The city of Backwater, where animals roam the streets overlooking the Saltfjord River and the air is hazy with smoke
Backwater was apparently named for its proximity to the Great Marsh, or perhaps for being at the “back” of the Saltfjord River, and not for its size. It is in fact the capital and largest city of the Jarldom of Hedden, and has several thousand people. Still, there is little central planning, and once inside the great timber palisade, the party is confronted by a bewildering array of dirt streets, with animals roaming freely, and everything obscured by a haze of smoke from a thousand hearthfires. The rest of the party is indeed grateful for Ember and Thrud, who are able to speak with the locals and find their way through the maze of streets and buildings while they lead the camels.
The party finds a comfortable inn for the night with somewhat begrudging stabling for the camels, and they are glad again for Ember, who smooths things over with the innkeeper. Morgan begins to talk about exchanging their camels for pack horses, or even for passage on a longship, but after some discussion it is decided that they will need more information to make that decision. Rhoona lies to the west, but plans are made to strike for Soderjord City instead, as both Ember and Thrud have business there and it is just a day’s further travel.
Ember and Thrud listen carefully to the conversations in the inn that evening, seeking information about the situation in Rhoona, but learn nothing they did not hear before in Castellan. Other talk is of the upstart young black dragon, and how the summer raiding season is going.
The next day the party is up early, and out along the road to Soderfjord city. They pass through many small communities and the trail leads through beautiful green country along the southern bank of the fjord. The fields are full and ripe for harvest, and the road is busy with travelers.
The road from Backwater to Soderfjord City
On the low, level ground the camels are easy to ride, even with Wolfbane and FluffyKitten sharing a saddle, and they make excellent time, reaching Soderfjord in the evening. The city gates are still open, but most businesses are closed or closing. Ember and Thrud both grew up here (though Thrud has been away for much of his adult life, in the warbands of many different jarls), so they are natural guides and easily find the party a comfortable inn. They meet briefly, talking about their plans for the morrow. Then, tired from a long day’s travel, they retire for the night without staying in the common room to hear the gossip of the city.
The great walled city of Soderfjord
The next morning Wolfbane agrees to stay at the inn and mind their gear. Thrud plans on returning home to his family, while Bhelgarn and Poncherius will visit the dwarven community. Morgan and Odleif will check the docks and stockyards, while Ember will take FluffyKitten to the Temple of Glöð.
Thrud’s father, a blacksmith in the Old City, has not seen him for the better part of a year, and is overjoyed. Thrud shows him Zargon’s horn, and tries to tell of his adventures, but he can never complete a tale. Just as he is well underway, his father spies a neighbor or a friend in the street, and interrupts to insist that they come and listen as well, and that Thrud begin again. By afternoon the shop is full and the forge is cold, the day’s work forgotten, and plans are being made for a feast that evening. When Thrud asks his father and the neighbors about Rhoona, they reply the more trouble the crazy Vestlanders want to stir up the better – less dwarven goods in the city means more work for them.
Bhelgarn, nearby in the forge district, hears the other side of the coin. Although the nordic people have long been allies of the dwarves, the trouble in Rhoona is stirring up tensions, and many in the local human populace are saying they would be better off without competition from the dwarves. This is, of course, foolish, since humans cannot hope to craft things as well as dwarven smiths – but then, humans are notoriously shortsighted.
Morgan and Odlief spend the day acquiring enough information to plan the party’s next move. In the stockyards, they find that camels are not much in demand in the Jarldoms, as they are little use in the winter and either refuse to go, or do not fit, on longships. The traditional nordic horses Morgan finds are little larger than ponies, and are often carried on longships. They are rugged creatures and strong for their size, but cannot carry nearly as much as a camel. They are certainly better animals for combat, being both swifter in a dash and more aggressive, but for overland transport the camels are clearly superior, being able to carry more and go further in a day. Morgan concludes that if they are to take the overland trading route they will want to keep their camels, but if they opt to go by sea they will need to exchange them for horses and ship’s passage. The traders in the yards tell them that the overland trade route is 192 miles from Soderfjord to Landersfjord, which would take them perhaps eight days with horses. From there, they can either cut cross-country to Rhoona (shorter, but off-trail through the wilderness), or stay on the trade route for another 176 miles. Altogether it is a journey of perhaps two weeks to Rhoona by land.
