"Come children, gather 'round...Uncle Bevan has a story to tell you. Listen well, so you may learn what it is to be a Rover out amongst the inferior races."
"This is the story of a fiasco, as are all stories of dealing with the others.
I was in Altoria, laying over at Cottonwood (pathetic excuse for a settlement). I knew the ill breeding Altorians planned to send an expedition into the Wild Lands. It seems the fools in charge of their Mages college, Thael Thaeltrn University of the Occult, decided they had need to check up on old Belnar Tallindar."
"What's a mages college, Uncle Bevan?"
"The Altorians force their children to leave their loving parents and go off to colleges for learning. They do not put trust in the family. It is a bad thing."
"Now Belnar, as you should know, had been doing some research at Harnak Mounds near Leaning Rock. When he sent the message to Kheringa, Head Mage at U. of O., telling of his discovery of an ancient divining rod, the University council decided it should be brought to them. Belnar has been known to 'lose' artifacts. Remember his name, and the name of Kheringa.
"Is Keringa a powerful mage?"
"Yes, that he is. Not so powerful as our mages, but he is one to be reckoned with."
"Back to my story. As is our custom, I rarely work for non Rovers, but sometimes an opportunity arises that meshes well with our own objectives. On these rare occasions, I have been known to hire out as a guide. I've even been known to arrange to be in the right area at the right time and advertise that I am available. (wink)
I made myself available. I, too, was curious about this artifact. If it proved to be that which I hoped, I thought I might be able to persuade our good friend Belnar to...well... as I said, he has been known to 'lose' things.
To pay for this expedition their University designated it 'official state business', thereby entitling them to use Crown monies as opposed to University funds. Typical Altorian politicking, the way things are done by those with no honor.
This, of course, meant the expedition must be put in the charge of a Crown Beadle. I have nothing against the Crown Beadles of Altoria, most are competent men, as Altorians go. But Guervas Anther is a prime example of why a government that awards positions based on family connections as opposed to actual merit is doomed to failure. How this fobbing jolthead could be placed in a position of authority is beyond comprehension. Perhaps someone wanted this expedition to fail-that would at least explain why Guervas was put in charge.
At first I thought to find an advantage in this, but no advantage could compensate for the aggravation of having to hear this simpering blowhard prattle on about his exploits. Gods deliver you from having to endure such torment. The man never ceased his blatherings.
Gulkrn the Red had been wreaking havoc in the borderlands for months. A more bloodthirsty band of goblins would be difficult to find."
"Is Gulkrn leader of the goblins that killed the Orcs of Lonetree Gorge?"
"One and the same, little one. I had ways of keeping track of them. I knew for a fact they were still in the area. Gulkrn's a wily one. He rarely stays in one place longer than three nights. Even goblins have patterns that you can learn and use to your advantage. I advised Guervas to delay embarking to avoid a run-in with the goblin band. The rest of the party were, of course, in agreement with me. Most races of Ereth have enough sense to follow the advice of a Rover in a situation like this.
Guervas, however (the stupid, preening footlicker), felt compelled to exert his imagined authority. He waved around his official papers and repeatedly pointed out that he was 'in charge' and I was his 'hireling'. He arbitrarily refused my council and insisted on setting out. Altorians, like the Magyars, put great importance on words written on bits of paper. Authority belongs to the one who understands the situation. Any other way is folly."
"Why didn't you tear up his silly paper?"
"When in Qabar, do as a Qabaran. No matter how foolish their customs, when you deal with the others, you must pretend to go along with them if you wish to further your plans.
So, there I was, having to pretend to accept a fool's council. I had tired of his pomposity and, realizing that the sooner we set out--the sooner I'd be rid of him, decided to take my chances with Gulkrn.
He'd hired a good bunch of mercenaries-seasoned men all, though every man of them Altorian. Of the five, I had worked with only one, but I knew them all by reputation. They, of course knew of me. Your Uncle Bevan is honored and feared among them.
They were none too happy with Guervas' decision to head out. Altorians are a people who blindly follow their leaders, but they are all cowards at heart. If they had not known the name Bevan Nkru Fengrays, I think they would all have abandoned the idiot Guervas. Only my presence gave them the courage to venture on.
The young University mage was well schooled but untried in the field. This trip would prove to test his mettle. His name is Weyden Sanders, and I would not hesitate to recommend him. Another name to remember."
"How old was he, Uncle Bevan? As old as me?"
"I took him to be not more than thirteen winters. It may well be that he has incurred the disfavour of someone at his University. I believe he was sent out with this ill fated party, never to return. But young Weyden has merit. And he knows to whom he owes his life. We must keep track of that one.
