The Swordlands

Ten!

After the haunting, multi-layered harmonies of the Orc choir ebbed away into the smoke, the room was quiet for a moment. The song had spoken of the worship of Grummsh, of Orc superiority, of blood, death and killing. Everyone in the room had been moved according to their feelings.

The Sinister Vizier moved slightly forward and called out to the assembled throng.

“The Prince will now count the choir!” he said. There were some nervous looks around the room, as the Prince had never been known to count higher than four.

“Ein!” shouted the Prince. “Zwei! Drei!” There was another long pause. The choir, trembling in their boots, looked up fearfully. The assembled Ogres, Dragonborn, Warforged, Humans and others waited with baited breath.

With an enormously pleased grin on his face, the Prince uttered the word “Zehn!” Swiftly, the Sinister Vizier whispered in his ear.

“Zehn! Zehn!” demanded the Prince, gesturing at the choir. The Sinister Vizier shrugged and turned back to the crowd below.

“The Prince has decreed that there should be ten singers. There are only four. My… apologies.”

Reaching behind him with one long, misshapen arm, the Prince pulled one of the twelve levers behind him. In an instant, the iron grill that the choir stood upon at the base of the steps to his throne swung down and open, the Orcs standing on it dumped unceremoniously and screaming into the burning coals. Iben jumped backwards as the pit opened up, wary of his footing.

The Prince chortled and laughed out loud like a child who has just discovered how much fun his new toy is.

Note: Kindrbode was counting in the Real World language of German – one, two, three, ten.

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Lullaby

(To the tune of ‘Silent Night’)

Orc is Strong
Man is Weak
Blood for Grumsh
Time for Lunch
Heft your Spear, don your Armour
Burn the Farm, kill the Farmer
Drink his Blood in the Moonlight
Take Everything of value you can find

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Enter The Prince

As Sigurd and Iben stood gazing in horror at the shredded tissue that lay decomposing in front of them, they were both surprised to hear a low voice from behind them.

“Well,” it said. “I alwaysh wanted to know exactly how she died.” Turning, they beheld the old human man they’d seen earlier. He threw away his bone casually over his shoulder and extended his hand. “Greetingsh!” he exclaimed. “I am here ash the representative of the Free People of Myckelgarth, and Snøflgrøf ish my name. Pleashed to meet you.”

Iben took his hand and shook it warmly, explaining to Sigurd that the people of MIckelgarth had long lived under the threat of Kindrbode without ever truly becoming his servants. Stating that he was from Kindraed, the two quickly exchanged news of their respective regions, and Iben asked how Snufflegruff had made it to the Hall.

“It’sh shimple,” he said in return. “I ran. Took me about a month. A bunch of the othersh started the journey with me, but funnily enough they all dropped out after a couple of weeksh. Wimpsh, all of them. We should get thish closhed up, sharpish, before someone noticesh.”

With the help of the surprisingly strong Snufflegruff, the tomb was quickly closed and re-sealed. It seemed that Aldis and Thunder had put on a sufficiently good show (“Nice uppercut,” commented Iben) to keep the attention entirely on them and the investigation had gone entirely un-noticed.

With an ear-splitting blast, the brawl was brought to a sharp close. Two troll-kin, clutching huge horns, had blown on them to quieten the room. They were followed by two sharp-eye Orcs clutching large crossbows, and then finally the Vizier made his appearance. A spectacularly ugly Orc, he was dressed in a long robe and had his ears pierced in several places. He raised his hands above his head and called out across the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he cried. “I bid you to be silent for the arrival of the greatest, the most powerful, the most awe-inspiring and the most majestic Prince Kindrbode!” As one, with the true fervour of those who know their lives are on the line, the room burst into applause.

The subject of their applause lumbered slowly into the room. Standing fifteen feet tall, humped and mis-shapen, oozing pus from several sores and with his two eyes always looking in different directions, dressed in filthy clothes, Prince Kindrbode entered through the doorway. He paused for a second by the rack of levers at the back of his hideously ornate throne, running a hand over them and grinning, before settling himself in front of the large table that had been laid for him. He leant over to the Vizier and muttered something in his ear.

