Among the Thorns: A Sylvangarde Tale
Drell shifted his position atop the large rock upon which he sat, watching the sun rise through a break in the trees. Mountains, he knew, lay off to the east, but were too far away to be seen at this distance. The hills that dotted the river valleys east of the forest provided a perhaps less impressive panorama, but they would have to suffice. They’d camped next to a stream that eventually fed into the Skunk River, and it afforded just enough space between the trees on either side to catch a rather nice glimpse of the first rays of dawn.
It was early spring, and still chilly enough in the early morning to be slightly unpleasant, but Drell and his companion were long used to camping in all manner of weather or season. He spared a glance back to the fire at the noise of said companion making a most un-woodsman-like racket while attempting to have breakfast. Bjorn, a big, shaggy, Ulfen fellow, was perhaps not the most cultured citizen of the relatively new territory of Sylvangarde, but then again, Drell reflected, neither was he.
The two of them—-loud, cocky, and brash Bjorn, and quiet, observant Drell—-had been friends for nearly five years now, ever since they had first met after each had hit rock bottom and subsequently fallen in with the same bandit gang. Given everything that had happened since that long-ago day, it was frankly amazing that they were both still alive. Until relatively recently, nobody from either Brevoy or the River Kingdoms had bothered to police the Stolen Lands, the wilderness between the two, so thus while banditry had never been the world’s safest profession, their little group had generally worried more about the land itself trying to kill them. For whatever reason, the region known as the Greenbelt was home to a thriving ecosystem that included a large number of fey creatures and other inhuman monsters, making it incredibly hostile to human intrusion or settlement.
Some of the bandits had dealt with living in such an environment better than others. Most tried to stay out from under the trees of the Narlmarches as much as possible, preferring to range near the river route to New Stetven where marks were more plentiful. Others, like Drell, were more comfortable among the trees, and were not as susceptible to the superstitious paranoia that claimed the forest was bewitched. Over time, Drell had formed the private opinion that the forest, though perhaps not bewitched, was to an extent aware, and had certain, definite opinions concerning the kinds of people it allowed beneath its branches. He did not think it coincidence that some of the cruelest and most destructive bandits he’d known had simply disappeared, to be found under grisly circumstances, or not at all. To Drell, the message was clear: you’re a guest, so be respectful.
And now, Drell was testing the patience of that same forest, for he and Bjorn had come this far into the formerly pristine wood as the advance scouts of a logging operation. They had, of course, heard plenty of stories about the very first forays of loggers from the newly-formed Sylvangarde into the forest; fey generally are none too keen on “big folk” showing up unannounced to clear-cut their homes, and they responded fairly predictably with large-scale harassment of the workers, ranging from harmless practical jokes to complete mental domination. Everyone had dreaded the anticipated conflict, but somehow Sylvangarde’s young “lord mayor” had managed to defuse it before it had the chance to fully erupt. Now, the local logging companies consulted with fey representatives to ensure that no “sacred” patches of the woodlands were violated, and an odd working truce had developed.
Which made Drell feel no less nervous about carrying an axe so conspicuously through a virgin stretch of fey-inhabited forest, particularly this close to the edge of Sylvangarde’s current established borders.
“Call me crazy,” Bjorn’s voice called from the firepit, “but seems t’me we’re a bit far afield out here.”
“Are you putting mead in your coffee?” Drell asked in reply.
“Just giving it some flavor,” Bjorn stated cheerily as he prodded the bacon frying in the pan. “But really, aren’t we going a bit farther than we were supposed to?”
Drell regarded the big, blonde, bearded man huddling near the fire with thoughtful amusement.
“Well, yes,” he said, “I suppose we are. But you know as well as I do that operations are eventually going to be pushed farther out, especially since Tatzlford was incorporated into Sylvangarde.”
Bjorn grunted. “And since when are we so proactive? These little kingdoms never last out here, and you know it. Why are we going out on a limb for one of them now? Maybe you’re just trying to get away from the wife?” He chuckled at his own joke.
“Not at all,” Drell said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to be away from her any more than I have to, not when she’s this far along.” He sighed. “But to be perfectly honest, I was hoping to find some willows out here. Katriana’s having some difficulties, and the midwife is running low on willow bark coming off this last winter, so…”
“And you just knew that I’d be thrilled to tromp with you through an endless, frigid, freakish forest that smells of fairy magic and unicorn shit, didn’t you? Especially when I’m not being paid for it.”
