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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Ballad of Times Past - part two


Background
The forty-two-year-old King Athelred rules Beorsca from Hreod Castle. The first of his line, Athelred deposed the previous king when barely twenty-one. He is a capable and fairly popular ruler, still strong despite his years. Under him, priests of the True Faith have gradually prevailed against the Old Gods, whose worship is now reduced to a very few. 

Note: This scenario should be read to the players virtually as written. All the text that appears in red is intended to be read out loud. Information not to be read to the players is and marked ‘GM’.

First Part: In the Great Hall
It is the second night of the midwinter feast. In the Great Hall of the castle, roaring fires and tankards of mulled ale soon drive away all thoughts of the bleak, snow-covered lands outside. The king and his retainers, seated at tables forming a large U around the Hall, dine, drink and watch the entertainers who have flocked to the feast. There are jugglers, actors, acrobats, wrestlers, story-tellers musicians and animal trainers. Eventually, when the ale-dazed warriors are content to sit back and listen to a ballad, Skuli, one of a minstrel troupe from across the seas, steps forward and sings this poem:

"It was a time of hardship,
and everywhere the anger of the old worm
was seen in burnt barns and barren fields.
Then two close companions, worthy hall-heroes,
came hard against the walls of the welkin,
scaling high peaks to put an end to fear.
One, golden-haired with eyes of grey,
his comrade, with blue eyes burning;
they advanced to face their foe.
Of blood but three drops sufficed to win that battle,
and parley and word-play were the only sounds
while steel remained sheathed and shields unlimbered.
Soon the heroes' labours won peace,
and when the dragon's pool ran clear
it was a time for the giving of gifts.
The golden one savoured but a sip from
that spring – 
waters where he glimpsed and grasped his destiny.
His friend favoured a future drawn in dust."

During Skuli’s ballad, Athelred’s usual gusto and ebullience slip away. By the end, he is listening intently, sombre-faced and sober. There is silence. The bemused Skuli makes way for some tumblers while Athelred rises shakily and leaves the hall on the shoulder of his eldest son, Osric. The best and most stalwart of the king’s warriors (including any PC knights and barbarians) also rise and file out.

GM: Outside the king’s chamber, the warriors are met by Queen Gudrun and the royal advisor, an old monk named Hengist. (Hengist is an accomplished sage with expertise in history, languages, legends and theology and some knowledge of astrology and dweomercraft.) Gudrun tells the warriors, ‘Your liege is troubled and has retired to his chambers. If the king needs you I will send for you.’ Hengist, realising that something of great import is in the offing, sets about gathering men with skills to complement those of the king’s warriors. A messenger is sent to the nearby abbey. He returns with any PC mystics; if none, then one NPC Mystic.

Some hours after midnight, there is a commotion as Athelred comes striding from his chamber. Half-slumbering men-at-arms rouse: Gudrun throws a fur cloak across his shoulders as he marches out into the snow pursued by Osric, Hengist and some men-at-arms (perhaps including some player characters). Athelred, stone-faced and intent, strides toward the minstrel encampment oblivious to the biting cold and Hengist’s protests. Some of the minstrels rise to their feet, bewildered and a little alarmed at the visitation.

Athelred steps up to the crackling fire and grimly confronts Skuli—the slender balladeer in his rough clothes; the old king towering above him in fine furs. ‘The ballad that you sang,’ growls the king softly, ‘Whence came it?’

‘Sire, almost a month since, I had the fever. Before it broke, I dreamt the words as though they were whispered to me in some hot, dark, secret place.’

Athelred strokes his beard. ‘And did you sing it all or was there more?’ Skuli hesitates. Suddenly the king grasps him with huge hands, hauling him up so their eyes are level. ‘Speak, damn you! Or by the sacred heavens...’

‘Father!’ Osric leaps to restrain the king. ‘You make this good man sore afraid with such words.’