Our first day out, we ran into one of Gulkrn's traps. The goblins used the rains to their advantage. Only I spotted the telltale signs of cut trees near the main trail and the way the brush had been skillfully cleared. The Altorians might as well be blind and deaf, they see only what they are intended to see. You must look with your mind, sense what may be and you shall see what is.
The vermin had managed to start a mudslide that effectively blocked our path. There was nothing for it but to dig our way through. Any fool knows allowing goblins to divert you is the height of stupidity. But Guervas, oh Guervas...he looked right at the ax marks on the tree stumps and declared that the trees had merely snapped off with the wind. He saw only what Gulkrn wanted him to see.
I set two of the mercs, along with myself and Weyden, as guard. The other three set to work clearing our path. Guervas was worse than useless. I finally gave up trying to keep him from wandering into the bush and simply abandoned him to the Fates. Even the Fates didn't want him.
Unbelievable as it may seem, he actually suggested that we take the trail the goblins had, conveniently, provided for us. This is the way of goblins. They will block your path and then give you another that they have trapped. And nay-he did not merely suggest this insanity-he insisted on it. Inordinately proud of the fact that he had discovered this (so handy) alternative, he gleefully led us to this newly cut trail."
"But Uncle Bevan, why would anyone follow such a fool?"
"The men had no choice but to follow Guervas' orders. He had his 'piece of paper' that gave him authority. It is a foolish way, but it is the way of the Altorians. I felt honor bound to stay and protect them from their flap-mouthed leader. I took Genson Hooke, (the man I'd worked with before), and we went ahead as point. I put Stevin Bidwell, a man with a strong sword arm, in charge of keeping the rest well back from us. I didn't want them bumbling into goblin snares.
Not a half mile in I spotted the first snare. An ill concealed rope snaked across our path and could be seen to apparently trigger a log ram. I explained to Genson why we should not to attempt to disarm it. Gulkrn is known for setting traps within traps. Never underestimate a goblin.
I don't know that any of them would have survived the Wild Lands without me. Sure enough, when we carefully prodded the ground in front of the snare release, the cunningly devised dart launcher was set off. If he'd had the misfortune to be stung by even one of those darts, Genson would have died a slow and painful death by poison. Let me tell you, he was most grateful. I hate the way they become so fawning. That is something you must try and get used to though, if you must ever work with the others.
As any Rover knows, the problem with taking a goblin trail isn't that you're likely to run into goblins. Gulkrn was a master of traps. He'd rather thin your ranks, inflict as much injury as possible, and then pick you off at his leisure. We never saw a goblin, I'm sure they were about, but even I never spotted a one. Stevin followed my orders and kept the troop well back, giving us time to clear the trail.
I thought I'd managed to disarm all the traps before Guervas could blunder into them. What a surprise when the fool managed to find the only one I missed. It was off to the side of the trail, in a spot no man with any sense would use even as a privy. Gulkrn knew his enemy well. Guervas, needing to relieve himself, stepped behind the largest boulder in the area to a secluded spot overhung with dense branches. I answered his cries for help to find him, breeches down about his ankles, with his fat arse wedged in the opening of a pit. It he wasn't so fat, he would have been impaled on the spikes at the bottom."
"Hahaha, what a funny man, Uncle Bevan. He sounds like one of the jesters with the Glimmer circus."
"The Glimmer jesters have skill and at least some intelligence. This one has only luck to keep him alive. To have survived as long as he has, he must have been born under a very lucky star.
We finally emerged onto a well beaten path. This was Minton Road, which, as you know, runs for quite some way parallel to the main road to Leaning Rock. At least we were still heading in more or less the right direction. This was Torvald turf. Torvald bulls each claim a few miles of this road as part of their domain. They had their ambit markers posted and if paid tribute you can usually pass through their territories unmolested. I placed coin at each marker to show my respect and hoped we'd make it to Gorack's Burn while we still had daylight.
You won't believe what happened next. Stevin had picked up a burr in his boot and asked for a short stop to get it pulled. Altorians are a soft race, they coddle themselves and are wont to whine and complain. We paused at 'two black stones, gray point balancer' marker. This particular Torvald is known to have a pretty good following. He sacrifices females to the local Minotaur and has gained prestige among his kind. He carries an actual Dwarven Axe, one of the biggest I've ever seen. Not someone to offend, particularly while in his territory.