“I knew you’d bitch about it, but that was a risk I was willing to take. It’s been three days, and we haven’t found a single troll or tatzlwyrm, so I don’t see that you have a lot to complain about.”
“It’s still cold.”
Drell laughed. “Drink some more mead, then. That’ll warm you up.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
“Anyway, I figure we’ll push upstream a bit farther today, and if we don’t find anything, then we’ll start back.”
“Fine. You owe me a jug of Mikmead when we get back.”
Drell grinned. Bjorn hadn’t changed at all over the years. He was never particularly malicious, for a bandit, but he enjoyed the camaraderie, the booze, and the occasional opportunity to knock some heads for fun and profit. When the so-called “Stag Lord” had taken over the local bandit groups and set out to rule the land with an iron fist, Bjorn hadn’t much cared for the notion. In fact, he had so disliked the idea of being under the Stag Lord’s thumb that he willingly took part in the long forest patrols, despite having a strong, superstitious dislike of its fey-haunted depths. That had the added benefit of ensuring that both he and Drell were far from the action when the Stag Lord got himself taken out.
Drell continued to think about it after they’d struck camp and set forth, and curiosity compelled him to ask, “Do you ever miss the bandit life, Bjorn?”
Bjorn snorted contemptuously. “Not really. Being a lumberjack isn’t as exciting, but it pays better. Got kinda boring beating up on old women and scrawny farmers, anyway. Why?”
“No reason. Just curious. Figured you might resent settling down just a little bit.”
“Ha! Settling down? I’m not the one that got married!”
“Fair enough,” Drell chuckled. “Just thinking about everything that’s happened in the past couple years. I guess we got pretty lucky, all things considered. Most of the others we ran with back then were either killed outright or ended up working in that mine they set up. You, me, and Katriana managed to settle in without the new management suspecting. And to be honest, I’m actually hoping that this settlement manages to stick around. I never wanted to spend my life sneaking around in the brush, and now that I’ve got a family to provide for…”
“Yeah, I guess I know what you mean. Mind you, I’m not about to give up on the drinking and the bar brawls just yet, but I’m just as happy to have actual, civilized bars to drink and fight in. Then again, I could do without all the fairy pranks. And do you know, I’ve started seeing kobolds walking around town, plain as day?”
“It has been strange living around here, but you have to admit—-” Drell suddenly looked up attentively. “Did you hear that?”
They listened, and in seconds the faint sound came from farther upstream.
“That sounded like a woman screaming,” Drell observed tensely.
Bjorn looked skeptical. “Who’d be out this far? Maybe it’s some fairy creature, trying to lure us to our deaths.”
“It’s still early enough in the spring that some people have to go pretty far abroad to gather herbs and such, so it’s not impossible.”
“You want to go haring off into the woods after a scream and get eaten alive by monsters, that’s your business; don’t drag me into it.”
Drell shrugged. “Fine. Maybe it is a fairy trap. Or maybe I’ll have a nice, brisk fight with a badger just out of hibernation, and save the poor, sweet, frightened, young girl who will ever so grateful, but, alas, she cannot properly thank me, because I’m spoken for. Why, if only some mighty, strapping, bachelor were nearby to—”
“Alright! Enough! If you’re fool enough to run into danger, then I guess I’m fool enough to follow you. But if you end up bewitched…”
“I’ll never hear the end of it, I know,” Drell said impatiently. “Now let’s get moving. It didn’t sound too far ahead.”
The two made their way through the underbrush along the stream, unstrapping axes from harnesses as they went. They had gone nearly half a mile before saw signs of movement ahead. Drell spotted it first.
“I think I see something,” he said, “but I’m not sure what, exactly. I’d almost swear someone was getting attacked by a bush.”
“A bush?” Bjorn repeated. “I’ve heard of killer plants in these parts. Luckily, we’ve got axes!”
“Now, hold up, we don’t know—”
Another scream filled the clearing, and Bjorn no longer felt a need for caution. He charged forth from the brush, brandishing his axe and yelling at the top of his lungs. What he saw when he came upon the figure under assault amid the clearing was almost enough to give him pause; it looked like a woman, albeit with horns and goat legs, being torn to a bloody mess by what appeared to be a handful of small, angry, doll-sized shrubs wielding pointy sticks as spears.
