By Brian Flood
Chapter 58 - Trouble in Corm Orp
Corm Orp, The Sunset Vale
Late Afternoon, 14th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The next four days of travel pass rather uneventfully for the Iron Wolf Company and their charges. The small band continues to makes its way north along the Dusk Road, putting Hluthvar further behind as they close in on their next march objective - the hamlet of Corm Orp. As they plod along, their pace determined by the speed of Tomar's hitched wagon, the guards direct their wary eyes to the outskirts of the Far Hills and the Sunset Mountains that are still barely visible on the eastern horizon. From Tomar's information and recent events, they know now that they have somehow unwittingly made themselves enemies of the Zhentarim stronghold of Darkhold that lies hidden within that range.
It is late afternoon on the sixth day out of Hluthvar that the adventurers finally arrive at the outskirts of Corm Orp. The few stone and sod buildings that make up the small hamlet seem rather unremarkable. In addition to the handful of houses, there is only a horse pond, a caravan camping ground with paddocks, wood lot, a pavilion housing a public pump, and a converted merchant's home that now serves as the Hungry Halfling - the place's only inn and tavern.
Cyzicus, a Corm Orp native, explains that only the small town's human residents - a rather small number in comparison to the halfling population - dwell in the buildings. The rather numerous halfling portion of the hamlet's population, to include Cy's own rather large family, dwells in a complex system of burrows that lies under hills east of town.
Nestled among the hills and burrows to the east is a large stone building. The structure is surrounded by gardens and features a huge stone carving of a daisy on its front façade. Cyzicus relates that this is the Ladyhouse - a temple to Sheela the Watchful Mother, and the spiritual, agricultural, and social center of the town. Honored Mother Alliya Macanester, the Old Lady of Corm Orp, leads the temple and its clergy. The halfling high priestess is regarded as the matriarch of the hamlet and even the human mayor cedes to her wisdom. Cyzicus explains that his own patron deity, Arvoreen, is regarded as subservient to Sheela. As such, there is a small shrine to the halfling god of defenders located nearby the larger temple.
The halfling warrior-priest goes on to say that the halflings of Corm Orp are very proud of their products. Chief among these are mushrooms and free-range hogs, both of which are cultivated in the hills to the east of town. Their artisans are also renowned for the red-clay pottery that they produce and export to the other lands of Faerun.
The nominal ruler of the hamlet is Dundast Hultel - a well-respected and decent human lord. His chief responsibility is the training and control of the village militia, which numbers some thirty human riders. In times of great distress, the halfling residents of the eastern hills have also been known to boil forth from their burrows to overwhelm those enemies foolish enough to threaten the hamlet.
The small band comes to a halt on the road between the inn and the caravan camping grounds. The wagons and carts of other merchant caravans occupy a great deal of the paddocks. The conveyances appear to be haphazardly parked, however, and the handful of guards and merchants that are present appear rather irritated by something. The din of many conversations - many at a high decibel level - emanates from within the Hungry Halfling.
Kjira looks somewhat dismayed as she surveys the tiny hamlet. She tries to hide her disappointment from the party's halfling, not wishing to offend the devoted fellow. Still, she had hoped for a hot bath and comfortable rooms. It seems that the only inn is not only small, but noisy and rowdy as well.
"Shall we go inside and see if any rooms are available?" she asks the other party members as they stare at the loud inn nearby. She pulls her still-torn cloak closer around her. It is another thing she needs to tend to while the party is here in civilization.
Surprised that the little town is smaller than she had thought, Alani wrinkles her nose as the familiar odor of hog drifts along in the night breeze. Wrapping her cloak tight around herself to fight off the chill of the autumn evening, she nods, agreeing to the sorceress' suggestion.
"Sounds good Kjira. I will help with securing the wagons for the night. Perhaps you and Lucas could see to the rooms. I am sure Dolak will want to make sure his wagon is properly stowed," the elven scout says as she smiles to the cantankerous dwarf.
"Maybe Cy can get us a good room," she adds, "him being from Corm Orp and all. But to tell the truth, I think we might get a better night's sleep if we just camp out here," she comments wryly as the talk in the inn seems to be getting louder.
"Nay," responds the halfling, "I'd never hear the end of it if my family was denied the honor of your company. Besides, I think I promised Dolak a fine meal and a bottle of wine if I remember correctly."
Darius looks at the camping ground, and asks Tomar, "Are you going to put your wagon up for the night here?"
When the merchant nods his reply, the druid continues. "There seems to be a disturbance. Perhaps we should discover what is happening at the campgrounds.
Then looking over at Dolak, he asks, "Shall we go? Since you will need to park your wagon also."