I was taking out a few coins to place at the marker when I noticed Guervas studying it. Before I could stop the puttock, he put his hands to the balancing stone and shoved. With relief, I saw that it held. (I've always wondered how they do that.) I explained to Guervas that disturbing the ambit markers was considered a sign of disrespect, that among the Torvalds it would equate with tearing a nobles flag from his gate or challenging an elf to a duel. I thought I had made it clear that disturbing the marker would be taken as a call to battle by the Torvalds. Why he would choose to disregard this I cannot fathom, but disregard it he did. With calm deliberation the fool born miscreant placed his foot against the base stone and toppled it. Torvald markers are painstakingly constructed. Getting the damned pinnacle stones to balance correctly is almost impossible."
"I have been practicing, Uncle Bevan. Uncle Druzen says my ambit markers could pass for a real Torvald's. I've been figuring out how they do it. I can show you."
"Good Lass! When I've done with my story, you can show us all. It's good to know ways of tricking the others. Not that it takes much to fool them, but you should always do your best, for pride's sake if nothing else.
Now, where was I...aah, yes... Our best bet at this juncture was to try and outrun them. The men were in a panic. Only by my strength of will was I able to keep them from bolting.
'Two black stones, gray balancing rock' was known to have at least twelve bulls in his herd. We were badly outnumbered.
Weyden offered to obscure the backtrail with a heavy fog-Torvalds are known to be leery of magic. Keep this in mind if you run into one. I hated to see Weyden wear himself out (we still needed to get through Gorack's Burn) but it seemed our best course of action. He put on an impressive show. The young mage has the potential to be a master elementalist; he even threw in some thunder and lightning.
By the time we reached Gorack's Burn, we were beyond the Torvald territories and back in goblin lands. Gkrrhuk holds sway there, has for many years now. His shaman, Claw Wing, is feared and hated even by her own kind."
"Oh, she's awful Uncle Bevan! I saw an Orc hung from a tree that she had skinned alive. Did you really have to go into her territory?"
"There was little choice. Minton road would shortly veer off towards the Labyrinths and we didn't want to get anywhere near that. Even I didn't want to deal with the Taurans. At least by cutting through the Burn we would have a clear view of our surroundings. This wasteland supports no undergrowth and the stunted trees provide little cover. I hoped this would allow us to at least see Gkrrhuk's band before they were upon us. If it hadn't been for that fat, waddling barnacle of a Beadle, we might have been able to make better time.
We were about three hundred yards past Fool's Bane Sink when I spotted the goblins skulking behind a low ridge. I tried to point them out to the men, but their eyes are not Rover eyes and they could not see them. I signaled for them to head for the top of a low hill to the north.
Guervas, oblivious to our situation, begged to stop and rest. At least the others listened to me, being in awe of my knowledge and cunning. Vidor Marksman, a good man but of a somewhat churlish disposition, had to physically drag Guervas along. The ordeal of the trip had addled the insufferable Beadles wits beyond all measure.
Altorians are weak willed and have no stamina at all. They are prone to losing what little wits they have whenever they are faced with difficulties.
He kept attempting to return to Fool's Bane Sink even though I explained to him that is was poisoned. His insistent admonitions that he needed "a good long rest and some of that lovely fresh water" were a sore temptation at this point. I think Vidor was afraid he'd lose his pay if the Beadle didn't survive.
When the attack was finally launched, Guervas was the first man hit. A rock from a goblin catapult struck him a glancing blow to the side of the head. In a screaming panic he started to run down the hill towards the oncoming goblins. Vidor again pulled him back and flung him unceremoniously to the ground. At this point, he made a complete fool of himself by burying his head in the dirt in some vain attempt to hide. His quivering backside must have been a tempting target for the goblins (I know the thought crossed my mind).
"Hahahaha. What a funny man. I wish I could have seen him, Uncle Bevan. Does he wear a jester's cap?"
"No. And suffering a fool is not so amusing when you're under attack by goblins. Listen now to my story, that you may learn form it."
"Sorry, Uncle Bevan."
"I am not angry with you, little one. It is only the memory of that blasted Beadle, that puts me in a foul humour.
I shall tell you now of the battle. Gkrrhuk was no fool. Claw Wing had chosen her general well. He used what little cover there was to shield his archers. Stevin went down with an arrow through is heart. May the fates devise a horrible torment for whoever taught the goblins how to use a bow. The damnable goblin shaman stayed well out of range and sent wave after wave of noxious fumes towards us. Between bouts of retching, our own archers, Vidor and Jon Doan, kept the gorebellied beasts at bay until we ran out of arrows.