“The Prince commands entertainment!” called out the Orc. “We shall have the choir!”

Four Orcs, trembling and afraid, moved forwards to the bottom of the slope up to the throne. They were dressed in matching costumes, and nervously began to sing.

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The Tomb of The Formorian Queen

The tomb was embedded in the wall, hidden away in a large alcove. Fully twenty feet long and made entirely of stone, the carvings on the near side clearly stated that this was the final resting place of Kindrbode’s mother, the former Queen of the Fomorians.

The Fomorian Giants came from Svartlheim, or the Feydark to the Auslanders, but a few had come to the surface lands and taken a piece of them for their own. Kindrbode was the son of the Queen of those that made their home here, but his rampant ambition meant that he never was content to remain a Prince only. It was rumoured, said Yanni, that Sigmund had aided Kindrbode in poisoning his mother in order to take the realm for himself, although no-one could work out what sort of fearsome poison could affect the inhuman constitution of a giant.

Sigurd wondered out loud about the possiblity of getting the tomb open and having a look inside. “Maybe we could work out what killed her,” she said. “Then we could use the same sort of poison against Kindrbode. After all, I’m sure none of us want to go up against him physically.” Thunder saw the wisdom of her words, thinking that although a physical battle was always a joy in Kord’s eyes, to die with your purpose unfulfilled would not honour him.

Thunder and Aldis hatched a plan to give Sigurd time to open up the tomb and have a look inside. At the far end of the Hall, the looming throne of Prince Kindrbode stood thirty feet up on a massive raised platform. A long slope led up to it, flanked with torch-mountings. Karl and Aengus between them had established that the fearsome mechanism that controlled the grilled floor was housed somewhere under that block. In the short-term, however, at the bottom of the slope were the brawling Ogres.

“Aldis,” said Thunder calmly. “How would you like to brawl against me?”

Aldis calmly eyed the mechanical form of the Warforged, noting his strength and balance, and the utter certainty of his demeanour. She knew that he would be a formidable foe in a serious battle, but the thought of testing herself against him in a mock-fight stirred her blood. “I would be delighted,” she replied, mouth pulled wide in a grin. “Let’s make a distraction they’ll be talking about for years to come!”

Moving across the Hall to the far side of the Ogres, past the old human still gnawing on his bone (who gave another cheery wave and ambled over to see what they were doing), they found a small group of Orcs talking in their guttural language. Without Sigurd present, translation was impossible, but taking advantage of what he saw Thunder gave the nearest Orc a resounding shove, sending him into the next. The Orc turned, teeth bared, and glared at the Warforged who stood and gestured him forwards. The Orc seized the moment to grab Thunder’s shoulders and plant a firm headbutt on his forehead. The resounding clang echoed through the chamber and the Orc went momentarily cross-eyed before roaring in pain. Aldis took this as her cue to launch an uppercut on the other Orc, and soon all four were brawling on the ground, with even the Ogres ceasing their fight to come over and see what was going on.

Fantastic! Thought Thunder to himself. We’ve certainly drawn attention to ourselves!

Back near the Tomb, Sigurd and Iben had managed to lever the top off the tomb. Inside, a dessicated giantess lay dead.

“In Melora’s name,” gasped Sigurd. “Her stomach has been ripped open – from the inside!”

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Ready For A Grilling

The huge central Hall of Thruthgelmir was thick with smoke, the atmosphere hot and humid. As the party cautiously entered, still bearing the cake, they could see that instead of a standard floor there was a great series of grills and iron bars supporting the occupants. Thirty feet down, a great bank of glowing goals provided both the light and the heat of the room. Overhead, the ceiling was lost in the smoky haze.

At the right hand corner of the room was an entrance to the kitchens, and to get out of the heat and claustrophobic space the party took the cake through with some speed, surprising some Orc kitchen staff. Whilst Yetta checked over the cake, repairing some of the damage done during the journey and fitting the heavy duty candles into their holders, Sigurd quietly performed a magical ritual that allowed him to understand the Orcish language. What she heard, however, she considered far to coarse and vile to pass on to the others.

