On the 10th of the Mid of Spring, 520 AC
The morning comes, and an overcast one it is, as Geesje Van Kuipers, Fullica Atra, Jorik, Skal Dreissel and Zeru Otxoa meet at the departure point of the Grey Wolf Coach Company in the Traadsvecht district; it is a cold morning about 8 when they climb aboard the 6 seater coach after stowing their light luggage and make the acquaintance of the coachman and the coach-guard, Barnabus and Olli respectively. Once all is ready, the coach sets off, jingling its way towards the main city gates and out, immediately taking the route south that leads towards their coastal destination. It’s expected to be a journey of about 2-2 and a half hours depending, and the rattling jingle of harness and carriage accompanies them.
They are travelling a little over an hour, with the chill mists from the sea (which is never more than a mile away to their west and often a lot closer) enshrouding the empty road and view around them to visibility barely above 30 feet and sometimes less, when the speaking trap is opened leading to the coachman and Olli calls down that they can see a small cart off the road to the left, and advise they are obliged to stop and investigate (rules of the road and all). The 4 horses drawing the carriage come to a stop and Barnabus and Olli peer about looking for signs of trouble, the latter’s blunderbuss held ready in case of mischief. The party, rarely ones to shrink back from danger or curiosity, decide to investigate with Skal, Jorik and Zeru leaving the carriage by the left door and Geesje the right; she starts circling around as silent as the mist as the others move carefully forward, now accompanied by Barnabus, as Fullica remains for now inside the coach.
Geesje finds tracks of the small cart having plowed at speed off the road towards its current position, and the others discover that the mule that drew the cart is dead in its harness, and also see the apparent body of a man beyond the cart. They draw closer, and see it is a brightly coloured tinkers cart, a light 2 wheel affair likely carrying a single person plus their cargo. They approach further and see the mule was slain by a single blow to its side, likely a sword, and as they come around the cart, they see the body of the apparent former driver; he lies on his back, clad in hard wearing clothes, and despite being decapitated, shows little sign of blood about the scene and also, after carefully searching, no head.
Inspection of the body by Jorik shows that the blow that killed the man was likely the one that removed the head, in a strike often associated with that of a cavalryman; he bears no other injury. The wound seemed to have been cauterised by extreme cold, and even now, it is still very cold to the touch. Fullica decides to investigate and takes a sample, and both she and Jorik agree the man has been dead for about 2 days. Robbery seems not to have been the motive for the tinkers wares and coin are untouched. Given that they are about an hour or so from Duiksbraal, it is decided that the tinkers cart be hitched to the back of the coach with the wrapped body of the tinker; his only identification seems to be a wedding band, and a small simple locket with a picture of a woman and child within, saying “To Rognval, from Elisse”.
What becomes apparent is that the only tracks found are of the tinker, his mule and his cart; whomever killed him has left no tracks at all. Fullica immediately thinks the worst and is first to suggest the work of the Undead, and not many amongst their party disagree. At that, they continue on towards their destination.
Sure enough, after an hour or more the rise and fall of the coastal road sweeps down to within half a mile of the shore, and the over a small stone bridge crossing a river flowing west lies a township, wreathed in seamist. A small fishing village lies on the coast at the mouth of the river, with what appears to be 3 dogger type fishing boats drawn up on the beach, and the forest to the east appears deep, dark and forbidding. The coach rumbles over the bridge, and the river (15 feet to 20 feet wide on average) rushes below the stone structure. The coach clatters along the cobbled main street, regarded with interest by the locals as they go about their business, and the coach stops outside a travelling inn named The Speckled Hen; so, the party arrive in The Township of Duiksbraal. Barnabus, obviously known to the stablehands who come out to greet him, deflects questions about the tinkers cart deftly, and tells the party that he is obliged by law to tell the Bailiff (the local law in the township), and accompanied by Jorik and Skal, heads towards the large townhall in the centre of the village. The rest make the acquaintance of Largo Dijkstra, the mutton-chopped and large built landlord of the Hen. He bustles them inside to the warmth of the fire and sees to their comforts.
The looks the other 3 get on the way to the Bailiff are mixed, as Barnabus says hello to some and ignores others, and whilst Jorik feels scrutinised as a Non Afiliated clergyman in this Heart churched township, the looks Skal gets as an undoubted barbarian are more obvious, though something in their familiar reception makes both Skal and Jorik think that Skal is not the first such to be encountered. Barnabus warns them that Bailiff Kres Megruun is not a nice man and is a bully who owes his position and wealth to the Vennikur of the township, Lord Korsin Maas. The Mayor, Cheyne Higsvoort, is not much better he advises.