Then Gkrrhuk sent in his foot soldiers. Half of them were only armed with clubs or stones. If they had been better equipped things might have turned out much worse for us. As it was, Genson Hooke took a stab to the thigh from a poisoned blade. I beheaded that goblin with one swift blow. Bergle Hart had one of the doghearted curs leap upon him and gouge out an eye. That one I dispatched with a sword thrust, pinning him to the ground with the blade I had wrenched from the hand of a goblin foolish enough to get within my range.
Weyden, though not fully recovered from his previous spellcasting, fought on valiantly. He had an interesting wand that I would like to learn more about. I saw him touch a goblin with it and then observed as the creature simply wandered off as though in a daze. Quite a useful instrument. Vidor took advantage of this. He slew the thing without it offering any opposition or even an awareness that he was there."
"Wow. I'd like to have one of those, Uncle Bevan. Maybe Aunty Zorena could make one. She's good at enchanting. She made my stone skin wand."
"Aye, perhaps...I'll speak with her of it. Good idea, little one, you know how to put two and two together. You're a fine young Rover, you are.
Now, back to the story.
The goblins finally retreated when Weyden turned the wind and sent the putrefying stench back at them. Goblins can be fierce, but the retreat if they don't have the advantage. They too, are cowards at heart.
With difficulty, we constructed a stretcher for Stevin's body. It would not do to leave a fallen comrade in that gods forsaken place. Genson's wound already festered with the goblin poison and I was not sure that he would survive. Weyden did what he could for our wounded and I took Bergle with me to retrieve as many arrows as we could.
I returned to find Guervas gleefully instructing Vidor in torturing the goblin I had spitted with my sword. Tough little buggers, he still had some life in him. Vidor knew full well that interrogating a goblin is pointless. Nothing you do can compare with what their mages inflict on them if they betray their warband. Vidor did seem to be enjoying himself though, and I thought he deserved a bit of recreation. Guervas is apparently the squeamish type. He lost interest in the process once Vidor started adding a few tricks from his own repertoire to augment Guervas' instructions. The image of Guervas, on his knees, retching into the dirt stays with me.
I have to hand it to the goblin, even with his skin flayed, he still would only repeat the directions to the ambush spot Gkrrhuk had given him. Vidor finished him off as soon as we were ready to travel.
We would have made better time, but Guervas, the beslubbering codpiece, insisted being carried. He kept mewling about his 'head injury'. It was all I could do to keep the men from removing the offending appendage and leaving him for the goblins."
"I thought Guervas was a man, Uncle Bevan. You didn't say Guervas was an old woman."
"Hahaha. Guervas is a man, if you choose to call him that. An Altorian man. Much weaker of body and spirit than the most frail Rover crone, or even a child like you. You will understand when you've had to deal with them.
We made it back to the main road and came into Leaning Rock shortly after dark. Ulgar was none too pleased with opening the stockade at that hour for anyone or anything, but a handful of coins and my word as a Rover greased the hinges of the gates. Barbda, the Leaning Rock healer, is known far and wide for her skills. Without her, that settlement would have been unlikely to survive in those treacherous parts. We were lucky to have her help.
Belnar would not part with the divining rod. It seemed that it was part of a set his University was intent on restoring. He did agree to keep me informed if they found where the third piece was hidden. He had already made arrangements with Ulgar for an escort back to Altoria. Why the University had bothered to send this party out remains a mystery to me. Perhaps old Belnar is suspected of having his own agenda concerning these artifacts. Although sending Guervas as witness would seem unlikely to be of any value. Unless someone wanted the story to be garbled beyond comprehension. Hmmm...."
"Ahhh...I bet I know why he was sent! Someone is going to steal that diving rod, aren't they! Gosh, Uncle Bevan, the Altorians have no honor at all, do they? They would even kill one of their own for a profit."
"Ha! You see, even a Rover child can see through their machinations. Hahaha. I suspect that you are right, little one.
Perhaps someone was simply trying to get rid of Guervas. I could hardly blame them. The boil-brained oaf must surely have many enemies. I, for one, will henceforth avoid him at all costs. I suggest you do the same."
"Thank you for the story, Uncle Bevan. That was a good one. Are all of the other races as stupid as the Altorians?"
"Well now...I think the Altorians are likely the stupidest. The Glimmers, though not intelligent, are the most cunning, but you can never, ever trust them. The Orcs are the slowest witted, but at least they have some notion of honor. The Ogres, well...the Ogres you have to watch out for. Their ways are strange, but at least they aren't as stupid as the Altorians. And then there are the Magyar. Never deal with a Magyar if you can help it. They're almost as bad as the Dark Elves. The other Elves...hmmm...well, just avoid them if you can.
Now, you...show us how you balance those ambit markers. That's a good lass. And bring me some of that beer, if you please. My throat's a bit dry with the telling of tales."