Nordic horses are little bigger than ponies by Darokite standards
At the docks, Morgan and Odleif learn that, when the wind is with them, longships are far faster than horses or even camels – but when the wind is against them, they must use rowed movement, which is slower even than walking. The square sails do not permit tacking, so they are highly dependent on wind direction. From Soderfjord out to the sea will be rapid with the wind behind them; moving up the Vestfjord River to Rhoona will almost certainly be rowed. Out on the open sea – who knows? Perhaps a priest of Njord could tell them, but the sailors cannot. Morgan presses for an “average” and is told around two weeks – but that it could be anywhere from less than a week to as much as a month, all depending on the wind.
Morgan prefers a guaranteed two weeks by the trail (or perhaps less, with camels) to a chance at two weeks by sea, and it will allow them to keep the camels for the time being, and not lose value in changing them to horses. In fact, she returns to the markets to see if she cannot pick up more camels. As luck would have it, there is an Alaysian trader who had brought oils, spices, and bronzewear from the south to Soderfjord, and who is planning on returning laden with narwhal horn, walrus tusk, and silver. He finds himself with more camels than he needs for the return trip, and after a bit of haggling agrees to sell two of them, plus saddles and pack harness. Morgan also picks up food and cattle feed for five days, returns to the inn, and celebrates with large quantities of mead.
Ember and FluffyKitten spend the day at the Mother Temple. It has been only a few months since Ember left as a novice, and she is now returning as a priestess. Her sister novices are thrilled to see her, and her superiors are pleased, and talk about scheduling her priesthood ceremony, and selecting a kirk to serve. Ember, however, is more interested in discussing the situation in Rhoona, and upon hearing this, a messenger is sent to the Temple of Forsetta.
Mother Temple of Glöð, Soderfjord City
FluffyKitten is given honeycakes and small beer, shown the temple and gardens, and plays cats-cradle with the youngest of the novices, just stripling girls like Ember was when she arrived at the temple. Ember herself asks to learn the prayer for speaking with animals, and is taught it. Her superiors are quite impressed that she has learned as many prayers as she has “on her own”, and remark that it is a sure sign of the favor of Glöð.
Ember has one close friend among the novices who pledged to keep track of her brother for her while she was away, and tells her that her brother is working the summer raiding season on a coastal guard longship based out of Soderfjord. As soon as Ember arrives, the young woman asks permission to go to the docks. When she returns, she tells Ember that they patrol up and down the coast near the city, and he is in port around once a week – but has not been seen for several days. She promises to give him word of Ember’s arrival and any message.
In the afternoon Ember is taken to the Temple of Forsetta. There she meets with several of their priests. The temples do not have an international hierarchy, but they do communicate with one another, and the priests of this temple have been in contact with their brothers in Rhoona, who are quite concerned about the situation there. They are desirous of someone trustworthy to investigate. They dare not do so themselves, for going against the duke would be treason – but they have sent a discrete plea for outside aid within the fraternity of their churches. When Ember says that she would be willing to help, the priests are both grateful and relieved, and prepare her a letter of introduction to their counterparts in Rhoona.
Ember is taken to the temple of Forsetta
Evening finds everyone but Thrud back at the inn for the meal, and Ember tells the others that he is likely with his father and not to worry. She will go for him in the morning and be at the city gate before Morgan has the camels loaded and ready.
Morgan rouses the party before dawn, and has them sorting gear and loading the camels. She finds her throbbing head helps her focus her biting comments. Ember is glad to slip away and after asking a few people along the way has no trouble finding the hut of Thrud’s father, though she has never been there before. Thrud is still sleeping off last night’s feast, but she wakes him and tells him they are departing. His father is loath to see him go so soon, but when Ember explains that they have to resolve the situation in Rhoona before there is bloodshed, he does not gainsay the priestess.
