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The Caverns of Safehaven (Prologue II)


PROLOGUE II

Now

Excerpt from The Hero’s Guild Civic Guidebook 244th Edition, edited by Guild Archivist Master Tivas Kusheri

SAFEHAVEN

Although Safehaven’s primary importance is as a seaport, its place on the land-based trade routes should not be understated. Caravans laden with wares from the mines of Silverwood, the grain fields and orchards of Shile Keep and the artisans of Ekoningsberg enter the town on a daily basis, particularly during the winter months which are known in the town as “the caravan season.”

Although the sea route is generally preferable as being faster and less arduous, the Sea of Storms during the winter months gives even the most seasoned mariners pause. The proximity to Ur Bathog to Safehaven gives additional pause; ships blown off course by one of the season’s frequent storms can end up wrecking on the sulphurous crags of the Ur Bathog shoreline. The survival chances of that unfortunate crew are generally very slim.

That is not to say that the land route isn’t without its own perils. The Hills of Westmarch, which surround Savehaven on all sides, are a wild and dangerous place, and wise is the traveler who is on his guard while passing through them. Antlions, griffins, murder trees, shamblers, syrinx, blink dogs, kobolds and orcs are common in the Westmarch, and there are even more rare and esoteric creatures that have been sighted in the Hills (see the Hero’s Guild Regional Guide for more on the Hills of Westmarch).

The Guild maintains a lucrative trade in protecting caravans passing through the Westmarch year round. Land-based trade routes are well marked; although not officially King’s Roads, the trails traveled by hundreds of caravans a year can be easily followed, and in general, are not frequented by dangerous creatures. However, shortages of food and water brought on by disasters natural and otherwise can bring desperate creatures to the trails to make easy prey of unwary travelers.

                                    *                                               *                                               *

            The caravan moved slowly in the rolling hills of Westmarch. The still summer air was oppressive, and hardly a breath of wind was to be had. The dust kicked up by oxen, horses, wagons and men became a cloud that went nowhere, from the caravan’s point of view, getting in the eyes and mouths of cursing teamsters and warriors alike. The Heroes Guild had been contracted to supply two guards for the caravan, which considering its size and the amount of goods it carried was far substandard. The wealthy Shilean merchant who had assembled the caravan was known to be penurious rather than thrifty. Giles Morvern, a veteran Guild journeyman, snapped a bite of salt beef into his mouth and instantly regretted it. The dust covered the food as well.

            Giles had made more than 50 of these trips on Guild business with caravans along this specific route. Reliable and dependable; these words applied to Giles Morvern without a doubt, although the word imagination certainly didn’t. A compact, ham-fisted man nearly as brawny as some of the Teamsters, his father had run an alehouse in Angel Keep. As a youth, Giles realized that carrying kegs of brew from the cellar to the bar was no life for him, so he had left home and made his way to Torian, where he became a Guild apprentice. That was, what now, 30 years ago? He grunted. Giles Morvern was not a man given to reflection and reliving the past, but there was little else to do. In high summer, the trade route was generally left alone by anything dangerous, and the caravan was far too large to be the target of banditry, unless said bandits had an army large enough to invade Shile itself, in which case the King had larger problems than he thought. Giles grinned at that.

            He had shown aptitude as a boy, fighting bravely and well when the needs arose. However, he had little ability to lead men, so it was the opinion of many, including Giles himself, that he would never rise through the ranks of the Guild to become a steward, although truth be told, he would dearly have loved to be. However, Giles wasn’t the kind of man to dwell on the things he couldn’t accomplish, so he was content as a popular choice among merchants to guard their caravans. He made a decent enough living at it, and figured that another ten years if all things went well would see him retired to a nice country home near Angel Keep. Every caravan he shepherded through would add more gold to his retirement account, as he called it. Many Guildsmen spent their hard-earned gold on frivolous things, but Giles only spent what he needed to live on when he was in between caravans, which wasn’t very often. Four, five, sometimes six caravans a year made for a very rewarding career, financially speaking.

