|art by Sebastian Forray|
This is an account of a recent session of my ongoing Running With Swords campaign entitled Lost Sword of the Overking. The referee was myself, the players were Seb, Jack, Jameela, and John.
Having recovered the Sword of Destiny, they intended to deliver it to the High Priestess in her Hidden Temple, somewhere in the boglands south of the Old Forest, so they set out southward from the ruined keep.
Sir Caul and his brother Canter were also traveling through the Old Forest, seeking the way to the Hidden Temple. Caul had been a knight in the service of Queen Vauphria, and his brother Canter was the “king” of a band of free people living outside the law in the queen’s woods. When Caul was appointed by the queen to capture his brother, he betrayed his kinghtly oath, helping his brother to escape, and together they fled the queen’s lands.
Caul and Canter had a sister, who at a very young age had been given to the priestesses of the Hidden Temple, to serve and to be trained as a priestess. Having fled their homeland, they decided to seek their sister in the Hidden Temple, hoping to live as a family again.
Within the Old Forest, Canter stepped into a snare fashioned from a thick grapevine and was hoisted into the air by his ankle. Geortino and Fria, walking nearby, heard he noise and came to investigate. While the travelers were becoming acquainted and cutting Canter down from the trap, a strange beast approached, bellowing frightfully and smashing a very large club against the trees: Like a man, but over nine feet tall, covered head to toe in thick shaggy fur and otherwise naked. Fria tried to talk to the creature but he seemed not to understand, and smashed his club against the ground in a display of anger and strength. Canter, wise in the ways of woodland creatures, reasoned that this creature might be dealt with in the manner of a bear; he made himself large and displayed his own strength and willingness to fight, and the others followed his lead. The Shaggyman decided the four of them were more trouble than they were worth and strode away through the woods.
A short time later, a knight and his squire approached the party and called out a greeting. He stated his name as Sir Boury, knight of King Brutlas, and inquired whether the travelers had seen a giant hairy beast recently. They admitted the had, and Sir Boury proclaimed his sworn quest: to capture the Shaggyman and bring his head to the king. The travelers did not like the idea of killing the Shaggyman for sport, so Fria pointed the questing knight in the wrong direction and he and his squire rode off through the woods.
Toward the end of the day, the party entered a part of the forest eerily devoid of bird song and animal sounds. They found a tree with blood stains, claw marks, and bits of old rope clinging to it. As they made camp, they rigged a rudimentary alarm system by stringing a perimeter rope with bits of armor. During the night, something unseen disturbed the hanging armor and frightened the horse, but nothing further occurred to disturb their rest.
The following evening, after hiking all day through the eerily silent woods, as they descended into the watershed of a forest stream, they came upon a collection of treehouses linked together by rope bridges.They were greeted enthusiastically by some of the occupants standing on a balcony, and invited up for a feast in celebration of the full moon.
Geortino was reluctant to leave his horse Gh’o alone on the forest floor so he stayed with the animal, in spite of ominous warnings from the tree house folk that it would be very dangerous to pass the night on the forest floor.
The tree house people, who dressed in hide and fashioned their necessary items from wood, bone, antler, and stone, explained that every full moon they celebrate a feast in honor of the Forest Spirit, who allows them to take trees and game from the forest for their survival and who protects them from the wild wolves that prowl in the night. They were shown to the dwelling set aside for pregnant women, where there was room for them to sleep, and given time to rest and wash before the feast.
During the feast, they met the king of the treehouse village, Sinon, who showed deference and respect to the title of Canter, “king” of the free people of Vauphria’s wood - the two leaders shared a disdain for the traditional social hierarchies dominant among the Frandlish people, and a belief that people should be free to choose their leaders and to govern themselves according to their own principles.
Fria learned that in generations past, there had been commerce between these forest people and the priestesses of the Hidden Temple to the south, but that a schism of obscure nature had severed those ties. She also learned that the boglands are treacherous to those who know not the secret path to the Hidden Temple, and that without guidance there is little hope of finding the way.