Thrud and Ember find the rest of the party at the city gate, and together they spend the day on a return trip to Backwater.
Back in Backwater
After they pack the camels the next morning, Ember negotiates a ferry passage across the Saltfjord River. The number of barges capable of transporting the camels is limited, but by using several ferrymen and a few return trips, they are able to get across for 5 coppers per person, and another 10 per camel.
As they organize on the far bank, Morgan readies them for the overland trek to Landersfjord. She tells them she hopes that the last four nights in beds have not made them soft, as they have about 200 miles to go before that is an option again.
The overland trade route from Backwater to Landersfjord
The first day’s travel is through lowland pine forest. Here and there along the way are forester thorps, where poor carls eke out a living cutting timber and raising hogs and root vegetables. The second day they rise into the dry hills. The settlements are still sparse and cluster along the banks of streams, but are a bit more prosperous with cattle and small fields of wheat and barley. This is poor country with thin soil, and those in the party not from Soderfjord now understand why income from the sea, whether fishing or raiding, is so important in the Jarldoms.
A village in the dry hills
By the end of the day the trail leads to the banks of a large stream that must be crossed. The fisherfolk of the place (Bornford) tell the party that the stream is actually the upper reaches of the Bornfjord River, and marks the boundary between the Soderfjord Jarldoms and the Kingdom of Vestland. Through a combination of quaint stone bridges over the deep sections, wading through calf-deep water in the shallow parts, and a few dry gravel beds, the party leads their camels across and makes camp on the far side. The fisherfolk agree to trade the jerky the party had planned to sup on for fresh-caught fish at the evening meal.
On the third day of travel the trail rises up into rugged, often forested, hills. The settlements grow farther and farther apart, and by day’s end they camp at the base of an impressive-looking mountain range. The deciduous leaves of the forests are changing, and on the slopes above them have even fallen. It is beautiful traveling weather during the day, but the nights are chilly. While still above freezing, Ember and Thrud tell them that they need to get to Rhoona before the first snowstorm or the roads could become impassable.
Early on the fourth day the trail passes its summit, and starts to descend, indicating that they are entering the Landersfjord valley. By midday they can see the river below them, and by afternoon the city at the end of the trail. Most of the city is on the far bank, so they pay for another ferry crossing and are able to find an inn as the streets darken. Conversation in the common room is dominated by the subject of Rhoona. The Vestlanders here are considerably more sympathetic to the duke than the Soderfjorders were, and believe that he is defending his people against the dwarves, but people are still concerned, and speculate as to the cause of the conflict and what the King may do in response. The only real new information the party is able to gather is that Stefan Rhoona has recently issued a decree that all crown taxes must be paid in beer, rather than coin! That has more than a few of the Vestlanders scratching their heads.
The party discusses where they will travel next, debating the value in reaching Rhoona sooner by heading overland. All along their route so far, the common folk have asked them if they have seen any giants come down from the mountains. Now Ember and Thrud are warning of snowstorms. It does not take them long to decide that they will stay on the trade trail around the Norrvik peninsula.
The next day they set out north along the trade trail, arriving at the city of Haverfjord well before dusk. They are nearly out of food, so Morgan calls for an early halt, a night at an inn, and a day of rest and re-supply on the morrow. Discussion at the inn is over the duke’s strange decree, and the party hears rampant speculation as to its cause. Some say it is because the dwarves have been passing false gold coins in Rhoona, some believe it is another way to get the dwarves to leave. “His Grace stopped paying them a month ago, but the creatures are squatting on human land and won’t clear out! Once the ale dries up, they’ll leave town soon enough.” Bhelgarn feels more than one unkind stare in the common room, and for the first time since arriving in the northlands he is justifiably uneasy.
In the morning, Bhelgarn elects to remain at the inn, with Wolfbane and Poncherius, while the others are out shopping. The looks he is getting from the servants at the inn are enough for him, without risking a confrontation with strangers in the city. The others have no difficulty securing supplies.
The Norrvik peninsula
The party sets out of Haverfjord the next day. The city is set at the base of the dry hills and the source of the Marsfjord River. As they travel north, the land grows greener and the farms larger, eventually interspersed with dairy pastures. They are now close enough to the sea to have reliable rain, and the country is full of verdant fields such as they saw around Soderfjord. Ten miles out from the city they turn away from the river and head up in to the forested hills. The rest of the day is spent along the trail through towering pine forests.
By late afternoon they have crested the spine of the peninsula and are coming down the Norrvik slope, passing through a series of light forests and open meadows. Before them, a caravan is spread out – along the trail, but also off the sides of the trail. It is not traveling, but not encamped, either. Everywhere is chaos – merchants arguing with guards, guards arguing with drovers, pack animals are milling about in confusion. Morgan finds the guard captain and asks what is going on.
The caravan was about to cross the meadow just over the next rise, when advance scouts encountered a huge black bull. They tried to drive it away from the trail, for wild bulls will often charge pack horses. However, as they approached it, it charged them – and they were turned to stone! Now the merchants are demanding that the guards slay it or drive it away, while the guards are threatening to quit if they are sent after the beast.
The party moves quietly up to the ridge to assess the situation. Sure enough, in the bowl-shaped meadow, three stone statues of guards are on the trail, while a huge bull grazes nearby. Fluffy is sent ahead to scout. She gets close to, and then moves beyond, the beast. She conceals herself behind a bush and takes out her sling. Wolfbane uses phantasmal force and ventriloquism to distract it while Ember, Thrud, Bhelgarn, and Morgan move into melee range. Odleif provides missile support from atop the ridge. After the creature has been angered by missile fire, Morgan taunts it into charging her, then webs the space between two of the statues, entangling the creature and enabling the party to finish it off (after she barely escapes its curious green breath weapon). FluffyKitten takes a large piece of its hide, with an eye to making a cape with the stuff. The leathery hide is not covered with hair – rather some sort of stony-hard serpentine scales!
The terrible petrifying bull creature
Returning to the caravan, the party finds themselves the heroes of the day, and even Bhelgarn gets hearty claps on the back and an invitation to share their meal. Morgan is more practical and asks the merchant master to pass a hat among the traders – she comes away with 20 gold coins which are added to the party funds. They camp that night with the caravan.
The next day the party, moving well-ahead of the caravan, comes down out of the highland forest to the coastal plains, and arrives at the great city of Norrvik, capital of Vestland and seat of the King. It is still afternoon by the time they arrive and they have some time for shopping after finding a suitable inn.
The docks of Norrvik
FluffyKitten insists that they can find tanners and leatherworkers who can show her how to fashion a cloak from her bull-hide in a few hours. Ember visits shops with her, but the halfling becomes petulant when the master leatherworkers refuse to agree with her that their years of apprenticeship and training can be condensed into an hour lesson.
Odleif buys a quiver of “sheaf arrows.” He has been using Alaysian “flight arrows”: light shafts for long-range mounted combat in the open desert. These norsemen are used to fighting in thick forest, in raids on towns, or between ships. They prefer an arrow with a heavier head, less range, but a greater potential for damage.
That night, the talk of the common room is news of Rhoona. The party learns that the King of Vestland has recently sent a diplomatic delegation to the duke on the pretext of assessing his fall harvest and tax liability, but with a clearly implied mission to question him about the situation in the duchy. The most recent gossip is that the duke has issued a new decree – that anyone riding a horse within the limits of the city must be mounted backwards! This is a clear indication to most that something is rotten in Rhoona. However, the party still finds some people holding forth in support of the duke, and they hear arguments like the wealthy merchants and nobles are in league with the dwarves, and this is his grace’s way of humbling them (since common carls might well own beasts of burden, but not riding horses).
The next day’s travel is through the farming and dairy country along the coast, passing through the city of Bergen at mid-day, but not stopping. At day’s end they camp off the trail in the forest. A further day of travel takes them up into forested hills and finally, in the afternoon, to where the trail ends, at the ferry docks across the Vestfjord River from Rhoona.