            For this trip, the Guild had allotted him an extra half-share to shepherd an apprentice through his first Guild mission. Morvern glanced at the youth on the grey roan ahead and to his right. Part of a journeyman’s responsibilities was to train apprentices on missions deemed safe enough for them to attempt. He had already seen his share of wet-behind-the-ears, snot-nosed apprentices before, but this one was a different kettle of stew. He called himself Tristan Scarborough and was what Giles liked to call a “pretty boy,” not in a kindly way. Tristan was handsome enough, with jet-black hair, brown eyes and a charming smile. Although not as muscular as the road-hardened journeyman, he was muscular enough for his age and taller by a good margin (Morvern stood at a squat 5’6”; the boy easily topped six feet).

            The boy was friendly enough, and seemed to have all the tools, but had a bad case of nerves. Although he seemed well-trained, he was woefully unprepared for the practical aspects of the life of a caravanserai, which is how the members of the caravan referred to themselves. The first day out of Shile, he had been talking a mile a minute, but had carelessly thrown his bedroll on a nest of night stingers, which Morvern had not mentioned to the lad to look out for. The journeyman had to admit; the boy had been more about listening rather than talking ever since.

            The apprentice was also all thumbs when it came to making a fire, although Giles had to give the lad credit for persevering until the job was done. Last night, the boy had sneezed loudly just as Morvern had loosed an arrow at a magnificent stag, which was why he was gnawing today on tough, dusty salt beef instead of enjoying a belly full of venison. He also had to admit that the boy had given Morvern his own rations to make up for his blunder. The older man had almost declined, but then decided an empty belly at breakfast might do the lad some good. Hunger can make a quick study out of the slow-witted, his father had said. Giles had seen enough of the world to know it was true.

            Ah, Hell take all apprentices and right quick about it too, Morvern thought to himself as he spit out a gobful of sandy grit he had nearly swallowed along with his salt beef. For all the extra gold that the Guild paid for wet nursing young pups through the wilderness, it wasn’t worth it. Morvern preferred working with veteran teams; at least they had road stories to swap. This kid couldn’t even remember his own childhood, by Eidoron’s beard!

            Morvern took another gritty bite of salt beef, wiping off the dust as best he could before biting into it, then mopped his brow with a bandana he always wore on the trail in summertime. It was nearly autumn and the nights would grow noticeably cooler shortly, but this year had been unseasonably hot, like high summer instead of season’s end. Some of the watering holes the caravan used along the route were dangerously low, and Giles knew that if the rains of Ninemonth didn’t arrive soon, the land trade route would become nearly impossible to travel without a wizard’s aid, and a right good one at that. Giles, like all Guild journeyman, knew some rudimentary protection, translation and healing spells, and could work simple magic items if need be (Giles had hidden among his belongings a charm that cured minor wounds). However, it took a highly skilled mage to make water in the wilderness.

            At the sound of a familiar sneeze beside him, Giles considered the boy once more. Actually, he wasn’t as bad as most Giles had encountered in thirty years of service. He was eager enough to learn from Giles’ experience, and if he was green, well, everyone had to start somewhere. Giles remembered back to his own days as an apprentice and shuddered at some of the mistakes he had made. He’d gotten his own fool hide in trouble, sometimes nearly lethal trouble. Most of the worst trouble he’d gotten into was through thinking he knew better than those who had worked in the business for years. Ahh, what the hell. His face was caked with dust and streaked with sweat and the hot weather always made him irritable. Give him the cool winter caravans any time. He turned to the boy, noticing that the boy wore clothes more suitable for colder climates. He recalled that the boy had thought he was from theNorthern provinces. Probably not used to Southern weather, he mused.

            Giles gestured at the horizon in front of them. “See anything dangerous, boy?” The apprentice gazed intently at the landscape for a few moments. The sky was empty, save for some distant birds circling some far-off carrion to the east. The grassland was a bit hilly, but the view was several miles in all directions. Only a few gnarled trees in the direction they were headed (southwest) marred the endless vista of dry grass and dust, although a green line just on the edge of sight indicated they were coming to a tree line past the small thicket. Nothing moved in themiddayheat save the caravan and the far-off birds.Scarboroughturned back to his mentor. “You mean, besides you?”

