A treat my gaming group have come to expect (though hopefully never take for granted) at this time of year is a new Yuletide adventure by the multifariously talented Tim Harford. With Tim's permission I share last year's with you. Without further ado, then, here is:
THE THREE WANDERERS
On a windswept ridge in the Bleaks, visible from miles around, are three huge uneven black boulders, each at least four metres in diameter. Locals call these vast stones the Three Wanderers and will not approach. They say the three were fiends who haunted the hills in olden times, murdering travellers until they picked on the wrong victim, St Afric, and he turned them to stone.
More educated folk, of whom there are few locally, scorn the superstitions but warn travellers that those boulders are tombs, and that what was buried should not be disturbed.
Anyone who does get close to the boulders will see that there are crevices in them, perhaps just wide enough for a person to squirm through. Each crevice, however, is blocked by bars of iron, rusted but sturdy, and a chain with a silver cross is attached to the bars on each of the three rocks. It is hard to make out what, if anything, lies deeper in the crevices. Characters who shine a light down them may see a glimpse of bone, or sacking. Perhaps they will see movement – a rat, perhaps, or grass snake?
What lies within? One tale describes three sorcerers from Kaikuhuru, travelling west in search of the newborn Saviour. Some say they followed a silver moon that moved through the sky contrary to the motion of other celestial bodies. Others say they used an enchanted needle, a bone splinter hanging from a strand of a princess’s hair. Whatever the truth, they were led astray by some mischievous imp, and ventured to the wilds of Ellesland instead of the holy land. Dressed for the desert, they wandered in the northern rain and hail, vainly seeking the saviour until they perished from exposure.
Far from home, vengeful and bewildered, their spirits continued to wander the Bleaks until, centuries later, a Cornumbrian saint bound them and laid them to rest in a tomb that would contain their wanderings and their parched enchantments.
Such is the tale. What, then, when the characters approach the Three Wanderers to find the silver crosses missing, and the iron bars ripped out – from the inside?
Crespin Thune – A wizard of no great accomplishment, but with a plan to use his limited talents to acquire the three legendary gifts of the Kaikuhuran wizards, and with those to rise in prestige and power.
Beatrice – a fallen woman. Beatrice is a serving maid (and prostitute) who works at Athgeld’s Inn, a traveller’s stop running to the south of the ridge. Crespin has paid her to serve the Saviour’s mother in his little play.
Sir Thunrulf – an aging knight, lord of Beeley Manor.
His cook, Pessimus Broil, is a blubbery mountain of a man.
Martin Marigold is the innkeeper at Athgeld’s Inn. He is famous for his hospitality, although the prices can be steep, especially for the unwary.
Grauves de Courtai – an upstart knight from Chaubrette. Crespin is paying him for assistance, but has also forged a letter purportedly from Baron Aldred declaring Grauves de Courtai the new lord of Beeley Manor. Grauves has six well-armed thugs in attendance, Hubert, Gaston, Anton, Charles, Hal and Fred.
The local devil, called Hob o’ the Well by locals. Hob is nine feet tall, with spindly arms and legs; when he drops into a crouch, however, he can conceal himself into a surprisingly small space, like a spider in the corner of a web. Hob has several uncanny abilities, including the power of illusion and the power to command animals, plants and the local weather. However he is vulnerable to the cross, and his stealthiness is sometimes betrayed by a faint reek of brimstone.
Old Katy Catkin, who earns a meal and room to sleep in exchange for cleaning and other chores around the inn. She works less and less and appears to rely more and more on the charity both of Marigold and of passersby. She is the most likely source of gossip concerning Hob o’ the Well and may also share gossip about Beatrice and Crespin (who has been paying with silver for her to attend him in his room). Katy has heard Crespin bragging to Beatrice about his plans and, unlike Beatrice herself, she has enough familiarity with folk magic to recognize the makings of a spell in their act of theatre.
Crespin plans to break the locks that keep the three wanderers bound. He hopes to lure them to Athgeld’s Inn on Christmas Eve, where Beatrice will display her “baby” – actually a ghastly little scarecrow of daub and straw, with sky blue little robin eggs of eyes. Crespin has cast a spell over the “baby” to make it appear lifelike. This deception will, he hopes, induce the three wanderers to hand over their gifts to the infant they think is the Saviour. He can then use the three gifts as potent instruments when casting future spells.
The three sorcerers are long dead, but their spirits live on, carrying a thousand years of rage and frustration. If addressed in the right way, they may recall their original pilgrimage to pay homage to a new spirit of hope in the world.
Calcifer retains the desiccated spirit of the Kaikuhuran desert; if roused to anger he strikes with hot sand and lightning. His visage is swaddled in dry sackcloth.
Shazz Ul Haq has grown a new eye each year since arriving in Ellesland. He now has nine hundred and ninety five, and to glimpse them is to go mad.
Grupus has adjusted best to the climate of Ellesland. He has become a master of mist, mire, and darkness. He is the most likely to stray far from the rocks and the party may encounter him while exploring.
Calcifer’s gift for the saviour was a small handful of sand from the desert, in a box of ivory, a symbol of the endlessly shifting sands of Kaikuhuru and of his fealty.
Shazz Ul Haq had brought an orb of diamonds, each diamond showing a different vision of what may come to pass.
Grupus’s offering was an embalming unguent in a silver pot.
These treasures lack the awesome power that Crespin imagines and craves – their significance was largely symbolic. However, they have some value both as magical talismans and as saleable treasures.
Beeley Manor – a decaying manor house with a small study, a feasting hall, kitchen and larder downstairs, and a master bedroom and three small bedrooms upstairs. The house is fortified but vulnerable either to a determined assault or to an inside job, since there is a front door, a back door and a kitchen door.