Whilst Yetta continued to work, the rest of the group, and their party hats, returned to the main Hall. Moving further inside and looking through the smoke, they could see various humanoid figures. More Orcs, various groups of humans and a few huge Ogres loomed up in the red light. Two of the Ogres were engaged in a viscious, though apparently friendly, fistfight, battering each other back and forth in the centre. Four towering columns, reaching sixty feet overhead, marked the edges of their battleground. Around the pillars, bets were made and money exchanged over the eventual winner by a mob of cheering Orcs and shouting humans.

Aengus had been keeping a careful eye out for Sigmund, the King of Himimborg’s centaur half-brother, and was relieved to see that he was not in attendance. However, he did spot one of the Satyxis – the horned figures who had menaced the party before, most notably when escaping from the Ice Wall and during the Battle for Glorium. The figure was extremely striking, a lithe female form in armour with two large horns protruding from her head. She had not mingled with the other guests, and instead stood to one side sipping a drink quietly and watching with great concentration.

Further details emerged from the gloom as the groups eyes adjusted. Aldis looked around the walls to see that two huge stained glass windows glared down on the proceedings. The windows featured pictures of giants wreaking havoc across the land with ice and fire, trampling the buildings of men beneath them. Karl, being the inquisitive Gnome that he was, examined the grilled floor and realized that portions of it could swing away due to some mysterious mechanism that led away towards the end of the Hall. Iben spotted another human across the hall, a huge and muscled old man chewing on a bone. Returning his look, the man gave a cheerful wave quite at odds with the hell-like surroundings. Finally, Sigurd tapped Thunder on the shoulder and pointed at the wall next to where they all stood.

“There’s a tomb here,” she said. “I think it’s Prince Kindrbode’s mother.”

Illustration of ‘Satyxis’ from Iron Kingdoms Monsternomicon

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The Hall At The End Of The World

Thruthgelmir stood proud and stark against the skyline, sticking up from the land around like a spike thrusting up against the sky. To it’s left and right, mountains and crags marched away into the distance, but beyond Thruthgelmir there was nothing more than rolling clouds and distant lightning. No mountains. No land. No creatures.

Truly, marvelled Iben to himself, It is the End of the World.

As the companions approached the hall, they could see all around them that there were figures moving around the ruined buildings in the shadow of the Hall. The buildings, explained Yetta and Yuppi, were the former dwellings of Harald Know-No-Fear and his men, left derelict countless years before.

The figures, upon closer examination, turned out to be Orcs of the White Rhino tribe. The companions, moving with confidence amongst them, realised that they must serve Kindrbode through fear, rather than respect.

“I wonder,” grinned Karl “If we could create more fear amongst them, would they follow us?”

The idea also appealed to Aldis. Flexing her full frame and loosening her sword in it’s sheath, she posed the simple question “Do you think they could be afraid of me?”

Yetta also told the others of the Vizier, the head of the Orcs and wielder of magical power. He is their leader, and Prince Kindrbode’s main advisor, a fearsome creature that holds control over the surrounding lands only surpassed by his master. Little more was known, but his description was confirmed – Thunder made a mental note to see if this creature could stand up to his Spear, if he got the chance.

Yuppi suggested that the cake be presented, in order to facilitate getting into the Hall. It was quickly taken from Iben’s magical bag and constructed, with Aldis and Thunder taking the front positions. The rear of the cake floated along unsupported – Sigurd and Karl using their magical powers to help sustain it and provide an eerie reason for the group not to be bothered.

As they walked through the crowds of Orcs, dozens of them stared at the sight. Orcs of all sizes, from huge brutes down to cunning magic-users and sneaky backstabbers, even including some Orc children, known as Snotlings. The combined emnity and hate was almost palpable, and each member of the group knew without a doubt that a short command from the leaders could lead to an instant bloodbath.

The Hall itself loomed ever larger, and passing under the sharp points of a huge portcullis the group entered. Inside, a short entranceway opened out into a much larger hall, dimly lit in red light.

Two large Orcs stood guard at the entrance, and seeing the cake they motioned the party through. Further down the corridor, another order stood behind a table. Staring at them, he gestured at the many items in front of him and abruptly grunted “Wear a hat, then go down the stairs.”

