear that the Chieftain was unwilling to pay the deepfolks’ price. It was too much coin for the town to comfortably spare, and he doubted it could be recouped from the rescued townsfolk themselves. Besides, he argued, capitulation would just embolden these scum. Instead they would redouble their defenses, refuse to pay, and if the deepfolk returned would make them pay for what they had done; and if not well, 10 dead townsfolk was not such a great tax on top of what they had already lost. Such was life in the mountains, right? He added a small aside about how the tax would be unnecessary if the town were better defended, and retired to his home to leave Amestra to explain the decision to her confused levy.

Hugo Tuya’s guards returned to the hostelry and made their plans. They estimated there were perhaps 20 or 25 deepfolk in that group, and they could not leave the prisoners to be slaughtered; nor could they let their own payment slide out of their rip. They would launch a raid at first light, and free the prisoners or die trying.

As they made their plans Amestra came in and, with dour grunts, indicated her assent to their assault. She told them the likely location of the deepfolk camp, and wished them luck. They made their preparations and at first light slipped out of the town to do their work.

In the hills north of town was an old cave complex with two entrances, a narrow crack at ground level and a wider hole to a cave higher up the cliff. She suspected that the batriders nested in that higher cave, while the rest of the gang hid out in the lower part. If they entered by the upper part they might be able to creep down to the prisoners and then fight their way out with the prisoners secured.

It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all they had. At dawn they found themselves at the cliff face, scaling a narrow goat path up to the entrance to the bat rider cave while below them the cave entrance’s Grigg guards cowered away from the dawn sun in the shadows of the cave mouth. Hugo Tuya’s guards had done everything they could to prepare for this: blessings from the local Rimewarden, some magical herbs that gave the humans power of dark vision, Bao Tap’s animal companion prepared, all potions readied for use. They would give their all for this raid.

They slipped past the sleeping bats into a narrow tunnel. They passed the hole where the batriders rested, and moved down the tunnel towards the lower level. Where it curved towards the ground floor they saw a narrow ledge, on which crouched a team of Grigg archers. Without further thought they split up and began the attack. Yoog and Quangbae crept up to the ledge to ambush the archers, and as soon as their trap was sprung Kyansei charged into the main room to confront the rabble there, followed by Itzel. Bao Tap and Callim backtracked to ambush the bat riders and slaughter them. The battle was begun.

With her rush attack Kyansei was able to place herself between the goblin guards and the prisoners, and with her ferocious valour held the goblins back from wicked sacrifice until the rest of her companions could finish off the batriders and the archers and join her. By the time they did, though, the Orc captain and his Grigg mage were in battle. Kyansei managed to dispense with a Goblin captain and some of his guards but paid a heavy price in blood. The battle turned grim and desperate and there on the cave floor they made their stand, slicked with the blood of goblin, Grigg and their own fellows as the cavern echoed with screams, curses, horrible grinding sounds and the clash of metal. More Grigg ran in, and they felt sure they would be overwhelmed.

Somehow, though, they prevailed. Kyansei fell, hacked down by the Orc captain before Quangbae could finally fell him, and Itzel too was downed by magic and arrows, but then the tide turned and they found themselves chasing the last goblins around the room, brutally finishing the whole gang. When they were done they stood gasping on a pile of corpses, surrounded by blood, pain and murder. The prisoners were spared, and somehow they had done it.

Now, where was their money?

Hugo Tuya’s guards have tracked a band of raiders to a nest in the hills outside Ell’s Hamlet, and having destroyed their outriders, pounce on the leader and his band. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They had killed the outriders in a small grove of trees on the edge of a tract of swampy ground. Following a narrow path through the trees, they came to the edge of a small, clear pool, on the far side of which a cascade of small waterfalls fell of a raised knoll. A narrow path under the waterfalls cut down to the pool’s level, and on the banks of the pool they could see a small camp ground, where probably the leader had been staying. Unfortunately he was not there: he and his remaining squad had taken position on top of the gnoll, from where they fired arrows at the guards.