Bjorn hesitated for a bare moment, but it slowed his assault barely at all, as he aimed a swing at the creature nearest to him. The surprised shrub-thing emitted a squeaky, rasping shriek as the axe-head drove into it and launched it several feet away, though it came immediately upright again, chittering angrily. It and its fellows immediately turned away from their victim to meet the loud, angry human that had appeared in their midst, swarming forward and thrusting at Bjorn with their spears. Bjorn managed to deflect most of them by swatting them away with his axe, though one of the creatures abruptly appeared behind him and stabbed him smartly in the back of his leg.
Bjorn spun around and slashed at the offending mass of animate twigs and vines with a roar, scoring a hit upon it and sending leafy detritus flying. Drell, in the meantime, caught up and came upon the fight at an angle, hacking down upon the creature that Bjorn had struck with his opening blow as it advanced to rejoin the fight. So focused was it upon its initial attacker that it didn’t notice Drell until it was too late, and the axe clove it nearly in two, spilling a pungent, dark green sap-like blood upon the ground.
The horned woman on the ground, covered in blood but still clinging to consciousness, lifted her head and tried to focus on Drell. She rasped a few words to him, and Drell wished that he knew some of the fey tongue, as he couldn’t understand what she was trying to convey. Eager to aid his friend, and trying to overcome his surprise at the strangeness of the encounter (not to mention the figure before him), he managed only to shake his head in frustrated incomprehension. The woman blinked, then turned her gaze to one side, lifting a shaking, bloody arm to point farther upstream, and uttered what Drell was fairly certain was a name.“Rhadani! Tan’ha, laiyo Rhadani!”
It hit him immediately—-she must have a friend who was also in danger! It never occurred to Drell to consider strange the notion that he was now very likely risking his life to aid strange, inhuman fey creatures (against, oddly enough, what appeared to be other strange, inhuman fey creatures). He only nodded sharply to the woman in understanding, and moved as his instincts directed.
“There’s someone else who needs help up ahead!” he yelled to Bjorn. “Just hang tight for a minute!”
“Go, then!” Bjorn roared back, as he swatted at one of the offensive, plant-like creatures. “I’ll join you when I finish this lot!”
Drell wasted no breath on a reply, but sped on out of the clearing and through the brush. He only hoped that it wasn’t far…and that was headed in the right direction; the horned woman pointed off this way, but she’d already lost a lot of blood, so…
Then something glittering near his foot caught his eye. He stopped himself mid-stride and looked down to see yet another strange—-and grisly—-sight: a fairy of some kind, winged and human-looking, but no bigger than his hand, lying still upon the ground, impaled by thorns longer than its arms. Drell’s breath caught in a moment of grief and panic; was this the horned woman’s friend he had hoped to save?
His moment of uncertainty vanished, however, as he heard sounds of a struggle nearby. A panicked woman, or so it sounded, and the chittering of more of those twig-creatures. He ran onward, tripping over rocks and tree roots and crashing through merciless briars before breaking out of the brush and into a small, sunny grove of large, stately-looking trees. At any other time, Drell might have been overcome by quiet, picturesque beauty of the place; at the moment, his gaze fell upon the swarm of five spear-wielding plant creatures that poked, prodded, pulled on and danced around their victim, a creature that could have passed as a human female, if not for her tree bark-like skin and hair of green, cascading leaves. She didn’t appear to be visibly injured, but Drell knew he couldn’t risk letting her continue to be a target.
He leaped forward into the grove, as Bjorn had done, yelling and with axe swinging. He had too much distance to cover to be able to take them by surprise, he knew, but he hoped that they would focus on him and give the fey woman a chance to escape. Within mere moments, his efforts were rewarded, as the momentarily surprised creatures turned angrily upon him. The fey woman, too, turned to regard him with surprise, which turned abruptly to something like fear, then to understanding, and finally to pleading.
“Fire!” she yelled to him. “Fire hurts them!”