With varying degrees of horror, each member of the party realised that in front of them was a large table full of party hats, complete with tassles, ribbons, coloured foil and paper streamers.

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Onwards to Thruthgelmir

Karl slowly dropped through the raging waters, his sharp eyes peering as best he could through the spray and the darkness beneath. Distantly he could see a dim light shining, and he tugged on the rope to let his comrades above know that life was present. A short while later, after some very nifty ropework, Karl, Thunder and Aengus stood beside a damp shore underground.

The journey through the maelstrom had left Yuppi, Yetta, Iben, Sigurd and Aldis breathless and sore. One by one they had dragged themselves out of the freezing water, pulling up onto a sandy shore and collapsing to get their breath back. Aldis powerful lungs dragged air back inside of her – as a creature of fire, she had found the immersion particularly unpleasant. Never again! She thought to herself. I would rather face a hundred Beastmen than be drowned in that cold!

Sigurd was weakly able to conjure a magelight, illuminating the nearby area. Yuppi moved towards Iben and asked, her throat raw, whether the cake had survived. Iben was able to show her his magical bag, and inside the various parts of the cake were intact. “Had we not been able to produce that cake, our lives would have been forfeit,” explained Yuppi. “We would have been better off turning back. Thank you.”

About fifteen minutes later, all were reunited. Yetta put forward their choices from here on in. “We can take a long, quieter road, or a shorter and more dangerous route. It’s been about five years since we had to go this way, and the Fisher King and his trolls still live down here. We’ll have to stay well clear of them if you don’t want to get ripped to shreds.”

After a short discussion, it was agreed that the shorter, more dangerous route was the best option. Yuppi and Yetta led the way through the broken tunnels. The path was not a smooth mineshaft or worked tunnel, instead it meandered up short climbs, down rough drops and sliding slopes, through more freezing streams and past the distant sounds of rats and bats. At all times, every member of the group kept their eyes peeled and their ears open, listening for the first sound or watching for the first movement that would indicate the trolls had found them.

A couple of hours journey later, Aengus spotted a trail of wet footprints on the rock ahead of them. The sole that had left them had no imprint at all. With a smile, Aengus turned to the rest and said “It appears that Lady Snowshoes is to be our guide out of here. We must truly have impressed her with our diving, and with our courtesy last night in the forest.”

Five hours later, after following the footprints as best they could, the part emerged from underground into a blizzard white landscape, just as the sun was setting. Distant mountains reached for the sky, sharp crags and snowy peaks on all of them. All around was a desolate waste, no life, no animals, no sound other than that of the snow. Yuppi estimated that they were perhaps half a days journey from Thruthgelmir and Prince Kindrbode’s party, so it was decided to make camp and push on in the morning.

Yuppi & Yetta helped set up, then over the remaining provisions they told The Saga of Harald Know No Fear, one of the mighty ancient Kings of the Swordlands . As the clouds above parted and the temperature dropped, shooting stars could be seen overhead, racing through the sky. Aengus sat up through the night, not needing sleep, only rest. He watched as the stars slowly moved overhead, taking note of their positions and constellations. As the sky lightened, clouds began to form again, heavy, black and pendulous. As all awoke and broke camp, a huge clap of thunder started as the rain began to pour down.

Thunder and Aldis stood defiant in the rain, even as some of the others sought shelter. “It is a sign from Kord!” cried Thunder. “He sends the lightning to say we are to strive forwards and strike down our foes!”

“And my Lord Bahamut sends the thunder!” returned Aldis. “We shall shake our enemies and destroy them.” As she spoke, another lightning flash and thunderclap lit up the sky, and the two grinned at each other. Squaring their shoulders, they began to march forwards along the mountain trail, through the slushy, melting snow. The wind swirled, trying to blow them off the side of the mountain, but despite all these weather conditions the group moved well through the storm. After a few hours march, Thruthgelmir was revealed in front of them.

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Journeys With A Cake, Part 6

As the raft split, Aengus once again called upon his Faerie-like powers to teleport to safety on the bank. Over the next minute, he saw Karl and Thunder also pull themselves out of the water, but of Yetta, Yuppi, Sigurd, Aldis and Iben there was no sign.