Before Dolak can respond, a rider approaches from the fields to the west of town. It is a man in his early twenties, dressed in a chain mail shirt and riding an unarmored horse. He pulls his mount to a stop in front of the inn. When he dismounts, the travelers can see that he has strips of green cloth tied around to his right bicep and left thigh. A long sword bounces in a scabbard at his side. Without giving the travelers a second glance, he lashes the horse to a pole in front of the inn and opens the door. The noise from inside reaches a crescendo as the door opens. The tone of the voices from within conveys a feeling of discord or heated debate, rather than revelry. It returns to a low din when the door closes behind the rider; blocked apparently by the thick wooden portal.
Cyzicus recognizes the man as one of the sons of a farmer that lives to the west of Corm Orp. He cannot recall his name offhand, however. The green strips of cloth identify him as a member of the town militia.
A look of recognition appears on Cy's face. It then quickly
turns to concern at the response to the rider's entrance to the inn.
"Cy," Kjira starts as she witnesses the most recent unusual event of the day, "what gives with the green cloth strips? Is that the marking of the town's militia?"
"Yes, hurry!" the halfling says as he quickly dismounts and as he rushes to the door. He looks over his shoulder to the party and says, "Something's up," before he disappears into the building.
Frowning as he sees the portal closing behind the halfling, Lucas turns to address the party. "Why do I get the impression that we never learn - as the party separates again before making a decision?" asks the black robed mage to the others still gathered in the road.
Sighing to himself before continuing, he says, "Corax, please stay with the Tomar, Ori, the mounts, and Dolak's wagon while we go see what is going on inside. We don't need to get into trouble while separated. We shall be right back, I hope."
Sighing, Alani shakes her head as she watches the halfling disappear behind the door. Looking over her shoulder as Lucas speaks, the elven scout nods in agreement.
"Aye Lucas, it would be best if we follow Cy in," she says, turning her head back towards the inn. "Though we can't blame him. It has been awhile since he has been home and with all the Zhent activity in the area, he is probably worried about his friends and loved ones," the scout comments wistfully, as she wonders how her own family is doing. Dusting off her pants and straightening her hair, she tries to make herself more presentable before entering the Inn.
The druid nods towards Alani and motions Soft Fang to follow. He enters the inn following the rest of the pack.
Kjira waits a moment before deciding to follow the others towards the loud building. "REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME!" she shouts futilely to the running figures ahead of her.
Leaving Dolak and Corax to assist Tomar, the remaining four adventures move through the door of the inn to join Cyzicus in the loud and raucous taproom beyond. The inn is a former lord's manor that has since been remodeled for its new purpose. The small courtyard that spans the distance between the elegant stone entry gate and the stone building is now mostly mud.
Inside, the companions find that the low, timber-built taproom is completely packed with people. The crowd is mostly humans and halflings, by the looks of it. The great majority of the folk are dressed in simple peasant or commoner's garb. A sparse few sport the chain mail and green cloth strips that identify them as militia members, as confirmed earlier by Cyzicus.
The crowd's attention seems to be directed toward the far end of the room. The cacophony of voices hints at some sort of trouble that has gathered these folk. Apparently, their ire is directed at something or someone at that end of the tavern. Whatever or whomever it may be is concealed by the mass of bodies.
Suddenly, a tremendous clash of metal on metal resounds from that direction of the taproom. As the crowd noise dissipates in reaction to this new event, a man climbs up on a table so that all in the tavern may see him.
The man is of average build and wears the same chain and identifying cloth strips as the other militia. His dark hair, prematurely graying at the temples, and his charismatic bearing mark him as some sort of leader figure. He reaches out a hand toward the ground and helps a second individual to climb up onto the table.
This second person is nearly the opposite of the first. She is a gray haired halfling matriarch. Her wizened and fiery eyes, however, speak volumes of an inner strength that is concealed within her diminutive stature and elderly manner. She wears a robe of green hue - identical in color to the armbands worn by the militia, in fact - that is embroidered with a vibrant display of flowering designs. Garlands of fresh flowers ring both her forehead and her neck.
The man raises his hand as if to call for silence. The din of the taproom subsides somewhat, although an undercurrent of distress remains active in a dozen whispered conversations and comments.
"Thank you," announces the man to the gathered throng. "I promise you that we will try to answer to your questions, but I must insist that we maintain an orderly hearing, lest we degenerate into a shouting match. I know many of you - if not all of you - are concerned. Honored Mother Macanester and I assure you that we will do whatever is in our power to resolve this situation ."
"Looks like they are holding some sort of court I think," Alani says as she moves to the side along the back of the taproom. Catching the smell of cooked food, the young elf's stomach grumbles loudly in anticipation of something other than dry meats and fruits.
"I hope it doesn't last long, I'm about to starve," she says, her cheeks turning red from embarrassment.
Darius looks at Cyzicus. "Who are they?" the druid asks the halfling in a hissing whisper.
Cy turns to Darius and says, "They are Lord Dundast Hultel, Mayor and militia commander; and Honored Mother Alliya Macanester, 'The Old Lady of Corm Orp'. She is the high priestess of the temple of Sheela and the town's spritual - and some say actual - leader." He says this as if he might be one of them. "Now let us listen to what they have to say."