            Giles chuckled at that. The boy was charming in his own way. “Yes, besides me. Tell me what you see, but tell me what you think, too.” The boy gave him a lop-sided grin. They’d played this game before. “Well, past that thicket of trees there appears to be a tree line of a sizable forest. Bandits could be hiding there. The carrion birds to the east means there’s probably a predator in the neighborhood. The terrain is hilly, so bandits or other things could be hidden by the terrain as well as the forest.” Giles nodded. Nobody could say the boy wasn’t sharp. “Anything else?” asked the journeyman. After a few minutes, the apprentice shook his head. “It’s always the things you can’t see that are the most dangerous, right?” asked the young man. Giles smiled again, a truly terrifying thing to behold. “You have the right of that, boy,” he said.

            The veteran got serious, gesturing at the horizon. “You know, I’ve asked more than a few apprentices the same question at about this very spot. You’ve done better than most. Tis true, bandits may be hiding where you say, but most bandits would think twice before taking on a caravan of this size.” Giles gestured to a boggy patch to the west of them. “See that wet patch there? Bogs in the Westmarch tend to hide quicksand and drowning holes. Stray too far from the trail and nobody would ever find a trace o’ you, lad.” He gestured at the gnarled thicket. “Still, it’s those trees you have to worry about the most. Them’s murder trees. Their roots and branches grab you, and then they pull you into their maws where you slowly digest. Horrible way to die. It’s probably one of them that the vultures are circling. Murder trees leave enough time for a carrion eater to take a quick snack, if they’re quick about it. If not, well, there’s always plenty of room in the maw for a buzzard or two.”

            They had reached the thicket now, and were passing by it. Above, the vultures had disappeared, probably to feast on whatever carcass they had been circling. There was a moment when Giles registered that he heard no sound of birds or insects, just before he heard a terrified scream from his mount, which had started to bolt. Something exploded from the thicket beside them and to his surprise, Giles was suddenly on the ground,Scarboroughon top of him and something HUGE whizzed above him, where his head had been moments before. “GRIFFINS!!!!!” shouted the apprentice, who scrambled to his feet, removing a crossbow from behind his shoulder. In a fluid motion,Scarboroughdrew an iron bolt, loaded it into his bow, aimed and fired. The bolt sizzled through the air and plunked into the griffin’s eye. Squawking angrily, it fell to the ground, clawing frantically at the bolt in its eye.

            Giles scrambled slowly to his feet. Three other griffins besides the wounded one on the ground were buzzing around the caravan. Scarboroughhad calmly loaded a second bolt into the crossbow and launched it at the nearest of the two griffins, but this time the monster swatted it from the air with a great leonine paw. Scarboroughhad by then loaded a third bolt and launched it at the third griffin. This one hit true, in the soft underside of its jaw. Screaming, the bird-lion hybrid fell from the sky and landed awkwardly on the ground. It kicked a few times, then collapsed motionless. The boy killed a griffin thought Giles in wonder. The disturbing but griffins NEVER hunt in packs was shoved violently to the back of his mind for later consideration.

            The journeyman took a quick glance at the rest of the caravan. Teamsters were struggling to maintain control over terrified horses, oxen and mules. Frightened merchants were scrambling for cover inside wagons that would be shredded into matchsticks at the claws of even a single griffin. “STAY ON THE ROAD,” bellowed Giles at a handful of panic-stricken men running for the thicket, “THAT’S WHERE THEY NEST!!!!” The men stopped dead in their tracks at the warrior’s shout and seeing nowhere to hide threw themselves flat on the ground. First smart thing they’ve done, thought Giles as he heard a mule screaming behind him as a griffin tore it apart. The coppery smell of blood filled the air, along with the fetid smell of griffin. The creatures seemed driven to greater fury by the smell of blood.

            Cheap bastard didn’t even supply a god’s damned wizard, thought Giles. We’d be out of this fix if he’d had. Giles unbundled his cudgel, dropping it on the ground. The hard wooden cudgel, dense enough to split a man’s skull, would have no effect on the magically endowed griffins. The journeyman drew his iron battleaxe instead, knowing that if one of the creatures came close enough to use it he would almost certainly die anyway.

            The roar of a griffin distracted him and he noticed one streaking like a missile straight for the apprentice. Tristan was busy loosing another bolt at the one he had wounded earlier. It plunked into the other eye and this time had gone straight into the creature’s brain. It died almost instantly. The boy turned at Giles warning shout. There was no time to load another bolt, so the boy coolly dropped his crossbow, drew his broadsword and with a fierce yell, charged the griffin. At the last possible moment, the youth changed his direction and drove the blade into the only place he could, between the heavily armored throat plating and its beak, through the soft tissue, through its mouth and into it’s brain. It was dead before the scream was done.

