With Elra still abed recovering from injuries sustained on the road, the party spent the majority of the next day holed up in the Orc’s Head, a Tavern within the walls of Castellan Keep’s Outer Bailey. They found themselves sharing the tavern with two other groups – a band of four armed men, clearly not members of the garrison, with the mercenary look about them and a party of three Priests. The Priests were marked out as belonging to the faith of young Boindil by their robes, and so, in time, Boindil decided to head across to share a few words with his Brothers from the Church of Karameikos.
He soon learned that the trio were a battle-scarred, shaven-headed Bishop and his aides, a diplomatic embassy from the High Patriarch to the Emir of Ylaraum. Between the winter snows and the roads being unsafe due to a mixture of problems with Frost Giants and humanoid raids, they had been stranded at the Keep for the last six months. Unable to go on and unwilling tio simply go back and abandon their mission, they had settled for staying at the Keep. Why not go by sea? Because, the Bishop confessed, a trifle reluctantly, he suffered from terrible sea-sickness, and in any case his mission was not urgent.
The young dwarf soon made his way across to the mercenaries, where he was invited to join in their dice game, which he did, and promptly lost a great deal of small change from his wallet. Again, he learned that these mercenaries had been waiting a great deal of time at the Keep. Having served all across Karameikos for the last year as caravan guards and brigand hunters, they were accompanying the Jeweller the party heard about from the Gate Corporal on his way home to the Emirate. They hoped this would be their last stint -they’d lost many companions over the last year, and fancied chipping in to buy themselves a tavern back in Ostland. Boindil thanked them for their hospitality and set off to the bar to buy a round of drinks.
There, he quizzed the barman, a one-armed old veteran, about the “goblins” in the mountains. The veteran laughed and told the young dwarf that there were more than goblins in the lands about. He seemed to take great pleasure in regaling the dwarf with his own extensive knowledge of the local humanoids tribes – 2 of orcs, 1 of kobolds, 1 of goblins, 1 of bugbears, 1 of gnolls and a bunch of particularly nasty and well organised hobgoblins. He further went on to explain that if Boindil was looking for trouble, he’d find plenty of it up by the Caves of Chaos – a combined series of Holy Caves and various patches of neutral ground where the tribes met for trade, intrigue and religious observances. But, as the veteran pointed out, “You’ll need a lot more men than what you have here to tackle them caves.”
The dwarf thanked the tavern keeper for his time, wandered back to the mercenaries at their table, and made enquiries as to their rates of employment. He learned that each would expect a retainer of 60gp each and a flat payment of 40 silver peices each, per day of employment. When the young dwarf balked, the four men laughed at how wet behind the ears he was. One, their leader, explained that the 60 gold was a one off “hiring fee” to pay for any wear and tear sustained by the gears (and to buy replacement weapons, if required) over the course of their service. It also acted as a kind of “death benefits” to be taken home to the man’s family by his colleagues in the event of his death.
[This is a House Rule of mine. I’ve never understood why mercenaries in D&D wander from place to place without gear, relying in each employer to buy their equipment for them. It doesn’t make sense. For one thing, a mercenary has enemies. it’s not safe to travel unarmed. For another, how else does a mercenary advertise his trade and worth if not by the quality and style of his weapons?]
Boindil thanked the man, made no further commitments at the time, and went back to the others to explain what he’d learned. This news concerning the Caves of Chaos had the party in something of a tither. Hans was all for packing up and going home. Vaslav was outraged -they hadn’t come all this way, abandoned their first paying employer and risked death at the hands of wolves just to turn back now. He firmly stated that the others could leave if they liked -he and Uric would be staying. And besides, there were other capable looking warriors in the tavern who had been stranded for months and would no doubt be desperate for a crack at the same humanoids who had boxed them in. further discussion ruled out hiring the four mercenaries (though the party had plenty of cash in the form of party funds, they decided it was too expensive) and approached the clerics instead.
Upon learning their destination, the Bishop seemed most interested in accompanying the room, and agreed to meet them on the morrow outside the Inn. Satisfied with their day’s negotiations and rumour-mongering, The Shorn turned in for an early night.
The next morning the expanded party (now ten strong) set out for the Caves, content to allow the Bishop (who claimed to know the way) take the lead. Pausing only for a brief religious ceremony conducted by the Bishop (and for party to drop off the party funds in the form of a promissory note with the Jeweller and leave their mule in the capable hands of the Stablemaster) they departed in high spirits. The first days travel northward was uneventful, though the three clerics kept to themselves. If Boindil thought it strange that they were heading north when the tavern keeper indicated the Caves lay to the North East he gave no sign.
That night, the Bishops two companions volunteered to take second watch. A little too trusting of their new companions, none of The Shorn elected to share that watch with them. A few failed Detect Noise and Listen checks from the slumbering party later, and a shifty looking young cleric promptly snuck out of camp for an hour or so during his watch. Likewise, no one heard him sneaking back later. If any of the PC’s noted this youths rather haggard expressions the next morning (and they did) no one thought to make anything of it.
The next morning say the group again heading north. Though as the day wore on, the Bishop began to fall further and further towards the rear of the party (he blamed old age and advancing wounds) causing the two acolytes with him to fall back and offer their support. At this, Klara finally began to grow a little suspicious, and made sure to keep the three clerics between her and the rest of the party, where she could keep an eye on them. Alas, it would prove to be too little to late. The party blithely followed the Bishops directions into a narrow gully, rather than simply going round as a more experienced (and cautious) party would have done. Therefore, they were in a very bad spot indeed when the arrows began to fly.
12 brigands, five armed with bows, five with spears and the two leaders with double-handed war-axes, appeared at the other end of the gully. Even as they did so, the Bishop began his prayers. Beside him the two acolyte turned, leering at Klara. “can’t let you near the Caves little missy” the shifty one hissed, before the two drew their weapons and attacked.
Tungdil, scouting in the lead with his crossbow ready, fell immediately, peppered with arrows then charged by the two leaders. The one bright spot in all this being that one of the axe-men drew back his arms for a strike a little too vigorously and sent it flying from his hands. Uric, Vaslav and Boindil hurled themselves forward into the fray, Vaslav saving the dwarf fighter-thief’s life with a well timed cure spell, while Elra let loose with her sleep spell. Alas, warned the night before that one of the party might be a mage, they had spread themselves thin and so only four spearmen succumbed to the spell. Meanwhile, Hans could not prevent the Bishop from completing his bless spell but Klara, demonstrating admirable agility, managed to keep his two subordinates busy and herself unwounded for the greater part of the fight.
Right from the start, things looked bad for the party. Boindil‘s morale (both the players and the characters) was shot down in flames by his brother Tungdil’s fall. The resultant player (and character) apathy severely affected his normally quite creative thinking. When Vaslav went down at the beginning of round two, even some of the other players began to think it was all over, but in terms of foes downed the party were as yet more than holding their own. Yet the dice gods were cruel: Uric quickly followed his brother into the dust, but not before taking a few of the foemen with him. That left Elra and Boindil at the north end of the gully, facing five brigands (with four more asleep at their feet).
Meanwhile, just behind them, Hans dropped the Bishop to 0hp with a well armed thrust between the plates of the mans armour. Unwilling to risk the Bishop climbing once more to his feet thanks to a spell from his two clerical companions, he then spent a round finishing the Bishop off.
Meanwhile, the still unwounded Elra did a fine job of holding off her foes. But as she dropped another opponent to the ground, she saw too, that Boindil had fallen, and lay across the prostrate form of his brother. She now faced five foes alone. The men glared at her, putting up their arms. “Surrender bitch. You’ve lost.”
Behind her, unseen by his isolated companion, Hans closed with one of the two clerics facing Klara. When the man turned to face this new threat, the assassin seized her chance, plunging her dagger deep into the mans neck and triggering a new morale check for the enemy just as the very moment the party needed it most. The brigands failed their morale check, but, as the northern group had such a clear advantage, I ruled that rather than fleeing, they would be up for negotiation. Meanwhile, the last cleric turned to flee, took a 1hp wound from Klara in the process and, due to the failed check, threw up his arms in surrender.
During the resultant stand-off, unknown to the players, I timed the negotiations. Uric and Vaslav both bled out at around the time the prisoners were exchanged. As the six brigands still standing (including the wounded cleric) began moving off, leaving the party in possession of the field, the outlook for the remaining Shorn seemed to brighten. They had possession of the field, and resultant high yield of loot (though they didn’t know it yet) – the Bishop alone had +1 plate, a +1 shield, and +1 mace and pair of clerical scrolls. If they’d just kept their mouths shut till the foe was out of sight, things would have been rosy. There was still a chance the sleeping brigands would stay that way for a while yet. Alas, as Klara glanced meaningfully at the stirring men at her feet, Elra caught her eye. Exhausted, tired, and far too naive for her own good (and with a player who’d maybe had just a tad too much mulled wine) called out cheerfully to the retreating Brigands.
“Ho there! These four are only sleeping by the way.”
The Brigands turned to regard the battered trio, the lead one with a fierce grin upon his face. “Oh are they?” he remarked. Then he and his men proceeded to fill the air (or rather Elra) with a volley of arrows. Not one failed to hit. The half-elf fell to the ground, critically injured. Even as the brigands charged back across the field, the four ensorcelled members of their band roused themselves, blinking back sleep as they did so. Howling in frustration (the players I mean, not just the characters) Hans and Klara did all they could.
They grabbed Elra and ran.
Three days later, back at the Keep, the familiar face of the Brigand leader walked into the Orc’s Head, holding a white handkerchief which her flourished slyly before taking a long, fake blow-out into the fabric. With Elra abed (again) recovering from her severe injuries, Hans and Klara were alone in the taproom. Respecting the “flag”, they agreed to talk. The Brigand chief explained that two of their companions had survived the battle. (Tungdil had been stabilised by Vaslav‘s cure spell and I had Boindil make a system shock to see if her survived the shoddy “medical care” he received at the hands of his captors). The Brigands proposed to ransom them back for three hundred gold pieces. Hans quite rightly pointed out that they had no proof that either was alive, so the Brigand happily led them outside to a spot in the courtyard where they could just make a party of men (and two semi-naked dwarfs) on the slope a nearby mountain. After haggling out the terms it was agreed that the ransom would be lodged with the Keep’s Bailiff in the presence of the bandit leader. After that, the signal would be given for the rest of the band to approach. Once the dwarfs (with their clothes returned to avoid raising the suspicions of the garrison) entered the Gate House, the brigand would cash the promissory note the party had given him and ride off like hell itself was chasing him.
However, the Brigand warned, st the first sign of trouble (or too much interest from the Guards) the Brigand would give a different signal, and the dwarfs would die. Satisfied (if not entirely happy) Hans and Klara agreed to the deal and, after a brief consultation with the wounded Elra, who also agreed, the prisoner swap went ahead. All without a hitch. And apparently all under the collective noses of the Castle garrison.
And so we left it there, with two bedraggled, haggard looking dwarfs gazing sheepishly at their rescuers. No kit, no weapons, no gear, no money. It’s hard being an adventurer.