Drell blinked, processed the information, and nodded sharply. It was time to change tactics. He feinted forward, yelling and brandishing his axe, just to make sure the little bastards were paying attention. Then he started running. At first, they didn’t appear to follow, but no sooner did he reach the brush than two of them seemingly vanished to reappear out of a large bush beside him. His street-honed reflexes saved him from impaling himself on their spears, and he changed course abruptly. He wasn’t trying to run away, though; as he ran, he fumbled through his hip pouch with his left hand, seeking something he had once doubted he’d ever actually need.
Another of the little creatures exploded out of a bush as he passed nearby, but he had half expected it, and dodged the spear thrust with minimal difficulty. Meanwhile, his hand finally closed about the small, glass vial he’d been seeking…the one he kept just in case he ran into a troll. He pulled the vial of alchemist’s fire free and just managed to unstopper it with his teeth when he looked forward and suddenly realized that one of the creatures had moved ahead, and was waiting for him. Drell skidded to an abrupt stop, wary of surprises, for this little creature wasn’t coming forward to attack with its spear; in fact, its whole body was swelling and rippling…and suddenly, it erupted in a shower of piercing thorns, fanning outward in an arc. Drell had little warning, and not even his own excellent reflexes were enough to completely save him this time. He managed to partially duck behind a nearby tree as the blast came, thorns embedding deeply into the tree’s trunk and sounding like an angry rain as they shredded through young leaves…and punctured his flesh all up and down his left side. Drell grimaced as the shower of projectile briars perforated him like a dire porcupine, and focused all of his attention on applying the vial’s volatile contents to his axe’s blade.
Meanwhile, about fifty yards back, Bjorn still contended with his own remaining opponents. Of the initial four, Drell had killed one before moving ahead, and Bjorn himself had finished off another two, but then three replacements appeared out of nowhere, putting him right back where he’d started. Except he was a little worse for wear at this point, having been stabbed several times already, and bearing the brunt of a sudden explosion of thorns. All things considered, though, he was having a marvelous time; he hadn’t had a fight quite like this in…well, ever. The little bastards didn’t fight fair though, and if they kept popping up behind him like that…
But then suddenly, a loud bellow sounded from the brush on the opposite side of the clearing…and Bjorn blinked momentarily in confusion, for it sounded exactly like his own impromptu war cry from just a minute ago! However it happened, though, it had the extraordinarily helpful effect of startling the little plant creatures, prompting them to turn quickly to meet a threat that never materialized…and leaving them, for a bare moment, distracted and unprepared for the sudden assault from the real threat that still lay behind them. Bjorn wasted no time in exploiting the timely distraction, stepping forward and bringing his axe heavily down upon the creature nearest to him, mangling the unsuspecting thing horribly. Bjorn smile in satisfaction within a fraction of the moment, for he had gauged his opponent’s strength accurately, and angled his strike, knowing he would cut through, and was thus ready to carry the strike’s momentum into an attack on its nearby friend.
Three kills, two stabs, and a partially-avoided spray of thorns later, and Bjorn, bloodied and breathing hard, stood triumphant over what appeared to be seven piles of mangled, sticky, piles of twigs and vines. Bjorn scanned the area, making sure everything was dead that needed to be, and laughed to himself a bit unsteadily. He looked down at himself to survey the damage, wincing inwardly at the dozen or so little thorns that embedded his flesh and itched maddeningly. Those would be a joy in the field, he mused. But for the moment, he simply shrugged (painfully) and put his injuries to the back of his mind; it was time to act like an actual hero.
Bjorn turned his attention to the horned woman, who was still lying prone and watching him unsteadily through eyes that didn’t seem to want to focus. She seemed to look relieved, but that might have been the blood loss. He looked her over; he wasn’t sure if fairy monsters’ bodies worked the same way as human bodies, but to his eyes, she didn’t look too good.
“Hey,” he called to her, “are you gonna be okay, lady?”
She blinked slowly, and Bjorn wasn’t certain if she understood…or had even heard him. But then, still saying nothing, she slowly turned her head in the direction Drell had run off to, and her eyes then came back to Bjorn in an unspoken question.
“Oh,” Bjorn said awkwardly. “Don’t worry, uh, ma’am, I’m sure Drell was able to help your friend over there. He’s a scrawny little punk, but he’s actually pretty good in a fight. Um.” Bjorn shifted uncomfortably. He was never good at talking to women, particularly beautiful women, and certainly not when they also happened to be freaky fairy monsters with horns and hooves; and it definitely did not help that she was also very nude. He could feel the incipient heat of flushed cheeks coming on, and figured he ought to make his exit.