Athgeld’s Inn – a large hostelry with a generous common room, a parlour with several snugs (where Grauves and Crespin prefer to have their conversations), a sweltering kitchen and half a dozen upstairs rooms. The Inn also has outhouses, storehouses, and a stable.
Saint Afric’s chapel – a tiny chapel on the steep slope above the road and beneath the great stones that locals call the Three Wanderers. It was Saint Afric who bound the ghosts of the three sorcerers and imprisoned them in cracks in the rocks. The chapel door is jammed – rust or ice? – but may yield to force or to patient prayer. Inside, a candle flame flickers, although there is no sign of a caretaker and everything is covered with dust – it seems to have been neglected for years. A cracked fresco shows a three part scene: three great kings following a man with a crescent on a fishing rod; the same three figures with demonic visages; Saint Afric brandishing a cross, with the three figures dismayed and prostrate.
A sufficiently successful roll on intuition suggests that the paintwork around the cross is of a different quality. Chipping away at the fresco reveals a silver cross concealed within the plaster. It has, it seems, been unearthed and buried once before. A grey hair is wrapped around the join of the cross – a relic of Saint Afric himself?
Hob’s Well – locals know of the well, and water taken from it is said to have a restorative quality provided that a suitable offering of flowers or food is placed by the well, thanks are given, and implicit permission is sought by a declaration of good intent. Without those measures the water has a bad-eggs aroma and unpleasant warmth, but will do no harm.
The well is unusually tall, more like a chimney or a little tower than a well, with the lip seven feet above the ground. To draw water requires a little agility, or fashioning some kind of perch on which to stand. Looking down the well reveals a crescent moon, reflected from the heavens. What is strange is that the crescent moon is there, day and night, whether the moon in the sky is new or full.
At the bottom of the well is a loose stone, and behind it, a sack with the three ancient treasures in it. The sack, oddly, is undecayed. Anyone brave enough to dive into the water can retrieve the moon too (the permanently shining silver crescent with which Hob lured the three scholars astray) but they may have to reckon with Hob or the local fauna – perhaps a savage pike, or a plague of worms and leeches, or an irate owl, as the referee prefers.
The Wanderers - the three black boulders described in the introduction.
Timeline of events, if the party do not intervene
Grauves and his men have demanded entry to Beeley Manor and been refused by Thunrulf and his steward. Grauves claims that Baron Aldred has appointed him lord of the manor in Thulrulf’s place, and has sworn to return with a Warrant of Possession signed by the baron.
Thunrulf sends his steward to Athgeld’s Inn to discover more. The player-characters could enter the adventure either as Thunrulf’s guests or as travellers at the inn – or both.
At the inn, there is an argument between Grauves and Crespin. Crespin sends Grauves and his men up to the rocks with a promise that they will only get the letter when they’ve done their job. The party may overhear this argument, which takes place is Crespin’s room.
Grauves and his men go up to the rocks. Crespin has equipped them with an iron spearhead of ancient Selentine design, enchanted so that it can prise the silver crosses off the iron bars.
Only five of the men return, and they are in a state of terror, having encountered Shazz Ul Haq. Grauves himself is among them, having got separated from the others in the snow; thus he was spared the harrowing encounter with the ghost.
Anyone going up to the rocks now will find the iron bars have been pulled away from the inside.
Grauves presents the three crosses to Crespin as proof of his deed, claims his forged letter, and ventures out to Beeley Manor to try to claim it from Thunrulf. Other men may go missing every time they venture out in the dark.
On Christmas Eve the three magi, now at large, will close in upon the stable at Athgeld’s Inn, to meet Beatrice and Crespin and the “baby”.
Secrets that the party may discover
The Three Wanderers are ancient sorcerers from a thousand years ago.
They were led astray by Hob o’ the Well, who put a silver moon on a stick and stole their gifts.
The moon and the gifts are concealed at the bottom of Hob’s well. The silver moon might be used to lead the sorcerers away towards the holy land.
Crespin has forged a warrant declaring Grauves de Courtai the rightful lord of Beeley Manor.
Pessimus Broil plans to do away with Martin Marigold and become innkeeper (he fell out with Marigold years ago when he worked at the inn).
There is a sacred relic concealed behind the fresco of Saint Afric’s chapel. It is one way to cow the three sorcerers.
Crespin’s magic is unlikely to fool the three sorcerers, but his enchantment to give the “baby “ a semblance of life may be more potent than he anticipates, given the forces assembling at Christmas Eve.
Sir Thunrulf wants to retain his manor and his dignity, but is also duty-bound to protect travellers through his manor from harm – including the residents of Athgeld’s Inn.
Beatrice has been promised money by Crespin but will not risk her life once danger threatens.
Crespin hopes to fool the wanderers and secure their treasures.
The Wanderers are barely sentient now; they are malevolent after their long imprisonment but may be calmed by Beatrice and the baby.
Grauves is hoping to take possession of the manor; if thwarted he is likely to try to make trouble and resort to ordinary theft and assault.
Hob o’ the Well is bent on devilish mischief (the high flavour of mischief that does not balk at causing death or lasting injury) and highly amused by the Wanderers, although there is a risk he oversteps himself. His is only a little local devil, after all, and they are mythic ghosts.
Pessimus Broil hopes to leave Thunrulf’s service and take over at the Inn, although he has not fully thought through how this will be achieved. Murder of Martin Marigold is not impossible. He might also try to strike a bargain with Grauves.
Katy Catkin likes to gossip, knows a lot, and will easily be persuaded by some coin (or perhaps flattery or even earnest curiosity). She may relate some of the legend of the Three Wanderers. She may also point out that, although abandoned, Afric’s chapel has long seemed inviolate and protected by the Saviour.
and for kids: