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A Murder of Crows

Glossy-backed, the crows / Ward the garden-rows / One turns to watch the farmer

The past weeks have been a long walk indeed. The retinue of Sir Trousdale of Lorchester has slogged its way out of the doldrums of the great city of Asgulan and you have spent hardly more than a night or two in any given inn or caravan camp, crossing the plains of Shem, crawling up into the craw of winter you have dragged yourselves from the warm salt seas where men loll on velvet divans, now into the tree-cloaked foothills where the mighty River Eamon pours out of the Stone Heart Mountains a gust of watery violence. Across these many leagues you have followed your lord, the famous hero Sir Trousdale of Lorchester, who sits upon his mighty warhorse and gazes at the horizon, his glorious dragonscale armor gleams on the sun and he tips his silver chased flask to his lip and stains his white mustache a delicate pink. He speaks rarely, and then with few words. At times it seems that the camp’s quiet nickname “Sir Drousdale” is more than apt.

The small caravan consists of now more than a dozen souls. Two oxen pull a four wheeled carriage which holds the victuals, arms, and raiment of the Dragonslayer, as well as his campaign tent and various tools of camplife. This cart is driven by one Aphra Behn, Herald of the Dragonslayer, a small man, a hobbit he calls himself, not much taller than a child, but full of great confidence and broad smiles, he seems to read his master’s mind and often speaks with Trousdale’s authority. He is the steward of the camp. Others must walk alongside the cart, trading off as Aphra Behn’s buckboard companion. These others include cooks, men-at-arms, squires, pages, standard-bearers, and camp followers. You are among these who have sought to glean a small gleam of the glory that is (or was) Sir Trousdale of Lorchester.

Your liege has driven you with purpose on this errand home. Sir Trousdale must have had some vision or sign from his god to tear himself from the fleshpots and warm breezes of Asgulan’s civilized delights, for how could he have known! Yesterday at the crossroads a minstrel was singing a crudely rhymed tale of woe to all comers, and now you walk with purpose and trepidation, hoping that these lines are but the doggerel of a fevered imagination.

The Sorrow of Daha

All men now tear their beards

And women beat their breasts

The King Daha is Dead

Torn apart in his bed

Made some wild beast a bloody feast

Now the crown of this accursed land

Must pass to the heir close at hand

But nothing of his voice is heard

Only the cry of the that darkling bird

While the people in the street

Wail and cry and shriek

Long live the King!

Where is the King?

Where and whither shall our fortunes seek?

  • You have followed this River Eamon for much of your journey, watching it transform from the tidal estuary at the coast, through lush valleys studded with farms and hamlets, past mighty rapids and walled towns, walking the old Imperial Road, the river’s steadfast companion from sea to source, built by dwarves in ages past. Yesterday the two parted ways. The Imperial Road began its arduous climb towards the Grey Citadel, and the Eamon bore west, towards the valley of Delver’s Dale, where it bursts most dramatically from the mountains of her birth in a great waterfall taller than the tallest tower in Asgulan. You travel now not on a cobbled road, but a rutted dirt track which skirts the brooding edge of a great forest, called the Darkwald, which rises in undulating stands of evergreen timber from the western shore. The Eamon winds through a narrowing valley that rises in a series of benches, so that road is usually at least 50ft or so above the river at a steep slope. Soon, you think, your journey will find its end, it can only be a few more miles before you begin to see the smoke from the chimneys of Delver’s Dale and the tower of the Black Eagle’s Castle. It is a sunny day, the air is crisp and biting. A fine layer of snow dusts the treetops and crusts the meadow. Birds wheel lazily across the sky…

Welcome to Delver’s Dale

It was a crisp winter day when the proud train of Sir Trousdale of Lorchester entered the valley of Delver’s Dale. The pale sun gleamed of a thin crust of snow that covered the ground and frosted the trees. Below them was the great river Eamon, hardly hibernating for winter, a tumbling mountain river, its roar a low counterpoint to the crunch of boots, creak of wagon wheel and sigh of tired travellers.

The young Twil Bell took all this in as he searched for the musical harmony that would capture every aspect of this moment. There beside him was his brother Lush Bell, seemingly unfazed by the many miles of their journey happily lugging his keg of brew on his back, occasionally trotting forward to refill the cup of the knight Sir Trousdale, who brooded upon his horse in the front of the column. None knew his thoughts for he kept his own council. He wore is customary dragonscale armor, kept polished to a dull reddish gleam by his page, the mysterious boy wonder called The Finch, who seemed to contain his own vortex of magnetic power behind his water pale eyes. The Finch walked beside Stephan D’Annunzio, the proud scion of a martial family who had sworn his sword to Trousdale in Asgulan some months back. He carried a blade no less than 6 feet in length as his eyes darted about searching for trouble amongst the trees. Ranging along the treeline, off the beaten track was the strange druid Iorweth Wolfsblood, who traveled with a shaggy wolf he called Dog as he read the obscure book of the natural world in the patterns of clouds and entrails of small birds. Bringing up the rear was the hobbit herald Aphra Behn, who drove the knight’s supply wagon and kept the Banner of Trousdale flying high beside him. It was motley crew, although not without a certain roguish grace. The sound of a flock of birds taking flight echoed over the tree-tops.

Twill Bell turned to ask his brother Lush his opinion on the sonic properties of purple mead but his eye was caught by a great cloud of movement beyond his brother’s insensate bulk. A huge cloud of black birds rose above the point where the forest came close to the road a good quarter mile back. The birds were diving at something.

“Lookee there boyos! Its a murder of crows!”

All turned to look, and at that moment the birds’ target suddenly became apparent when a top-heavy wagon, built like a small wooden house drawn by wild oxen came careening around the bend, skidding and bouncing over frozen ruts. The out of control cart rode precariously on two wheels and with once last bone jarring bounce toppled to it’s shingled side with a resounding crash. Dozens of ravens dove and swooped at the supine vehicle. A woman’s scream rent the chill winter air.

“My lord!” cried Stefan D’Annunzio. “Shall we assist these distressed cart drivers?”

Sir Trousdale turned his destrier and regarded the scene for a moment before replying, “Yes, yes, of you go. Aphra, bring me my spear!”

Grace given, the young fighter turned and sprinted towards the encounter, moving as swiftly as he could over the unsteady frozen ground. Twill Bell responded with a great shout that became a note of triumph and bravado. He struck a mighty chord on his Myrdonic Harmonizer that swelled in the hearts of his companions. Iorweth lifted his right leg and hopped forward on his left foot, howling incoherently while his Dog raced ahead. The Finch ran after Stefan, but more cautiously, for he first paused to murmur a few words in an arcane language. His eyes flashed and a faint radiance appeared about his person, then faded.

As D’Anunnzio rushed into battle he took in the scene with a military precision bred through many generations. The wagon drover and his companion were crawling under the fallen edifice to hide from the attacking ravens that pecked and harried them. The oxen wallowed on their sides, tangled in their harness and tack. But hark! What was this? A handful of small hooded figures, not over 4 feet tall, made their way through the shrubbery, obviously heading towards the wagon. Though moving stealthily, with their heads down, the swordsman of Asgulan could make out long beaks protruding from the dark cowls. Their clawed hands clutched short bows.

Twill Bell called a warning and knocked an arrow to his longbow. Unfortunately, he had not paid much attention to the stringing of his bow that morning, for at first pull the bow snapped straight, one end of the string trailing.

The sinister interlopers took up defensive positions behind rocks and up in trees as they knocked their own arrows and fired at the oncoming warriors. Twill Bell was struck twice. Once arrow stuck in him good. Gods! That hurt!

D’Annunzio crashed into a pair of the birdmen, swinging his two-handed sword in a wide arc. Finch snuck around a tree, searching for a clear line of sight through the branches at one of the archers’s perch. He found a trajectory and released the eldritch power that flowed in his veins. A bolt of purple energy burst from his fingertips and struck true. With a squawk the beaked assassin stiffened and fell from his tree. And arrow from another birdman flew past the Finch’s position, and the white haired boy ducked behind the tree. Iorweth screamed again as ravens attacked him, pecking at his eyes. Dog loped past the wagon and attacked a birdman. It drew a sword and stabbed the wolf even as its companion fenced with D’Anunnzio, who raised his blade for one more devasting blow.

Twill Bell felt the ground shake and looked up from his bleeding wound to see his lord Trousdale rein in his warhorse next to him. The knight handed Twill his flagon. “Drink up lad.” Without another word the Dragonslayer spurred his mount into battle.

The Finch knocked a bolt in his crossbow and fired at a retreating birdman. Dog lunged and tore the throat out of one beaked perpetrator and its friend squawked and turned its tailfeathers. Stefan roared in frustration. Ravens pecked at his eyes. Sir Trousdale tilted his dragonspear, called Culhglas Bolge, Which Pierces the Heart, and poked the final archer out of the tree.

“Kenku,” said Iorweth. He grabbed his crotch and spat. Then he hooted like and owl and growled like a bear while baring his bottom to the sky. As one, the ravens broke off their attacks and flew away.

D’Anunnzio strode over to the wagon and helped the distraught peddlar to his feet. He was a middle aged man with a long white mustache and watery eyes. He thanked his rescuers profusely. He introduced himself and his daughter, whose scream the party had heard, as Lamdamon and Zappora . He theorized in a high pitched voice, “Ravens are notoriously avaricious birds and perhaps they were searching for the gift I bear for the bereaved Queen Vivian of the Dale.” He produced a small bag from his vest and spilled a dozen pearls into his hand. They gleamed white as snow. The young Zappora batted her eye lashes at the dashing D’Annunzio.

“Perhaps you should not be telling the ravens of the jewels you carry,” said Sir Trousdale. He pulled at his braided mustache and looked towards the Castle Daha, whose spire was just visible in the distance. “Come, let us set this peddlar’s wagon to right and continue our way, for we must make the gate by sundown.”

The winter sun was already hidden behind the trees of the Dark Wald as the weary travellers made their final push, driven by the lure of a warm taproom and fears of the unknown wilderness. Rounding Old Skull Point, the Delver’s Dale finally came into view. It was a small town built upon the very heels of the StoneHeart Mountains, forming the theater for the River Eamon’s spectacular flying leap at the place known as Lover’s Leap. There are rough jewels to be pried from the roots of the StoneHearts, and so Dwarves in ancient times carved this small settlement out of the scarp which looms over the small farms that dot the valley floor. The town is well defended, with the sheer mountains at its back and the River Eamon below. Even the road’s approach is guarded by a natural moat formed by Steep Creek, a small but fierce tributary that drops precipitously out of a small gorge falls a good 20 feet into the Eamon. There a stone bridge is overseen by a gatehouse patrolled by grim men in mail who held crossbows at the ready, scanning the horizons, gazing at the black wings of ravens and crows wheeling above the treetops. The Black Eagle banner was displayed proudly above the gate itself, stubbornly for a land without a liege. Beyond the gatehouse the road climbed the hillside to the castle, weaving through the square, past inns and shops, forges, stables and homes. The castle broods above, its high tower at eye level with the falls of Eamon. Further still could be seen a footpath winding up behind the castle, where a mule train was bringing the day’s haul of ore pried from the earth’s roots. The ore would pass through the castle, and then down to the smelters who had devized a waterwheel at Steep Creek to fuel their efforts. The death of a king brings great sorrow, but the coronation of a king brings great feasting, and so there was a line of supplicants waiting to be admitted to Dale. Fishwives, peddlars, farmers, itinerant performers and shepherds shuffled restlessly. But Trousdale was no commoner, and after taking in the scene with his sad eyes, he spurred is horse forward, ignoring the line of peasants and traders. A mightily bearded guardsman presented himself at the bridge as Erskin the Hoster . He spoke, “I decide who crosses this bridge. Now state your business, for in these troubled times Delver’s Dale has no use for pleasantries, and less for loose swords not sworn to the Black Eagle! The King is Dead, but the Black Eagle flies!” At this many of the peasants guards murmured their agreement.

At these impetuous words Stefan D’Annunzio gripped his mighty sword with anger. He would not stand disrespect to his lord! Dog the Wolf growled, and Iorweth grabbed his crotch and spat. Twill Bell, feeling the tension in the air, unslung his Myrdonic Harmonizer and struck a chord, beginning to tell the tale of Trousdale’s victory over the murder of crows that day. The Finch was bursting with eagerness to finally be home. He clambered off the wagon to speak to the old Hoster, who he remembered of old, but then his liege spoke, “I am Sir Trousdale of Lorchester, Dragonslayer, and friend of the Black Eagle. I come by invitation of his Highness. I would speak with your Queen and offer what assistance I can, for the enemies of the Dale will be gathering now and we must hold the Black Hand at bay.”

At this fine speech, the Captain of the Guard’s eyes widened and his beard bristled, but he raised his halberd in salute, “You may pass, noble Knight, for indeed we do require such proud friendship as you have shown my lord during his lifetime. I must only insist that your men-at-arms bind their weapons and stay in the lower Dale, for the Castle is shut tight to all but the most illustrious of visitors. Pass.” With that the halberdiers stood aside for the famous knight and his train to enter the town. Just past the gatehouse were the stocks, where prisoners of the jail were displayed to public ridicule. One miserable sot hung from the wooden harness, his jaw slack as a small crowd stood around the low stage and jeered, throwing rotten tomatoes and mud. A pair of guards looked on, their halberds at attention. Another pair of swordsman in unknown livery lounged at the central fountain. There was tension in the air. Someone in the crowd was chanting maniacally, “Ravens and crows/fire and foes/That is all the Dale will ever nose.” “Let us get to our taproom before this turns into a riot.” said the herald, Aphra Behn. The wagon creaked forward on creaking wheels, crossing the central square to the Drunken Dwarf, the only inn in town with proper stables. As he passed the Mirana, Flower of the Dale Stephan D’Annunzio, let his proud gaze fall upon the bravos who watched the rabble at the stocks. They seemed well kept, indeed, their blond beards braided with colored ribbon, their cloaks relatively free of mud. Perhaps they were warriors of the Black Eagle household? A cross-eyed peddler of rotten of rotten vegetables stumbled over the Finch, “Oy I didnt see you there, young’n! Want a big juicy tomato to throw? Just one copper!” “No thank you Mosdod. Dont you remember me?” said the lad. The cock-eyed peasant peered down in recognition, “Oy! The Finch! Fancy seeing you here! Hasn’t the guard locked you up yet then? Or are you the innocent lad you look after all.” Finch knew not of what the tomato seller spoke, but suddenly he was very worried, “Of course I’m innocent Mosdod, how could I not be?”

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