“Well,” he began, “I guess I’d better go and, uh, help my buddy. Kill the things, and…stuff. Um. Yeah.” He turned and started to walk, but surprised himself by stopping in mid-stride. He sighed as he abruptly came to a decision. There was no helping it. He turned back to the bleeding lady/monster, pulling a stoppered glass vial from his pouch.
“Here, lady,” he said, surprising himself with the softness of his tone. “You need this more than I do. Drell will just have to clean up by himself.” He uncorked the healing draught and brought it to the horned woman’s lips.
Drell swung his flaming axe like a madman. He wasn’t as good in a straight-up fight as he was from an ambush position, and he knew it. But he wasn’t doing to badly, all things considered. The plant creatures he fought were sneaky little bastards, but he was pretty sure he had them figured out. For one thing, they’d stopped using their little teleporting-between-bushes trick, and Drell could only speculate that they could only do it so often; for another, one of their favorite tactics seemed to be distracting a target while one or more of them flanked to set up a vicious stab-fest, and once Drell caught onto it, he was able to maneuver in ways that foiled their attempts.
Now, he was down to just two opponents, having already dispatched three in short order; their brittle, twiggy nature did indeed seem to leave them quite vulnerable to flame. One of the remaining two lunged at him with its spear; he deflected it forcefully to one side, and completed the motion by spinning all the way around, aiming his the axe head right for the creature’s middle. He connected with the strike, splitting the little monster with a loud crack and a small sizzle. Four down, one to go…and just then, the fire on Drell’s axe chose just that moment to dissipate.
His final opponent, meanwhile, had timed its attack for precisely the moment in which Drell was preoccupied with cutting down its friend. Drell, sensing the movement to his side, turned to face his last enemy, but was too slow even to bring an arm up to shield his face as the vicious little monster unleashed a final wave of thorn projectiles at point-blank range…or tried to. At the very last moment, the creature suddenly became engulfed in flames, shrieking and whining as it cracked and split in the intense blaze. Drell blinked in surprise, then looked over at the fey woman (still holding magical fire in her hand), and grinned.
“Thanks for the save,” he said, before letting the axe slip from his hand and leaning against a tree to catch his breath.
Over the course of the next few hours, Drell and Bjorn reunited in the grove and spent some time getting to know their newfound friends as they rested and began the laborious process of digging the long, wicked thorns out of their skin. The horned woman, who was now mobile and looking a bit better, turned out to be a faun named Brianthalas, and her friend, Rhodani, was a dryad, and happened to be mistress of the grove in which they now sat. They explained that the little plant monsters that had been harassing them weren’t actually plants, but wicked little fey creatures called “twigjacks,” that were so malicious that even other fey tended to avoid them. Rhodani happened to know some druidic magic (hence the fire throwing), but the twigjacks had caught them by surprise.
“I am somewhat ashamed to admit it,” Rhodani said, “but when you first arrived, my first thought was that you intended to kill all of us. I had heard stories from the forest’s edge that there were new humans nearby who wished to befriend the fey, but it did not believe them, and continued to assume the worst. But you two humans came to our aid, and I can doubt no longer. Whatever happens from here on, we four, at least, shall be friends.”
“We were happy to help,” Drell assured. “I wouldn’t say we’re really ‘good’ humans, and I certainly can’t speak for all others, but it seems Bjorn and I aren’t so awful that we’d let someone suffer while we are able to render aid.”
It was now getting close to evening. Rhodani had a bit of druidic healing magic on hand, and used it liberally to patch up her friends as best she could. Bjorn and Drell were invited to stay for a meal of nuts, berries, and dried radishes and to spend the night in the safety of the grove. They could accept the latter without reservation, as word had spread throughout the wood of the twigjack attack (and the part the humans played in the defense), and a small contingent of Rhodani and Brianthalas’s fey friends dropped by to look in on them. Over a dozen fey creatures, most of which were of varieties that neither Drell nor Bjorn had even heard of, descended upon the grove, bringing with them food and drink, songs and stories, and not least, safety and reassurance.
