It was a cold, Autumn day. Thick, grey clouds lay heavily over the thinning, rust coloured canopy. Dead leaves rained gracefully and continuously to the forest floor either side of the wheel-worn dirt road. In the fields, farmers toiled to bring in the last of the harvest. Winter was coming.
Wandering swordsman, Custler and his unwanted Tiefling companion, Nil had been travelling for nine days from the city of AdenSchloss to the northeast and were only a couple of days walk from St Malo. There is chariot racing there at harvest time and the entertainment would be unmissable. More than that though, they sought information in the great library.
They were preparing for a short rest when, ahead on the road they spied a curious sight.
A horse-drawn goods train of some twenty or so carts, apparently westward bound had been stopped on the road by a rag-tag band of militia men. Scruffy, disorganised and ill-mannered. They were lightly armed and armoured. They wore red armbands – a sign that they worked for the Church, though they were little more than profiteers with scant regard for clerical matters. They had with them a horse-drawn carriage surmounted with a cage. In the cage sat a small, dishevelled figure, a Hobbit with a coffee-coloured complexion – clearly a recently captured prisoner.
The men were challenging the train’s leader, a weathered looking Gnomish merchant with a long, white beard and fine silk, ermine and velvet robes in bright, impressive colours. He stood on his cart, fists on hips in indignation. “Who do you all think you are, eh? What’s the meaning of stopping us?” he demanded.
One of the militia – apparently the leader – drew his horse forward. “We have reason to believe that you are transporting a wanted criminal.”
The Gnome gestured to the Caravan, red-faced with anger. “We are but simple merchants transporting our wares to St Malo! There are no Warlocks here. By Garl! the Sheriff shall hear of this!”
“It’s not a Warlock we seek,” spat the leader, “but a petty thief. Hand him over and you can be on your way.” Then, ignoring the Gnome, he turned his attention to the train in general. “Hear me? Hand over the boy and you can go on your way!” When nobody responds, he continues, “I know you’re here, boy! You’ve taken something that belongs to the church! We won’t leave until we’ve taken you into custody! Give yourself up and nobody has to get…”, he paused, sliding his gaze along the length of the train, ”...hurt!”
At this point, Arpad, a Dwarven Paladin of Morodin who had been recruited as a bodyguard for the wagon train approached the leader and requested proof of his authority. If they were who they claimed to be, and they were genuinely searching for a wanted criminal then they could go about their business and be on their way. At the same time, Madran, a young wizard recently graduated from school, a passenger on the Caravan created a magical, ghostly hand that, unseen by the militia, lifted the keys to the cage and carried them to the imprisoned Hobbit.
Whilst all of this went on, Custler and Nil approached the conversing group consisting of Arpad the Dwarf paladin, the militia leader and his second in command. Much to the Dwarf’s consternation, they outright challenged the militia to leave the caravan or be killed. The leader enraged by their audacity ordered them arrested. At this point Custler unleashed his hammer and Nil his sword and battle was joined.
Arpad, having no regard for these wandering nuisances and seeing it as his duty to protect the caravan, ordered the train to start moving.
The rest of the militia ran towards the fray, shouting for the caravan to stop. by the time they got there, their leaders were dead and after being ordered to surrender by the paladin, dropped their weapons and fled into the woods.
Grateful for their assistance, the Gnome caravan leader, wary of further confrontations with clearly corrupt profiteers, asked Custler and Nil to join the caravan as extra bodyguards for the journey to St Malo.
The caravan trundled on. The sky darkened and the caravan began to think that it would soon be time to make camp. As these thoughts crossed their minds they felt the first spots of rain that quickly increased in number until it was a torrent and then heavy driving rain. In the distance thunder rolled and moments later a flash of lightning silhouetted the surrounding hills. Up ahead, just off the road, outlined against the sky was a small bothy. A rudimentary stone and slate structure. It’s lack of lighting suggested that it was empty and it looked like it’d make an ideal shelter for people and horses alike.
The caravan tie up the horses and make shelter in the bothy for the night. The now freed Hobbit makes the most delicious stew for all and conversation turns to who they all are and where they are from.
Later, they sleep and the three bodyguards, Arpad, Custler and Nil take turns to keep watch.
Whilst on his watch, Nil hears a feint scuttling under the floor. He alerts Custler and Arpad and they follow the sound as it moves about for a few seconds before erupting out of a hole – A rat swarm accompanied by a couple of Dire rats. The whole company are aroused and begin to tackle the rats, Nil and Madran being bitten in the process. During this panic, the door bursts open and the hideous form of rat in the shape of a man steps into the fray attacking Genero the Hobbit.
The battle is short but bloody with almost nobody escaping unbitten. Eventually the swarm dissipate and scuttle back under the floor. The dire rats are dispatched and the humanoid rat defeated. Before the band’s very eyes he distorted and transformed into a dirty and dishevelled human man.
The party settled down again but uneasily.
The next morning, the storm had broken and the sky was blue. It was a frosty Autumn morning and the dew lay heavily on the grass. Their breath clouded in front of their faces as they prepared the horses for departure. It was then that they noticed that something has been scrawled on the door to the bothy. It appeared to be written in blood and it read simply ‘NEXT’.
Upon waking, both Nil the Tiefling and Madran the wizard felt feverish and sickly and needed to be helped onto their carts.
Their journey was thankfully uneventful and by late afternoon, They passed over a ridge and found themselves gazing down into a shallow valley. At the base of a hill at one end of the valley lay a small, walled town overlooked by an old stone castle. Smoke and steam rose into the air from the rooftops. They had reached St Malo. Around the town were pitched hundreds and hundreds of tents of all shapes, sizes, materials, quality and colours. The masses had arrived from all over the Empire for the famous St Malo chariot races.