Across the river from Rhoona
The ferryman spits into the water when he sees Bhelgarn, but Ember speaks politely to him and he doesn’t say much after agreeing to a price. After several crossings, the party finally stands in the Old Town on the east shore of Rhoona City.
On their way in to the city, the party noted sheep, goats, cows, and horses all herded in the rugged but fertile country around the town. There are a number of taverns and fish shops along the waterfront, but no inns in sight (the flop houses frequented by sailors do not even have stables, let alone accommodations for camels). With the exception of the unfinished Ducal palace and portions of three large temples, all of the buildings in Rhoona appear to be made of wood, with either wooden or sod roofs. They are predominantly one story tall, and all but the largest are of one room.
Rhoona City, nestled in the fork of a fjord
When Ember asks the ferryman for an inn that would be able to accommodate their beasts, preferably one close to the palace, the man indicates the docks on the other side of town and suggests a place called “The Crystal Girdle.” “They’re more like to serve his kind there,” he adds, hooking a thumb at Bhelgarn.
Between the camels and their dwarf, the party certainly attracts attention as they move through the streets and past the market square. As it turns out, the Crystal Girdle is just a block from the Ducal Palace and overlooks the barracks where the dwarven laborers are quartered. The stables are ample, but there are no private rooms – guests have a space on the floor in the common room. This does not sit well with Morgan, but Ember says it will do for one night as she has business at the Temple of Forsetta and does not have time to look for another place before dark.
The innkeep agrees to take them on, as well as their camels, and after stabling the beasts they begin to haul their gear in to the common room. At present there are some ten sailors, five maids, a petty merchant, and a dwarf in the common room.
The dwarf has a sour look on his face, but nods politely as Bhelgarn enters and mumbles, “greetings, cousin” in Dwarven, and then “Grimmvat Stonebreak, mason.”
The atmosphere in the tavern is quiet and solemn, with a conspicuous lack of drinking. Thrud orders an ale, and the barkeep shakes his head sadly and says that they have no beer or ale available. At present they are only serving mead, wine, and brandy. “If yu can aford it,” says one of the sailors darkly, and the others glare at the dwarf, who is drinking a watered-down wine and clearly not enjoying it.
Grimmvat grumbles irately about “human mismanagement.” After a short time, the party has all of their gear stowed, in a corner away from the door and the other customers. Throats are dry but Ember cautions Morgan it would be impolite to drink in front of the others without offering them something.
Grimmvat grows more vocal as he grumbles, “Blasted decrees! Where does the Duuke git these haarbrained ideas, anyhoo? If dwarves were in charge…”
The other patrons are clearly unhappy with his words, but the dwarf is burly and conspicuously wears a large stone mason’s hammer on his belt. None of them seem eager for a fight.
Ember slips out, promising to be back as soon as she can. Shortly after she leaves, a commotion can be heard in the street, and a passerby sticks his head through the tavern door to announce, “The Duke’s herald approaches, ya? There must be a new decree!” Very near to the tavern, the herald and a guard of ten soldiers pause. The herald unrolls a scroll and reads loudly:
“Be it known to all that his Benign Munificence, Stephen, Duke of Rhoona, has declared the following to be an official decree:
“Whereas, the scheming, greedy, and cunning nature of the dwarvenfolk is known to all,
Whereas, their short statures and bearded appearances are an affront to the sensibilities of decent humans,
and Whereas, the citizens of Rhoona have already borne the insulting presence of these creatures for too long,
it is hereby decreed that a state of war exists between the foul and corrupt domain of Rockhome and the virtuous and principled Duchy of Rhoona.
Furthermore, any dwarf found to be within the boundaries of said duchy within one hour of the reading of this decree will be considered a dangerous criminal subject to arrest. Its punishment shall be a public shaving of its face and stretching of its vile person upon the rack until such time as it has attained a more human stature.
Such is the word of the Duke of Rhoona."