Following the path as best they could, the three of them moved around the next bend in the river to be greeted by an awesome sight. The gorge ended abruptly in a swirling maelstrom as the river dived downwards between walls of rock, disappearing underground. Overhanging vegetation grew in the tremendous spray that was thrown up from this sinkhole.

After a short discussion, Karl found himself, once more, on the end of a rope being lowered into the vast, sucking hole at the centre of the maelstrom. With water all around him, he, in turn, slowly lowered a torch ahead of him as he descended into the blackness, desperately hoping for a sign of his companions. Above him, Aengus and Thunder, perched dangerously on the strongest tree-branches they could find, kept careful grip on the rope and slowly continued to lower their Gnomish friend.

Next time: Did the others survive? Did the cake?

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Journeys With A Cake, Part 5

At the sound of the twig, Karl spun round trying to see what was moving out in the blackness. Seeing no movement, he crept quickly out of the clearing, scouting around. The rest of the group fanned out around the edge of the clearing, but could find nothing more than a small set of wolf tracks. Neither Iben nor Aengus could explain them, save to say that another spirit had interrupted what was going on.

After a short discussion on the do’s and don’ts of dealing with Faerie, it was decided that the food could be eaten, and the companions fell upon it ravenously. Sigurd, however, had a very bright idea and asked Iben if she could borrow his Bag of Holding. Placing the cooked Dragonfish inside, she explained that should the Fisher King or his troll-kin be encountered, we could produce these fish as a distraction or bribe. This idea was greeted with great joy by the others, who had been somewhat worried by the prospect of facing angry troll-kin seeking to devour them.

After feasting and returning to the tree, the whole group, including Aengus, fell asleep inside. Awakening, they found that a deep snowfall had happened during the night, with light flakes still falling as the sun was coming up. Thunder, feeling truly rested for the first time since he had been rescued from the Ice Wall, noted that Aengus seemed disturbed. Pressing him, Aengus admitted that he had had a dark and disturbing dream during the night (see Ragnarok page).

Sigurd has had another bright idea during her sleep. She asks Yuppi and Yetta if the cake can be dismantled, showing them the Bag of Holding. Quickly the idea is grasped – by dismantling the cake and storing it in this magical bag, it can be transported more easily and with less risk. Yetta has made the cake so that it can come apart in layers and pieces, and it stacks up neatly inside the bag. Sigurd can now ride inside the cart with Yetta and Thunder, whilst Yuppi keeps an eye on the ox from outside. Aengus and Karl continue to range ahead with Iben guarding the rear.

After half a days walk through the waist-deep snow, the travel-party comes to a stone bridge crossing a second stretch of the River of Knives . This bridge has a thirty-foot span, and is well built and sturdy. The path continues down into lower hills on the far side, but as the party cross the bridge they can see that the river is swollen and running faster than normal.

Yuppi casts his eye down at the raging water below, and looks along it’s path. Pointing, he says “We’re going to need the raft. Normally we can walk alongside the river and stay off it, but with the snowfall, and the recent rain there is no way we could manage that. There is a raft prepared – I hope you’re all ready for some more hard work?”

The ox was left behind with sacks of food for the return journey, tied up safely in a cave with the cart. With Iben’s Bag of Holding taking the weight of the cake, all members of the party clamber cautiously onto the raft. As they set out, Yuppi stays at the back, doing his best to steer with an oar. Aengus sits at the front, keeping an eye out for rocks hidden under the water. Iben and Thunder sat at the front corners with long poles, ready to use their strength to keep the raft from crashing into the sides of the gorge.

The first set of rapids were negotiated with ease, and the river opened out for a moment. This respite was short-lived, however, and as the gorge ahead narrowed the river once again picked up speed. Racing around a corner, everyone could see more jagged, rusty rocks looming up from under the water. Unfortunately, on this occasion Aengus’ eyes were not keen enough, and a jagged rock ripped into the raft from beneath, splitting it down the middle. Despite heroic efforts to hold it together, within seconds the party had been dumped unceremoniously into the freezing, fast-running river.

