This was our first meeting back of the new year and we spent some of the game time just catching up and chewing the fat before getting down to play. It was a travel meeting (with at least 1 more planned after this) and I decided I was NOT going to hand wave travel this go round. It drags out the adventure but I think gives the distance and places traveled more scope and weight. Long and short of it, we are FAR from home and way out of our normal comfort zone.
Write up follows:
Before the afternoon pressed on too much, we traded some of our Argosian coins for the local Helmian ones – noting the age of the coins, as well as their distress and chipping (heavily worn, edges chipped, diameters slightly off). Our normal coins would raise too many flags we thought and we wanted to avoid any odd entanglements in the future. Not wanting to run afoul of any issues in the morning, we went to bed early and slept well.
The morning of Deathmonth the 27th was cold and foggy, but the party broke their fast and was down at the docks before 6 in the morning. The barge master met us, reviewed our writ allowing us to not only board his barge but the fact that it took us upriver to Varohelm, and begrudgingly let us on. He reminded us that the writ did NOT allow us to get off at any time; neither did it allow us to do anything other than be passenger during the entirety of the trip. We were given the back third of the barge as a staging area for ourselves. We gave Captain Dornus 20 nobles to various dock crossing fees that we would have to pay when we arrived at Varohelm and assured him we would be no trouble.
By 6:30 an 8-donkey team had been assembled and with a number of handlers, leads, and poling, the barge was towed slowly upriver and we left Last Town behind. The trip was slow but steady and we got a chance to see the majority of the Black Water River in this area as well as Darkenwoods itself. Surprisingly, the amount of swamps were fairly small although the banks of the river were heavy with Cypress and Cedar trees. There was a short area where about a mile of the north bank was pretty swampy and the roadbed the donkeys were travelling on became a raised platform of wooden timbers.
As the evening was getting on we arrived at Midway’s Crossing, a mouthy name of a converted waystation that had grown to some sort of town. There was an arcing bridge that crossed the river here and from the look of things and the map that Steiner had the presence of copying from memory after we had left Sir Balderi’s earlier; there was a road north out of here that went north to someplace called Danver’s Clearing. However, as had been explained to us, we would NOT be leaving the barge since we didn’t want to a) piss off the locals, b) pay for 2 dock crossing fees (off and on the boat), c) give anyone a reason to separate the party for any reason AND possibly suss out both Marcus and Erd as elves on board. Captain Dornus told us that we would stay here at Midway’s Crossing for 2 hours or so in order for the men to stretch their legs and to get a new team of donkeys hitched up to tow us the rest of the way upriver.
Whether it was the citizens of Midway’s Crossing or some plants by Captain Dornus and his crew, a number of people did come to the dock to entice the party. First a group of hookers and their pimp tried to either get the party to come off or to come on board to take care of the group; we rebuffed them often and hard. Then in the dark, a shadowy figure offered to give us a sealed metal box and some coins if we could deliver it to a contact in Varohelm; we also said no and wished his well and to get the fuck away from us.
By 8:30 that night we were off and from what the Captain was telling us, it was 15 or so hours from Midway’s Crossing to Helm Lake (body of water that Varohelm was on, north side of the lake). It was dark and we were getting tired, plus being on the barge another more than half a day was going to make the party useless when we arrived. So we decided that we would stagger our sleep for now, with everyone getting a full night by spacing it out so that as many party members that could be up at one time would do so. It’s not that we didn’t trust the Captain or his crew…it’s just that we didn’t trust them.
It might have been for the best because at least twice, crewmen had some reason to come back to our area of the barge to “check lines” before leaving us alone. Eventually the dawn rose and the plodding donkeys and their handlers brought us further along. By 10:30 the trees were thinning and showed eventual signs of being harvested. Small fields of wild wheat and rye were dotting the land and in the distance we could see the waterway widening and a walled city taking up an area on the north shore.
We passed into Helm Lake by 11 and the current disappeared. Many smaller fishing boats and barges dotted the lake – over 3 miles wide and ¾ of a mile or so long. The city itself, Varohelm, was 2 or 3 times the size of Shakun and from our expectation, should house between 6 and 9 thousand people. The walls were over 30’ tall with numerous out pointed punji stakes fastened to the tops. Assorted towers stuck out further, some of them with ballista on top. Everywhere we looked though showed signs of decay, wear, assault, and undermanning.
When the donkeys were finally allowed to pass through the gate and tow the barge into the city itself, we had a chance to see how rough things really were. Varohelm was in a state of decay. At least a fifth of all the buildings we saw were either abandoned or demolished. It looked like swaths of the town were destroyed some time ago and although it was cleaned up, the rubble and foundations remained behind.
A number of docks stuck out from the city and we were pulled up to one where we paid Captain Dornus and disembarked. We walked the wharf area for a bit, eventually passing northward through the warehouse district. People were about, almost none of them in serious armor, but just about everyone was armed so we did not stand too far out. There was a hollowness to the people, as if they were tired or didn’t get enough nutrition in their diet.
We were given advice on two main inns in town, Shining Sword and the Flame Bolt Inn (the later one supposedly where Wizard-Lord Erazmus himself had stayed in the past). We went to the Shining Sword, reserved a room or two (at what felt was a SERIOUSLY reduced price – like 15% or so of what we would normally pay). We learned that the town is pretty hungry, empty, and poor. Although the citizenry are happy about their lot in life, they all seem to have this interest and desire to move away and making it “past Last Town and to the riches of Brewersbridge beyond.” However, the cost to move is very heavy with lots of graft and payoffs needed along the way. A few have hoofed it overland but with the giant Cats and the Risenwald, it’s pretty much assumed to be a suicide mission.
We got a layout of the two main streets and what shops were about and where we needed to go. As for Castle Sterling, the word is that the land has gone to swamp around it and a trip that might have taken 8 hours once upon a time with the roads, is now something to take much longer. We were going to need boots for the party. A cobbler was on the far end of town so we left the Shining Sword and proceeded our way there. Two main temples in Town: Ares and Gaia. There were a militant arm of the temple of Ares called Elfhunters and there was a reward if anyone was able to provide information towards the capture and sighting of an elf.
We avoided them.
Stopping at the Flame Bolt, we took a look at the two stuffed cat heads they had on display (learning that the first one was taken down by a group of 42, after which 10 of the party had died, While the 2nd one was a surprise attack on 17, where 4 of the party managed to survive the assault), and then moved on to the cobbler.
His prices were also crazy low. We bought 20 boots from his stock (high hard), spent a fraction of what were we would normally and left with our purchases happy and informed the man that his skills would go far in Shakun if he could make it there.
It was now 3 PM on Deathmonth the 28th and we were talking about what our next place to visit would be if we were to head off to Castle Sterling tomorrow.