Inside the town hall, Barnabus makes his way towards a burly well dressed man who is armed with a sword and a sap, and both Jorik and Skal take an immediate dislike to the man, and he to them it seems. Barnabus tells Kres to follow him and they all head back to the tinkers cart, where it is noted by the 2 heroes that the Bailiff doesn’t seem surprised by the headless tinker, and in fact note a degree of fatalistic annoyance and concern in his countenance. The cart is packed off to a more private area, and the Bailiff advises the heroes and Barnabus that as witnesses, they must not leave the township; at that, the man stalks off to meet the Mayor. Barnabus says that something seems up, and he shall ask around for more information. Skal and Jorik head inside to the warmth of the Speckled Hen, and find the others sampling the fine beer of the establishment and tucking into some warm foodstuffs.
Surprisingly, Largo addresses Geesje, asking if she is named Van Kuypers, and when she agrees, he advises her that she has been expected, certainly by the Bailiff and Mayor. He asks her if she (or her kin) is going to become the new Ven, and when she says possibly, the feeling of relief and approval is obvious to all at the table. Geesje and Largo talk, and from him she learns that there has been a murder a few days ago, of a local woodcutter (beheaded no less!) and the disappearance overnight of 2 local sweethearts, Suzanna Straahn and Henrik Lerxman. It also becomes apparent that Lord Maas is held in poor regard by some in the town, certainly Largo. Largo also asks Skal if he is related to Kronj Saltax, and when Skal shrugs, and says no, Largo begs an apology, though Skal learns that there is what seems to be an Amarkachan living in the fishing settlement to the west, having married into the Kretschmann fisherfolk. Largo begs his leave of Geesje, wishing her the best, and proceeds upstairs to ready rooms for the travellers, accompanied by Jorik. Largo tells Jorik of the unpleasant Reverend-Brother of the village, one Reverend Kerman Vibiutz and his shrewish wife.
Skal decides to head off to see this Kronj for himself, and watched by wary and thoroughly disapproving townsfolk, walks along the small track that follows the river half a mile towards the collection of buildings and houses at the shoreline. As he approaches along the mist wreathed path, he spies a figure just outside the small settlement, one who appears to be watching his approach whilst sitting on a tree stump, with a scruffy mongrel at their side, nose on paws. He gets closer and feels the scrutiny as he does, and as he nears, is greeted by a strong but young female voice, who greets him warily; so he meets Nemue Saltax. They talk, with him explaining his purpose, and after a few exchanges, realises that he is speaking Amarkachan with her, the first such conversation he has had in many years. She stands, showing more of her face from under her hooded cloak, and whilst she undoubtedly has Amarkachan heritage, also shows signs of being Heidelen as well. She leads him through the small settlement towards one of the boats being careened, and he feels the eyes of other half Amarkachan youngsters in their teens and early 20’s, 6 in all counting Nemue; from all but her, he feels the familiar suppressed Rage and tension that he himself lives with, and as he looks up to the 2 figures on the boat, sees what is surely the father of the brood, and so he meets the hulking and menacing form of Kronj Saltax. The others in the area, the Kretschmann families (who Skal had been told were related by marriage to the barbarian) watch interested as Nemue introduces Skal to her father, using Amarkachan. The older man drops easily down to the ground and walks up to Skal, looking him square in the eye (not many can, for he is built in a similar manner to the young lad), and tersely invites him into the family home to talk about “local stuff”.