            The last remaining griffin turned its attention away from its feast and let loose a terrible cry of fury. It took off into the sky, wings beating the air and creating a small windstorm on the ground. Oh crap, thought Giles, it sees the boy has killed its mate. Scarborough, evidently unnerved, took off at a dead run for the gnarled trees whose branches waved lazily, despite the lack of a breeze. Giles cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed at the top of his lungs “NO SCARBOROUGH!!! STAY AWAY FROM THE MURDER TREES!!!!” but the panic-stricken youth couldn’t or didn’t hear. The griffin dive-bombed the apprentice, who dodged but was raked by the grief-crazed monster’s claws. The griffin returned to the air, circled, and made another run at the boy, who continued to make for the thicket. This time, the lad was knocked full to the ground, and when he tumbled back up, Giles could see that he was bleeding in several places. A cold pit of dread opened in Giles’ stomach and he knew that the monster was just toying with the human, who was coming dangerously close to the murder trees. Giles almost wished for the griffin to finish him off.

            The veteran warrior started running towardsScarborough, having pulled the boy’s blade from the dead griffin, but he knew he would never make it in time. Even at his best, adrenaline surging as it was now, Giles was not a speedy man. He saw the boy and the griffin locked in mortal combat, the claws of the beast ripping at the boy, wings beating, its jaws snapping for Scarborough’s neck. In desperation, the young apprentice raked the eyes of the beast who howled in pain. Tristan broke free and ran full-out, straight for the writhing roots and branches of the murder tree.

            Screaming, the griffin took off, flying like a bolt of lightning for the fleeing boy. Suddenly, at the last possible moment, the apprentice flung himself to the ground just a foot in front of the reach of the murder tree. The griffin was going much too fast to stop. It flew smack into the grasp of the living tree. The branches immediately wrapped themselves around the wings and limbs of the griffin. Roaring, it fought its own battle for survival, but slowly, inexorably, it would be drawn to the maw of the superior predator. The attack on the caravan had tired the griffin, and the tree had full control of it.

            Giles ran up to the boy, who was on all fours, gasping for breath. “Are you all right son?” asked the journeyman breathlessly, real concern in his voice. The apprentice nodded, too winded to speak. He stood up after a few moments, then gestured at the sword. Wordlessly, Giles handed it to him. The boy then strode over to the tree, purpose in his steps.

            The griffin was completely immobilized now, the defiant roars stilled by the poison in the tree’s sap, which it was injecting into it’s captured prey. The griffin knew death was upon it, but still it fought as best it could against the tree.Scarboroughwalked up to the ensnared griffin. For a moment, the two locked eyes. Then,Scarboroughraised his sword. The griffin roared one final time. The blade descended and sheared the griffin’s head completely off. Without a word,Scarboroughturned and walked away as a few stray roots began to quest tentatively towards him. The tree was far too occupied with the much larger griffin to payScarboroughmuch attention.

            The apprentice walked past Giles without saying anything. The older man turned and hurried to catch up to the younger one. “Why?” asked Giles.Scarborough’s usually cheerful demeanor had been replaced by a serious, somber mien. Tristan turned to Giles, his eyes filled with emotion. “Nothing should die that way, Giles. Digested by a tree. The griffin was just desperate for food, otherwise it would never have attacked a caravan this size. It was just trying to survive, same as us.” Giles nodded. They walked back to the caravan in silence.

            The damage was surprisingly light. Only the one mule had been killed during the attack, and one of the teamsters had broken an arm in the fight to settle his beasts.Scarboroughhad several deep gashes, but his chain armor had absorbed a lot of the griffin’s fury. That night, when they encamped, Giles dug out his charm and healed the boy’s wounds as best he could. The others he bandaged. Later, he would cut off the paws of the three griffins that lay in the fields near where the caravan camped, leaving the rest for the vultures and other carrion eaters. He wasn’t about to see if he could brave the murder tree for the fourth’s paw.

            The rest of the trip to Safehaven was uneventful, but Morvern couldn’t get the difference between Scarborough the fumbling green apprentice and the calm, cool warrior who had killed four griffins. He had made many a report to the Guild about an apprentice under his jurisdiction, but this one would be something else entirely.

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