Kyansei the berserker charged forward along the edge of the pool and the others followed more carefully, firing bows as they advanced. The raiders’ leader soon lived up to his name and gave up on the patient battle of archers: he came hurtling and sliding down the path from the top of the raised ground, axed raised, to meet Kyansei as she advanced. The rest of his warriors, beset by Bao Tap’s swarms of conjured midges and dragged forward by their leader’s compulsive madness, followed him into battle. Missile weapons were dropped, spear and tonfa drawn, and brutal hand-to-hand battle was joined.

Hugo Tuya’s guards triumphed quickly and almost without injury. The raider leader fell dead into the pond, and his last archers fled in terror of the guards’ fury. They scoured the camp for goods and coin, stole the raiders’ horses, and left them for the crows as they turned with renewed purpose in the direction of Ell’s Hamlet …

Hugo Tuya’s guards are traveling from Miselea to Estala, and on the second day of their journey were ambushed by raiders. They defeated the foot soldiers sent against them, but were unable to stop the leader from fleeing on his horse, and could not catch the archers who had harried them from the bushes beside the road. After the battle they caught their breath, Calim healed their minor injuries, and they discussed what to do. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith
  • Yoog, Changeling scoundrel

Regald’s Necklace

They faced some indecision now about whether to follow the raiders and risk further battle, or to let them go and proceed on their journey. Raiders this far from the Valley of Gon were unusual, but if they did come this far it was likely they had traveled in some force with a purpose, usually looting small towns and taking hostages for ransom. Given that the guards’ plan that evening was to spend the night in Ell’s Hamlet they guessed the raiders might have been targeting it, and if they had already raided it might have hostages who could be freed. They decided first then to investigate the raiders’ actions so far. They woke the sole surviving footsoldier and after some threats and promises managed to gain his cooperation.

The raider, injured and sullen, told them grudgingly that they had come from the Valley of Gon to Ell’s Hamlet to find a man called Regald. They did not know anything about this man, just that they had been given instructions: find him and bring him back, they can take anything he has but they must bring all his documents and any necklaces he owns straight to their leader in the Valley. However, when they arrived at Ell’s Hamlet they sent in a scout to investigate, and discovered that this man Regald had died about a year ago, and his daughter had disappeared at about the same time. After this initial scouting mission they had been returning to their camp to inform their captain so that he could decide what to do, but seeing Hugo Tuya’s caravan had decided to deviate briefly from their mission for what they thought would be easy money.

Calim’s ears pricked up at this story. This timeline of events sounded like it matched exactly the probable death of the elven traveler and the human woman with him, killed by deepfolk not so far from here about a year ago. In the remains of that camp they had found a necklace of a strange design, and had planned to use the necklace to track down the woman. Could it be that these raiders were looking for the same necklace and its owner, this Regald? Perhaps his daughter had left Ell’s Hamlet with the necklace after the death of Regald, to meet with this elf for some reason, and had been killed by deepfolk before she could hand the necklace over to the elf? Why then would raiders from the Valley of Gon want to find this Regald, and what did the necklace mean?

They decided to find out.

The Raider camp

In exchange for mercy the surviving raider footsoldier explained to them how to find the camp, and they set off. The footsoldier told them that their raiding team was led by a thug called Rimgalt, delegated to lead the team here by their leader in the Valley of Gon, a petty warlord named Argalt. Rimgalt was slightly crazy, probably because of the magic axe he carried, and would be hard to kill, they were warned. He was camped by a small pond under a waterfall, but the rest of his crew were stationed a little distance away, guarding a crossroads trail that led to the pool. They would have to pass this gauntlet first to get to Rimgalt at the pool.

They approached cautiously, Yoog scouting ahead and Bao Tap sending his familiar, a weasel, to scout the area. From this they soon found a squad of four more footsoldiers camped out in a small stand of bushes near the road, unaware of their approach. Yoog and Quangbae moved quietly up behind them while the rest of the group marched along the road, ready to spring a trap on the footsoldiers’ own trap.

