By Brian Flood
Chapter 12 - Drawn Swords
The Sword Coast Backlands
Late Afternoon, 5th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The next two days of the journey pass uneventfully. The wounds suffered in the fight with the goblins have started to heal, albeit very slowly as a result of the continuous motion of the mounts. As the sun begins its slow journey toward the western horizon on the afternoon of the third day out of Yarthrain, the outskirts of the town of Drawn Swords loom into view.
In the distance, the travelers can make out the traces of a forest to the south - the Northdark Wood, Aranor informs Rashid. As they ride closer, an object becomes visible on the eastern edge of the wood. It is apparently a large, single hill. It is still difficult to discern, but it seems to be quite tall, with a fortress castle perched on its peak.
After they draw a mile or so closer, the companions realize that what they are seeing is a rather small mountain standing alone on the floor of the prairie to the east of the forest. Its peak looms about ten score meters or so above the grasslands below. The mountain apparently is the village of Drawn Swords. Its sides are terraced in four steep tiers. Stone huts, cottages, and hunting lodges stand at intervals along the two middle tiers. On the peak above is a crumbling ruin of an old fortress castle with a tower.
The ruin still apparently serves as a village defense, however. The four travelers can make out several armed and armored guards atop the tower. Ballistae and a giant triple crossbow are mounted on the top of the broken-off tower, and there are stacks of wood at several locations on the side of the mountain large enough to make huge beacon fires. There is no sign of farming activity on the prairie lands at the foot of the mountain.
Aris sighs with obvious relief as the travelers near the base of the hill. "Finally," she says, "a good night's rest without the dangers of the trail." Glancing around at the three males of the group, all of whom bear yet-unhealed wounds, she adds, "And a full night's rest will also speed our recovery for the way ahead."
"I cannot deny the attraction of a proper bed for the night, without the need to keep watches," Rashid replies. "And I agree that it will also help our wounds to heal."
Gazing at the village, the Bedine adds, "Is there anything that we should be aware of here?"
Aris shakes her head. "Nothing special. This town is merely a fortified outpost along the road. Its battlements and defenses are necessary to protect it from the malevolent creatures that lurk in the Northdark Wood. Those some monsters have created a unique market for poachers and hunters. That business brings in adventures and wanders from afar and helps the town to thrive."
The quartet begins to guide their mounts along the twisted, rising rounds that lead up the slope to the town. A few minutes later they are stopped by a small group of leather-clad outdoorsmen - most likely woodsmen, hunters or rangers, by the looks of them. The band of rough looking men and women asks what business the four newcomers have in Drawn Swords. When Aris - speaking for the party - tells them that she and her companions are merely travelers, the group gruffly informs the quartet that they should seek out the Sword and the Dragon Inn for loding and then they step aside to allow the small band to proceed.
As the four travelers continue on their winding way to the top of the hill, they can see the canopy of the Northdark Wood as is stretches out to the southwest as far as the eye can see. The forest is about an equal mix of conifers and deciduous trees, many of them are a good eighty feet tall and all of them are impressive to the two desert dwellers in the group. The companions also spy a large stone obelisk of some sort - approximately the height of two full grown men - that stands alone on the edge of the forest to the southwest of the town. Aris explains that the monument is the Flame Stone of Sune - a sacred glade for worshippers of the goddess of beauty.
The adventurers also discern a group of about a dozen hunters emerging from the forest near the large stone. The group is headed toward the hilltop town and appears to be carrying the carcasses of three large deer or stags.
Rashid cannot help but give a warrior's approval to the town's design as he and his companions continue to travel the twisting path to the top of the hill. The slope of the hill would hinder any direct assault on the keep at its zenith, and the winding approach of the road would allow the citadel's defenders to rain down a hail of arrows and other missiles at the attacking hordes.
As the companions reach the upper level of the Drawn Swords hilltop and approach the inn, more then one unusual sight greets their eyes. Two men and a woman stand in front of the inn, watching over a group of three huge cages. Like the previous group, the men are protected by leather armor and have swords, bows, knives, and other weapons openly displayed. From their appearances, they are likely either rangers or experienced hunters. The woman is dressed in leather clothing but not in the style of protective armor. Her only visible weapon is a dagger.
One of the cages holds a large brutish orc-like creature that shakes the bars futilely. Another holds a huge purple and green hued spider, more than a man's height in diameter! The bars of the third cage glow green with sorcery and sparks jump endlessly back and forth between the bars. In this cage is a grotesque humanoid with mauve colored skin and a face from which grows a fan of writhing tentacles. The creature pounds its head with its webbed hands, as though it is in pain.
The castle ruin is still one tier higher than where the group currently stands. A trail leads to it from the inn, and a group of four unarmed men are coming down from the ruin pulling two carts behind them, each carrying two beer barrels. The men are dressed for work, not for the hunt.
The woman from the first trio of characters shouts, "It's about time you get some new beer! I though the stuff las night was getting sour!"
One of the workers shouts back, "Crap, Janda! You know we get new beer from Berdusk everyday!"
Both groups laugh then, but the scene leaves Rashid slightly puzzled. If new beer is coming in from Berdusk - a city several hundred leagues to the south, from what he can recall from maps he has studied - one would think it would come in by the road below, and not arrive at the ruin above.
In any case, the Bedine figures, after that kind journey, one well might expect the beer to be sour. Perhaps it came in earlier, and there is a beer cellar in the ruined citadel above, where it is kept for storage.
Rashid peers once more at the creatures in the cages. Turning to Aris, he asks, "What are these creatures?" Pointing to the brutish orc-like creature, he adds, "This one would appear to be related to the rucha that we met earlier, if somewhat larger and more viscous."
Aris patiently answers the Bedine. Pointing to the orc-like being, she says, "That one is known in the Common tongue as an 'orog' - some also call them 'great orcs'. They are indeed a goblinoid, as are the rucha, but they are more closely related to common orcs."
Next pointing to the spider, she says, "That is obviously some sort of monstrous spider. I am not sure of its exact breed, although I am sure its venom would be mortal to anyone who was unfortunate enough to suffer its attack."
"And that," the minstrel says, as she indicates the tentacle-faced creature, "is an illithid or mind flayer. It normally dwells deep within the earth among the dark and evil denizens of the Underdark. It can project a brutal blast of mental energy that can cripple or even kill the strongest of warriors. From the looks of it, it has somehow been rendered temporarily impotent of that ability."
Looking at the buildings around him and the passing people, Rashid asks, "Why do they risk bringing such creatures, which are obviously dangerous, into the town?"
"Because it brings in money," Aris responds matter-of-factly. "The more dangerous the creature, the more gold it will bring for its pelt, blood, or other bodily parts. Alchemists and mages have many uses for the body parts or by-products of monstrosities such as these. They bring them to town to conduct the sales or to prepare them for transport to other locales."
Giving the matter some thought, Rashid nods and replies, "I can understand that. The value is in the danger involved in the capture of the creature." Turning to his companions, he adds, "I think that it is time we stable our mounts and get something to eat?"
"I agree," says Aranor quite solemnly.
The quartet of travelers soon finds lodging for their mounts at a stable that is set below the inn on the steep hillside. They pay the price of one night's care - a single silver piece per mount - and then head to the inn through the connecting passageway.
Inside the open taproom, the four adventurers find a bustling environment of patrons. Many of them are heavily armed - apparently, this is the meeting place for the hunters, poachers, and adventure seekers that foray into the nearby woods.
They make their way to an empty table and sit. "I shall go find us something to drink," Aranor announces to the small group. The elven warrior makes his way to the bar, leaving his sister with the two desert nomads.
"How much time do we have to rest here?" Rashid asks Aris. "My wounds would heal more quickly with a day's rest, providing our schedule permits this."
Aris thinks for a few moments and then replies, "I believe we can do that. Our instructions were to deliver you to Hill's Edge no later than mid-month; we have a ride's worth of time from now until then."
"It would be appreciated, "replies the Bedine warrior. "I would not wish to meet more of the .... did you call them goblins? .... before I have had an opportunity to at least partly recover from my wounds."
Rashid then lapses into silence and awaits Aranor's return. He runs through in his mind the various sights, pieces of information and what he has learned of the goblins, attempting to fix them in his mind. He makes a mental note to question Aris and Aranor further about them.
The trio at the table waits patiently as Aranor talks briefly to the bartender. The man behind the counter looks over the elf's shoulder at the three and then nods before he fills a tin pitcher with ale. Aranor places a few coins on the bar and then heads back to the table.
The elven warrior places the pitcher and four wooden tankards on the table top. "They have no elverquist," he tells Aris with a slight sigh. "But this ale was freshly brewed in Berdusk only two days ago. They call it Elder Root Stout," he tells the others as he pours himself some of the dark, foamy beverage.
"Would I be correct in assuming that Berdusk is some distance from here?" asks Rashid.
"Indeed, thou are correct," Aranor replies as he wipes the foam from his lips with the back of this wrist. "It is a city that lies some one hundred or so leagues to the south of here."
"And they claim that this was brewed there two days ago?" Rashid continues, indicating the pitcher skeptically.
"Correct again," Aranor replies simply as he takes another sip. Next to him, however, Aris sees the look on Rashid's face and answers the Bedine's unspoken question.
"There is a magical portal - or gate - on the ground floor of the keep," the minstrel explains. "It is used to bring would-be hunters to Drawn Swords and to take the valuable hides of the forests rare creatures back to Berdusk for sale to the wealthy and curious."
"A magical portal ." Rashid continues, mulling over the idea in his mind, "that allows the passing of goods and people ... from here to Berdusk, and also the other way. Does that not leave the town somewhat susceptible to attack through it?"
"Oh no," Aris replies shaking her head. "It is quite heavily guarded both on this end and on the far side. There have been no incursion attempts."
Rashid considers this, evidently unconvinced. Eyeing the pitcher and its foamy contents dubiously, he asks Aris, "Are they likely to have anything to eat or drink untainted by magics?"
Both Aris and Aranor silently regard the Bedine for a few moments. The elves exchange glances and then Aris says, "I am sure that the water is procured locally; as well, the game is most likely hunted in the nearby woods. Should we get you something else to drink, warrior?"
"I will take water," Rashid replies, glancing once more at the diminishing contents of the pitcher. "Who knows in what manner the magics will have affected the ale and foods transported by the portal."
"Very well, then," Aranor says simply. The elven warrior stands and returns to the bar. A few minutes later, he returns with a pitcher of water for the Bedine ranger.
"My thanks to you," Rashid replies, pouring himself a drink from the pitcher. That in hand, he sips the cool water and settles into his seat and looks around at the other patrons.
* * * * *
Rashid and his traveling companions spend the next four days resting and recuperating in the hilltop village of Drawn Swords. The three wounded travelers - Rashid, Yassir and Aranor - spend the entire first day of the recovery period in bed, receiving a well-deserved rest as Aris keeps a vigil over them. After that, Rashid spends an additional two days in his bed, as his wounds are the most serious of all.
On the fourth day, with his wounds nearly completely mended, Rashid attempts to gain access to the magical portal - or gate, as Aris called it - that connects the village with the city of Berdusk. He finds that the gate is heavily guarded, however, and strangers are not authorized access. This information, while disappointing to the warrior, also carries an air of relief. For it would seem that Aris was correct; the portal is indeed watched and it would be very difficult for an unauthorized being to use it to infiltrate either the village or the city at its far end.
As the days go by, Rashid and his friends gain strength as their wounds mend. And while the elves take time to restock their traveling rations, the Bedine abstains. He is wary of any food or drink tainted by magic, he explains, and would rather wait until the group arrives in Hill's Edge to replenish his provisions.
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