Canter learned that the forest people traced claimed descent neither from the Frandlish nor from the Gersemen who inhabited these lands before the Frandlish came to drive them out, but from an ancient lineage who has always occupied these woods since before either of those societies existed.
Fria went down to offer Geortino some of the roast meat and wine, and to perform a divination ritual, gazing into her polished silver bowl filed with pure spring water. In the mirror-still water, she was given a vision - first of Gh’o disemboweled on the forest floor, then of several of the treehouse women weeping and sobbing inconsolably.
Meanwhile at the feast, a special cake was brought out for the children, and cut into perfectly even slices by the eldest woman in the village using a bone knife. The children seemed reluctant to eat the cake at first but soon gave in to their desire. Two of the children found carven bone totems hidden within their slices - a deer and a bear - and as each was discovered, one of the women at the table was stricken with grief at the sight. Canter inquired about these strange goings on, and was told that the children who found the totems were to be specially honored, and that their mothers were weeping from joy at their families being so honored. Inquiring further about the nature of this honor, he was told that it is forbidden to discuss it in more detail, and that their ways might seem strange to outsiders but had served them well for many generations. Canter and Caul realized some dark deeds were imminent, and they went to the pregnant women's’ dwelling to retrieve their belongings so they could join Fria and Geortino on the forest floor. A pregnant woman named Amalie was weeping among the furs, and Canter asked her what was the matter. She was reluctant to speak, but finally blurted out “Please save my little Lucas! They will kill him!”
As the travelers descended from the treehouses, they were watched sternly by silent men. The party began to debate their course of action - should they leave these strange people to their dark rites, or should they impose their own ethics on the situation? Should they accept lodging in the treehouses, knowing that their hosts may be sacrificing their own children? Should they grant Amalie’s request and rescue her nephew Lucas from whatever fate was allotted to him?
They decided to hide in the dark nearby and wait to see what would happen. After midnight, two children were brought down by two men. The children were dressed in a deer mask and a bear mask, with corresponding hide garments. The children wept and trembled in fear as they were led into the dark woods. Fria and Canter followed them and watched as they tied the children to trees at some distance from the village. A snapping twig alerted the men to their presence, but Canter threw a pinecone into the trees and led the men away from their position. After a time, the men decided nothing was amiss and returned to the village. Canter freed the children while Fria went to retrieve Geortino and Caul and bring them to the place of the sacrifice. There was some debate about what to do next, as the children clung to the legs of their rescuers in relief and fear, when the forest began to shake and resound with the crashing of falling trees as some unimaginably large beast stirred and began moving toward the party. At this, panic overtook the group and they scattered: Fria clambered up a nearby tree, Geortino galloped off toward the treehouse village, the children ran after Geortino, and Caul and Canter stood paralyzed wth indecision. Soon the demon was upon them - fifty feet tall, with spindly deerlike legs improbably supporting a hairy bear-like torso, skinny human arms hanging all the way to the ground with long skinny fingers dragging through the underbrush, a chaos of fanged mouths where a head might be expected, and two eye-like fires at the top shining with evil intelligence and penetrating psychic power.
Fria began to prepare a fire spell, retrieving a tinder box and making a small fire in a dish, from which she could weave a mighty fireball. Canter carefully took aim and shot an arrow into the demon’s eye, while Caul charged at the demon’s leg with his sword in a suicidal rage. Geortino turned his horse around, scooped up the two children, and galloped back toward the demon.
Canter’s arrow caused the demon’s head to form a huge red glowing bubble, within which other lesser demons flew about and screamed in rage. Caul’s sword had as much effect on the demon’s leg as it would on a stone. Geortino threw the children at the demon’s feet, causing the demon to turn its penetrating gaze upon the night, instantly laying bare the cowardice and weakness of his soul, branding his spirit indelibly with the evil of his act and causing him to collapse to the ground weeping. The demon scooped up the children and the horse in its spindly fingers and devoured them.
Just then Fria, using all of her remaining strength, mustered a tremendous fireball and hurled it at the demon’s hairy trunk. Fire being the one thing the Forest Spirit could not tolerate, it turned and fled back the way it had come, spreading fire to all the trees in its path.