Nemue follows and the 3 enter the rowdy and busy household of the Saltax hearth, where Kronj’s Heidelen wife Talia (sister to Tommas, the smaller man he was with outside) is busy with a horde of children, dogs and other assorted Kretschmanns and Saltax’s. Nemue sits nearby watching as Skal and Kronj sit down and talk over some home brewed whisky (not bad a drop Skal thinks). Kronj’s response to news that Skals friend Geesje and her family may become the new Ven is to plainly ask if she is “a c*nt”, and when told she is not, seems satisfied (his opinion of Lord Maas and his underlings is similarly rude and forthright). He knows of the missing youngsters and the dead woodsman, and the fact that the woodsmans death does not seem natural, before telling Skal to watch out for the waters, for he and his kin on their boat at sea a week past saw a great rotting warship drifting through the sea mist, a ship that should not be able to float, and with the most fearful stench of death, rot and the sea about it. Kronj tells of the rise of the Draugr, the Undead of those lost at sea, and that anyone along the coast must beware, for they are threat known to the people of the north, and not to be taken lightly. The older barbarian exchanges a look with Nemue and makes an offer that if things in the town “get bad” for any reason, Skal and his band can take refuge with the fisherfolk. Lastly and most importantly, he suggests that the party may wish to seek out the hermit of the woods, one Sirene Valahinnin, for she is wise, sees much and may well know what goes on the forests. He does warn though that she is unusual, and if any in Skals company bring down the curiosity or attention of the Inquisition (Oh the irony) upon her, he, his kin and most importantly Sirene are vengeful and have a long reach. Skal nods, and takes his leave, escorted out by Nemue.
She sees him to the outskirts of the fisherfolks settlement and resumes her patient watch with her dog at the tree stump, bidding Skal a farewell. He heads back to brief the others on what he has found. The party listen when he arrives back and relates what he has learned, and deciding that there is no time like the present (for Jorik declares he is honour-bound to try and solve what besets this village, and Skal concurs, to the clergymans undoubted approval), decide to head north over the bridge and strike eastwards into the dark and thick forest to seek out this forest hermit (she lives north of the river in the forest somewhere). The way into the forest is tricky with small animal trails being the only way yo proceed, but Geesje and Skal at the front find a good path to follow. Oddly, they miss some tracks, and it is for Zeru to find a heavy small footprint in the mud and some strands of golden hair in some bushes. They follow the trail, and arrive at a dreadful sight, for within 60 feet of the river and in a small clearing they encounter the headless body of a young woman or girl, face down so to speak. Jorik investigates the body, administering last rites of the fallen, and notes that the same wound type as the tinker is in evidence, and the neck is sealed by the cold rime. Deciding that being the people to find 2 headless bodies in one day might seem suspicious, they backtrack with Geesje hiding their presence.
They track back where she ran from, and come to another small clearing, with the sad sight of a headless body, that of a young lad, dagger still clutched in dead hand, lying on his back. It appears, judging by the tracks of the pair, that the young lad showed incredible bravery to try and buy the girl time to flee, though ultimately a failed gesture. They depart as they did from the girls body, after Jorik performs the rites and Geesje covers their tracks. In sombre and sad silence they continue their way eastwards into the dense forest, noting that there is no animal noise or evidence about, like the creatures are in hiding and scared to appear. It’s at this point that they note an Owl sitting on a branch ahead of them, watching them with frank regard. They watch it and consider its presence, and Skal surmises that it may be something to do with the woman they seek. As they ponder his thoughts, the owl suddenly looks sharply north, its ears twitching, and Geesje thinks she hears what sounds like the distant whicker of a horse, though one that sounds wrong to her somehow. The owl looks back quickly to them, and back north again, before hopping back onto another branch along the trail. It does this a few times, and the party follow slowly, though they pick up the pace a little when the sound of the mysterious horse in the forest is heard again by all of them, and all agree there is something unnatural at work here.
They hustle along the path, following the owl above, when they hear the sounds behind them of heavy, oddly echoing horsebeats; Fullica and Jorik are at the back, and Fullica dares a quick look behind her, and what she sees chills her, and encourages her to instruct the others to run for all they are worth. The party run as fast as they can along this path, with the alarming sound of heavy horse hooves beating behind them, and as the sound gains closer and closer, they suddenly seem to cross some kind of boundary into an area of quiet, and all turn to see what pursues them.
The galloping sight charging towards them is of nightmares, as a heavy warhorse in light barding, black as night with dully glowing eyes like coals charges towards them, but it is the horrifying sight of the horseman, his heavy armour gleaming dully in the forest gloom, his long cavalry sword with a coldly flickering glitter along its blade held up in classic attack stance, and the lack of a head on his shoulders that causes all to feel a terror they had not thought possible to feel after all they have experienced; furthermore, the trees and bushes seem to recoil from the terrible thing, allowing the apparition ease to move through the dense undergrowth. Only Fullica keeps her wits about her in the panic as they are all rooted to the spot, and then suddenly, almost upon them, the horse and rider dissipate into smoky mist and vanish, leaving them all wondering what just happened.
As their senses return, Skal surmises that they may be near to where Sirene is, and they all draw deep breaths as they look about their surroundings…