It was with no small amount of sadness that the two errant lumberjacks made their preparations to leave the following morning. They were still sore and had unhealed wounds that would require further attention, but all of that minor stuff seemed to pale next to having to part with their fantastic new friends. The two men felt certain that not a soul would believe their tale back home, but as it turned out, they’d have a little bit of proof to take back with them. Rhodani and Brianthalas each insisted on giving the men tokens (a necklace of braided willow switches from Rhodani to Drell, and a bead of polished bone for Bjorn’s beard from Brianthalas), which were not simply lovely gifts in their own right, but which would mark them plainly as having earned the favor of the fey.
Additionally, before they parted ways, Rhodani happily bestowed upon Drell what was perhaps an even more significant gift: willow bark, given freely in gratitude by Rhodani’s own bonded willow tree. Drell was nearly moved to tears. He had, of course, explained the night before just what had brought the two of them so far into the woods, but he had been too much in awe of his new fey friends (and too afraid of giving offense) to dare ask for willow bark from the dryad’s own willow grove.
Finally, after many promises to return often for visits, the two humans departed. Drell was eager to return home to Tatzlford, and to hold Katriana in his arms and tell her the whole crazy story. Bjorn, however, was unusually quiet and thoughtful on the journey back, though as far as Drell could tell, he still appeared in good spirits.
They arrived in Tatzlford after three days of pained walking and limping. They arrived, in fact, just in time for Katriana to begin to go into labor. Katriana’s health had not been very good over the winter, and the midwife had expressed concerns about the child’s health signs. It looked to be a difficult birth, one that endangered the lives of both mother and child, and worry clouded the faces of friends and neighbors who stood a respectful distance apart, but who couldn’t bring themselves to stay away.
But as it turned out, in a fledgling nation that was already turning out to be rather strange, on that particular day something quite strange indeed occurred. All present would later agree that nothing unusual happened until the midwife prepared and administered the willow bark that Drell had brought home. As soon as Katriana consumed it, a pall seemed to lift from the household. Her pain eased, her bleeding slowed, her mind cleared, and her formerly sluggish baby kicked with sudden vitality.
And at the very moment that Drell and Katriana’s daughter entered the world, the house smelled of flowers, fresh-tilled earth, new grass, and the smell of sunlight upon leaves. And perhaps most amazing of all, at that very moment, the wooden frame of Katriana’s bed seemed moved to new life, as here and there new buds appeared in the wood, which sprouted and grew, unfurling bright green leaves. The consensus of those present was that Erastil himself must have blessed the child’s birth. Drell knew it wasn’t quite so simple, but it was close enough, and he didn’t see a need for debate.
Thus, little Katyuska was born, happy and healthy. And the parents could not have been more thankful. In time, Drell would bring both his wife and daughter along to visit his friends in the willow grove, and those visits were well-received on both sides, for many goodly fey simply adore children, and are also quite good at entertaining them.
Eventually, the story of Drell and Bjorn’s exploits did become common knowledge. Most people accepted the tale with a nod and a shrug—-what did one expect in a place like this, after all? Both men gained some prestige in the eyes of their fellows, and became somewhat respected (at least around Tatzlford) as fey experts, since they had both beaten bad fey and befriended good fey. The lumber company they worked for was happy to make use of that expertise, and soon saw a profit, thanks to smoother negotiations with the fey and a marked decrease in fey-related pranks and sabotage.
Bjorn, for his part, generally preferred not to talk about the episode, though he was more likely to tell it (with embellishments) when he’d had too much mead. Most people came to the conclusion that his reticence was the result of a certain amount of shy embarrassment, as his cheeks were known to redden perceptibly when he did occasionally speak on the subject. Even the most belligerent drunks learned early on not to besmirch the honor of the fey ladies in his story, however, as those who made the mistake of asking after Bjorn’s “horny mistress” gained a wealth of bruises and broken bones with stunning alacrity. His sudden gaining of a horned and hoofed daughter some months later likewise passed (wisely) unremarked upon.*
*Though Drell knew his old friend maintained an “on again, off again” romance with Brianthalas, and that the coarse, Ulfen brute was an immensely proud father, and had a soft spot the size of Brevoy where his half-fey daughter Brynja was concerned. The two girls themselves would grow to be as close as sisters.