A large crowd has gathered to hear this pronouncement, but their reaction is subdued and nervous. After making the decree, the herald and his escort move down the street along the waterfront, and the citizens drift back to whatever they were doing. From the direction of the dwarven barracks comes a number of cries and curses, and a growing bustle of activity.
“It’s Draco who’s behind this, and you can mark my words!” exclaims Grimmvat. “If it’s war he wants, then it’s war he’ll git. ‘Foul and corrupt domain’ indeed!” The dwarf works himself into a sputtering frenzy, and, after several more oaths and declarations, he moves off toward the dwarven community.
“He ain’t stayin’ here,” says the innkeeper, pointing at Bhelgarn.
“Of course not, he was just leaving,” says Morgan calmly. She takes Bhelgarn to the stables and, when no one can see them, casts invisibility on him. When she returns to the common room, she whispers to FluffyKitten to leave her boots in the stable. The halfling shrugs – she only uses the boots when scouting, as she prefers to go barefoot.
Once things have calmed somewhat, Morgan passes a handful of gold coins, half of the money they got from the merchants, to Thrud and tells him to order a round of mead for everyone, the party and the others in the room. After the sailors have been drinking a while the mood in the tavern improves considerably. Morgan begins to talk with them and they seem to have forgotten that the party are outlanders and dwarf-friends besides.
When she asks them how this mess got started, they explain that the duke hired the dwarves to construct a huge stone palace for him. Previously, he had ruled from a large wooden fortress in the hills overlooking the city. Everything was going well until the duke’s human architects were inspecting the construction, and found that the dwarves had installed a series of secret doors into what was to be the palace treasury. Since these were not on the plans, it was obviously an attempt to return after the construction was completed and rob the duchy. The duke immediately called a halt to the work on the palace and refused to pay the dwarves. The dwarves denied wrongdoing, but refused to leave the city until their back-wages were paid. There has been a stalemate for near three months now, with the nation of Rockhome subsidizing the dwarves’ living in Rhoona as a matter of principle, and threatening the other nordic nations with sanctions if they do not take the dwarven side.
When Morgan asks who this “Draco” is, the sailors say that Draco Stormsailor is the head of the Ducal Guard, and the duke’s most trusted advisor. He is a fearless sailor and warband leader who was famous for his wild exploits on the seas before he settled down in Rhoona and accepted his current position from the duke. He is greatly respected and, they admit, feared by the people of the city.
Meanwhile, Ember is meeting with the priests of the Temple of Forsetta in Rhoona. They are very pleased that she has answered their call for help, but immediately warn her that if she starts to investigate, this must needs be her last visit to the temple. They cannot be seen as fomenting any treason – in part for their own safety, and in part because their god teaches the people to support and trust their leaders and the order of society. It is because most of the people in the city are of their faith, they explain, that they have been able to maintain calm among the populace even as the duke’s decrees have grown ever more bizarre.
The Temple of Forsetta in Rhoona
Most of those not of their faith (mostly fishermen, sailors, and warriors) attend the Temple of the Spuming Nooga. This faith is a less restrictive one, believing that a person must strive against the circumstances of his life to make the best of a short existence. While they have not spoken against the duke, neither have they tried to convince the people of his authority.
Recently, a newer temple has been erected to Cretia, the god of the Ethangarians. Although currently there is but a small number of people in Rhoona from the Ethangar Khanate, they have erected a large and elaborate temple. The Forsettian priests know little about the beliefs of the foreigners.
The Ducal Guard is responsible for maintaining order in the community, as well as defending it from any outside threats. This brutally effective force is led by Draco Stormsailer, whose very name inspires fear and awe in most Rhoonians. Once Draco sailed to all parts of the world on plundering expeditions, but now he has settled down to the quiet life of garrison commander. He lives in the Ducal Barracks. It is said that the Duke respects his judgement above all other advisors.
Finally, the priests tell Ember that one of their order, Brother Eric, will be in the city disguised as a beggar, and that he will act as her contact should she need assistance.