Their plan worked perfectly, and they caught the footsoldiers in a nice little vice, but they were themselves ambushed by a squad of archers who had been hiding behind a tree further down the road, and who they had not seen. They had to split up to attack the archers, and the battle was still in full swing when four more footsoldiers advanced from the southern road to the crossroads, drawn by the sounds of battle. Although the odds were stacked against them they prevailed through surprise, magic and sheer force of will, finally vanquishing all 12 men and their thuggish lieutenant. Injured but alive, they prepared to advance on Rimgalt himself, and learn the answer to their questions about the necklace.


Image note

The picture at the top of the post is taken from Clement Mona.

The Ariaki delegation and the bridge to Ariaki from Miselea

Hugo Tuya’s guards, having vanquished the Redcap of the great forest and absorbed the evil secrets of its magic, moved quickly to the nearby town of Miselea. They needed to rest and recuperate, and had four weakened guards from the southern kingdom of Ariaki to return to their home nation after a year of hideous enslavement to the spider-fey. Miselea stood at the border between Hadun and Ariaki, on the northern side of the river that skirted the great forest, and it had a small Ariaki delegation continuously present to which they hoped to hand over their weakened and traumatized charges.

The Spider-slaves’ promise

On the journey to Miselea they spoke with the men and women they had rescued from the spiders’ nest, and though there was little they could do to ease their trauma after a year as brood-hosts and cleaning servitors for the giant spiders, they were able to learn a little more of the circumstances of their capture. The four had been bodyguards for an Astrologer, Salam of the Silver Eyes, from Alpon in northern Ariaki, not so far from its border with Hadun. He had been researching ancient beasts in a large and largely forgotten library in its crumbling Academy when he had stumbled on stories of an ancient spider lord in the forest. Perhaps under-estimating the side and evil of the spiders they would meet, and knowing nothing of the existence of Redcaps, he had hired six guards and set off into the forest to learn its secrets. They had been ambushed almost as soon as they arrived in the nest area, and had been so overwhelmed by the spiders that the entire squad had been webbed and dragged back to the lair before they could do any harm to the spiders. At the lair they had been surely destined for food – and one of them had been consumed, horribly, in front of them – before the Redcap appeared and saved them, using its magic to force four to be servitors and taking Salam and a single member of their team away for its own use. Conscious during the year of their captivity but unable to resist the Redcap’s magic, only the exhaustion, cold and the constant poisoning by the spiders had helped to obliterate their memories of what had happened to them.

They vowed to the guards that they would do all they could to help them destroy the spiders. Though they were terrified of them they also knew their ways, and had a deep and urgent desire to destroy them all. They would vouch for the information the guards passed on to the elves, and after their return to Alpon would be ready to assist the guards in a strike on the spider god – and whatever Redcap monarch lived with it – in the depths of the forest. The guards simply had to visit Alpon and call upon them, and they would come.

Rest and Research in Miselea

Miselea was a town of about 3000 people on the southern border of Hadun, on the northern bank of the river that separates Hadun and Ariaki. This small river has its source at the southern hills of the Valley of Gon and flows east to Miselea before turning north and flowing along the edge of Ariaki’s great forest – it was this river that Hugo Tuya’s caravan had followed from Inorat at the beginning of their travels. Here at Miselea the river was youthful and bold, not especially deep but fast flowing and active, splashing over rocks and sparkling in the Autumn sun under gentle weeping willows as the group entered the town from its eastern, relatively unguarded gate. Miselea’s Bailey is on the western edge of the town, looking west from stern palisades over the farmlands of the last Hadun farms before the land begins to rise to the foothills on the eastern edge of the Valley of Gon, where lawless folk live. Most of the town of Miselea sprawls across the lowlands north of the river, outside the Bailey, but there is a small rise on the northern bank where a smaller palisade separates the Ariaki delegation from the rest of the town. Between the delegation and the Bailey is a stretch of shops, restaurants and hotels, where the group stopped to rest for the evening before they attended to their errands in the town.