Illustration of Thunder by James Paterson

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Journeys With A Cake Part 4

Aengus’ sharp Eladrin ears had picked up the sound of a snapping twig in the vicinity. He had been staring up at the night sky, using the book recovered from Glorium to compare the skies now to those from years past, and becoming increasingly interested in the changes in the formations over time.

He had been warned by Yuppi that wolves lived in these forests, hungry and lean. Quietly waking Karl, the two of them crept quietly into the forest, seeking to discover whether this was just a harmless animal or something more serious. After a few moments, what sounded distinctly like soft, booted footsteps could be heard, walking parallel to the camp. Exchanging glances, Karl and Aengus woke their companions and the group moved as silently as it could through the dark trees to investigate.

Ahead, they could see dim light flickering in the night. Moving closer, Aengus saw small footprints as if made by booted feet leading towards the light. At the edge of the clearing, each member of the group could see an empty campsite, fire built, and food laden all around. A roast boar with an apple in it’s mouth sat mounted on a tripod, a rack held several dragonfish and two rabbits, and over the fire itself a deer was roasting on a spit.

Aengus caught his breath as he realized what was going on. In areas such as this, far from civilization and the trappings of humanity, it was possible to cross from the World to the Feywild just by walking. They stood now at the far edges of the Beastlands, where it was said that a conjunction with the Feywild exists.

Iben, too, being familiar with tales of spirits, could understand what had happened. We are being invited to talk with Lady Snowshoes, he thought to himself, and stepped into the clearing, gesturing the others forwards.

On the very edge of hearing, but swiftly growing louder, quiet whispers could be heard.

“They have come! They have come!”

“Who has come? Who is here?”

“They have answered the call!”

“They are here!”

Realising he was in the presence of Faerie, Karl introduced himself with his full family name and rank, the other following suit with similar words. As each person spoke, they noticed that the animals and foodstuffs that were laid out around them were animatedly moving and wriggling on their respective hooks and spits, and the voices that could be heard were coming from them. As Iben spoke and introduced himself, the boar spat out the apple in it’s mouth and joined the chorus. With a start, Aldis noticed that it was the fish asking “Who has come? Who has come?” as their eyes were sewn shut.

Looking around on it’s spit, the deer nodded at Karl: “The Instrumentality1 has answered the call! So Far have his little feet carried him!” The fish wriggled as they hung and slapped their bodies together, creating the effect of a light smattering of applause. Looking across at Iben, the deer said “Kindraeder has answered the call, so pleased you have come! The herald they call him!” The fish applauded once more.

Confused, Aldis asked of the camp “What call? We have heard no call, we are travelling to Thruthgelmir.”

Looking back and meeting her gaze, the deer responded. “Wyrm has come, she comes to free her people. And the Eladrin, too! So cruel she was to summon him so, so cruel she was. Einherjar has answered the call! The Call That Does Not Sound!” With each announcement the fish slapped their bodies in applause.

“The Call That Does Not Sound?” asked the boar in a grunt.

“And yet he stands before us!” rejoiced the rabbits.

“And a human woman has answered the call,” continued the deer, “but not ours, not ours!”

“Not ours? Then whose?” grunted the boar.

“Perhaps her own? Perhaps?” asked the rabbits.

Trying to get a grasp on the situation, Aengus calls out “We have spoken with the Wailing Spirit of the Mountain, near Kindraed!”

The boar responded loudly “You must save us!”

The fish and rabbits chorused immediately, “Save us! Save us!”

The deer spoke again, saying “The end will come, the land will die. Faerie, too. You must save us! The lands are joined by lines – these lines must be severed.”

“You mean.. Leylines?” asked Aengus, calling on his knowledge of the natural world.

“Well…” began the deer.

“She will tell you, she who awaits at the end of the World!”2 interrupted the boar.

The deer continued quickly. “Beware Siegmund!” At the mention of this name the rabbits trembled and squealed with fear

“He tricks you! You have what he has not, and he wants it. He –“

A sharp snap of a twig sounded in the forest, off to one side, and in an instant, every animal went limp, the boar picking up the apple with its mouth again before falling still.

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