" Now then," the man on the table - Lord Hultel, according to Cy - continues, "who here was the first to encounter the road block?"
"It was I!" the shouted statement comes from a man dressed in clothing befitting a merchant. A fine silk robe, finely woven shirt and pants, and an elaborate cap make up the man's wardrobe.
"We left town at first light this morning," the merchant continues, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the underlying mumbled conversations. "It was not yet highsun when we encountered the Zhentarim brigands!"
The fervor of the conversations ignited by this comment threatens to drown out the man. Lord Hultel frantically gestures with his hands for the crowd to lower its voices. "Please, please," he commands the gathered throng, "let this man speak."
"Yes," Kjira pipes up, "let them speak so we can get this over with in an hour instead of a fortnight!"
Darius chuckles at Kjira's comment but the young druid elects to say nothing. Silently agreeing with Kjira, Alani listens to what the merchant has to say about the Zhentarim brigands.
"How many of them were there?" the militia commander asks the merchant.
"We saw more than a dozen," the merchant replies. The man's comments illicit more than a few surprised comments from the crowd.
"And how did you know they were Zhentarim?" Hultel asks, continuing his public interrogation of the merchant.
"They were all well armed and armored," the merchant answers. "No simple bandits or brigands are equipped like that. They even openly displayed the banner of Darkhold!"
Again, the crowd's angry comments and frantic side conversations rises into a crescendo. And again, Lord Hultel is forced to stop his questioning and instead implore the enraged citizens to settle down.
The gathered companions all eagerly await the release of this information. Darius stands still and waits for full tale to be told while Kjira glares at the interrupters and considers casting one of her less pleasant spells on the uncivilized in the room. Nearby, Lucas also listens in silence, waiting to voice his concerns with all of the group at a more secluded location. Cy too, remains silent, while anxiously awaiting the full tale of the danger to his home. Lastly, trying to keep her growling stomach quiet, Alani silently wishes the crowd would stay quite so the merchant can finish his tale.
Hultel gets the crowd to quiet down and then asks the merchant, "Did they attack you?"
The merchant shakes his head. "Nay. They simply demanded payment for passage. They wanted ten gold coins per man, one hundred gold coins for each wagon, and a ten- percent 'tax' on what we were transporting. When we refused to pay, they formed a battle line to our front and denied us passage. Faced with their readied crossbows and mounted warriors, we chose to return here to notify you and your militia."
Hultel nods wordlessly as he considers the merchant's story. The crowd swells in noise again and finally a voice hollers above the din.
"What do you plan to do about this, Lord Hultel?" the unseen citizen demands.
Hultel takes a deep breath before speaking. Then he starts by saying, "We have only thirty riders in our militia; even if we were to sally forth our entire force to the engage these brigands, we would be most likely over-matched, or at best, equaled by the strength and training of the Darkhold soldiers.
"As well," he continues, "if we were to take our entire militia to reduce the roadblock, we would be leaving the town undefended."
"And to further complicate matters," he continues, "I have a patrol dispatched to the east right now. That leaves me well under my full strength of thirty riders until that patrol returns."
Hultel pauses again as he stops to think. When Lady Macenester tugs at his arm, he bends down and places his ear near her mouth to receive her guidance. After a few seconds, he nods and straightens back up.
"The brigands do not directly threaten the town, as of now. If we rode forth to meet them, we would leave the town undefended and open to attack - should the roadblock be only a ruse to draw our militia away. Nor do we have an accurate idea of what we face; the merchant has given us a general idea of our enemy, but his description does not lend itself to the formulation of an action. What we need is more information. I will look to dispatch a small force to reconnoiter the Zhentarim encampment. At best, we may have a plan of action formulated in a day or two."
The room explodes into a flurry of angered and bitter voices. The merchant and his fellows are obviously put off by the realization that they will be forced to hole up in this small hamlet before reaching their prospective buyers to the north. The existence of a possible threat and the inability of the militia to meet it while still providing security for the small population center is clearly a source of distress for the town's citizenry.
Darius bends down and scratches behind Soft Fang's ears absently as he listens to the talk and outrage around the room. Moving next to Cyzicus, he says, "Do you think that we should volunteer to scout? Soft Fang and I could do it and barely be seen as two wolves are usually not noticed if we keep quiet."
Overhearing Darius' comments about volunteering, Alani leans in. "I am thinking we may be the reason for this road block," she whispers, "and the brigands are just making a little profit on the side."
Cy responds by saying, "Regardless, I can not stand aside in Corm Orp's time of need. As well, Master Tomar will not be getting through until this situation is dealt with."
Hollering over the crowd, Lord Hultel announces. "I am returning to the militia headquarters to formulate a solution to this crisis. I will send word of any new developments."
With that, the proud warrior assists the halfling priestess in stepping down from the table. Then, ringed by half a dozen militia members, he leads the diminutive matriarch through the crowd and toward the exit.
The content of The Sunset Vale Saga are the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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