The following morning they went about their business. They sold some of the material they had stolen from the bandits, Itzel visited an elven legate in the town to sell the spidersilk they had taken from the spiders, and they returned the weary Ariaki survivors to their delegation. At the Ariaki delegation Kyansei asked the Ariaki elder if he knew anything of a strange blight afflicting her land, and he promised to have the Academy at Alpon look into it. They then visited the local Rimewarden for healing, and while they were there Calim described to the Rimewarden the strange standing stones they had found outside of Ibara, and the Deepfolk bones and iron buried beneath it. The Rimewarden pulled out an old travel book, and pointed Calim to the discovery of other such standing stones along the eastern edge of the Spine mountains. For years scholars had pondered the reason for the existence of these standing stones, and wondered who made them, but seeing this finding of Calim’s he considered renewing research into the stones. He would send a letter to the Abbey in Rokun, and perhaps by the following Sun season they would mount an expedition to dig under other stone circles to see what they could find.

Thus it was that in Miselea the group set in train several strands of investigation that might see them wish to return here in future:

  • The Astrologers in Alpon would investigate the possible meaning of blight affecting Kyansei’s lands
  • The four soldiers they had rescued from the spiders would aid them in agitating for, and join, a quest against the spider god: they could be found in Alpon when the characters were ready
  • The Abbey in Rokun would be requested to begin an expedition next year to investigate the standing stone ruins on the eastern edge of the Spine – perhaps the characters could join it.

With these actions set in motion, the guards returned to their hotel, and prepared to set off the following day for Estala, on the next stage of their journey.

Raiders

They set off the following day, 16th of the Storm, heading northwest towards Estala. This journey would take them three days, with the first night spent camping in the wilderness, the second in a small town called Ell’s Hamlet, and the third in Estala if the roads and weather treated them well. The road now took them east of the headlands of the Valley of Gon, so they needed to begin showing care.

The borders of Ariaki and Hadun had been settled for some 200 years now, with little dispute over them. The Great Forest of was acknowledged as Ariaki possession, though it only nominally belonged to that nation since it was largely wild and the elves held dominion in its eastern edges. The small river that ran between the great forest and the hills to the west, marked on its eastern edge by the town of Miselea, was a commonly-accepted defining line between the two kingdoms; but at its source this river sprung from the foothills that marked out the southern edge of the Valley of Gon, Hadun and Ariaki’s Big Problem. The Valley was a fertile sweep of land bordered on its southern side by a great river, and on the north by a line of sharp peaks. At its north-eastern end it rose to highlands nestled in an arc of lesser mountains, and once its highlands had been dotted with villages, its lowlands peaceful farmland. However, Ariaki and Hadun’s ancient border disputes had never been able to settle this land as they had the great forest and the lowlands around it. To Hadun the border of Ariaki lay at the southern side of the Valley, where the river ran; to Ariaki the border was on the northern side, where the peaks rose up sharp from the fertile ground. Over time wars had been fought here, and much blood spilled, until eventually both nations fought to a stalemate and the land became, essentially, independent. Now it lay between the two nations, claimed by both but controlled by neither and instead occupied by a motley collection of farming towns and ruins ruled over by warlords, champions and thieves. At its north-eastern end these warlords would sometimes send raiders into Hadun, seeking prisoners to ransom or harvest spoils; at its southern edge pirates still worked their evil trade, and occasionally raiders splashed across the fords of the river to take wood from Ariaki forests, or attack peaceful villages for iron and coin.

So it was that on the second day of their journey, in the morning, after a restful night’s sleep in the open, Hugo Tuya’s caravan entered a pass between two shallow hills and they were attacked by raiders. Four men and a leader on horseback confronted them on the road, but before they could properly negotiate they were fired at by archers hidden in nearby woods. They attacked the soldiers and slaughtered them but could not find the archers. Finally the leader, fearing for his life, fled down the road on his horse, and the archers withdrew unharmed. Hugo Tuya’s guards realized that these raiders must be the advance guard of a larger party, and that this party might have or be preparing to take prisoners from Ell’s Hamlet. They picked up their weapons, took a breath, and prepared to follow the horse to whatever bloody end it led them …