Athelred’s sudden rage leaves him and he sets the balladeer down with gruff apologies. Skuli nods. ‘There was more, sire, that I did not deem fit to sing on such a joyous festival.’ Seeing the determination in the king’s eyes, Skuli takes up his lyre and sings: 

"The passage of years sits heavy on men's shoulders,
but counts for little in the dragon's unblinking eye.
In such a time, the tide of treachery can rise.
Blue eyes now glint with greed; hatred dwells in the heart.
He who had been a hero, a sinister sorcerer now,
seeks to steal and shatter the dragon's shell.
With the blood-oath broken, grief shall fly across the land,
and he who put on the mantle of the monarch,
that one shall mourn his golden son."

The words are a hammer-blow to Athelred. He stands dazed; staring into the fire. At last, he raises his head, saying to his men:

‘Many years ago, before I was king, Beorsca was troubled by a dragon who dwelt in the northern mountains and came down to steal away cattle. Many were the heroes who sallied into the old worm’s lair nevermore to see the light of day. Two young warriors came at last, hoping to win fame and fortune. The warrior with eyes like the cloudless sky was Caedmon. I was the other.

‘We entered the caverns to put an end to the dragon or die in the attempt. But when we met her, she spoke to us in an old tongue which Caedmon knew, and so we parleyed with her. A magic pool had become stagnant; a pool sacred to her. We unblocked the channel into the pool by swimming within—something the dragon was too large to accomplish. After many hours, for there was much rubble below the water, the pool flowed fresh again. The dragon agreed not only to honour our earlier bargain that she nevermore troubled Beorsca, but also to add gifts of our choosing. With the water flowing again, the pool had a magical hue; I requested that I might drink of it and received a single sip which showed me dreams of things to come. This knowledge stood me in good stead when I wrested the kingdom from corrupt old Pendris. My friend, Caedmon, who had some knowledge of wizardry even then, saw a golden dust in the lair, fragments of an unhatched dragon’s egg shattered by a warrior years before. He desired this for its sorcerous properties, and the dragon gave him half-a-hundred pinches.

‘Caedmon and I stayed a week with the dragon and sealed a bond in blood. The dragon called herself Talionis. She said that as long as we were true to that bond, we were as siblings. Now, somehow, whether by design or accident, she has sent this message to me through this balladeer. Hengist! How read you these signs?’

‘Clearly, sire,’ replies the sage, ‘the “golden son” is Lord Osric, your firstborn whose eighteenth birthday falls on winter solstice in three days time. The ballad warns that his life is imperilled, just as Caedmon threatens the offspring of the dragon Talionis—who is, as you have told us, sire, your sibling by an oath of mingled blood.’

The king is thoughtful. ‘Although he was my friend, Caedmon was a secret and dark-souled man who never turned to the new gods. Though I have never seen him since, I have heard that he dwells in a tower across the bleak Wadwo Downs. Osric! Gather my best men. Take them to the lair of Talionis’ and protect her and her unhatched offspring from Caedmon. Make all haste, for the wizard must be already on his way! It is not only because of my oath to Talionis that I charge you thus, but because I fear that somehow our destinies are interwoven, hers and mine. Any harm which befalls her fledgling may bring down doom upon your own head, my son.’

GM: As the others return to the castle, Hengist and Osric remain in the minstrel camp enquiring after any brave men with the skills that minstrels have. (Any remaining PCs enlist at this point.)

After a few hours’ sleep, the party takes a light meal and prepares to depart. Because there are few horses at the castle, the time of year, and the terrain which lies ahead, the journey will be on foot. Characters may have any armour up to mail armour (AF4) and any standard weapons and shields. Hengist gives to Osric two items he has cherished for many years: a sealed blue bottle containing a Potion of Strength, and a tiny clay pot containing six applications of Healing Potion in the form of a salve. (Osric is unlikely to use them himself, preferring to bestow them on any characters he considers particularly needful or worthy.)

Hengist also tells of something he has read in one of his books: ‘Those who are true of heart need fear no harm from the dragon’s inferno....’ The book was penned by Ulrich, a monk, by whose advice Hengist sets great store. Finally, he hands the party a rough map which he helped the king to prepare; but Athelred warns that years have passed since he took this route, and the map is uncertain in places.
The next instalment is on December 16. Don't read it if you're going to be playing in this adventure.

2 comments:

  1. Wasn't this a White Dwarf scenario once, during my time?

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    Replies
    1. That's right. From the golden age of WD!

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