Serpent-dreamer

She dreamed of blood. Hip deep in it, like she was wading into the Kaltlina.

The raid had been brief, but successful. Now, they headed south, following an old logging trail. The wounded were culled, so they wouldn’t be slowed. They hadn’t even been buried properly, left for the carrion birds to pick at, bloated and unrecognizable under thick, dark dried blood. She didn’t look back, stumbling to keep up with the horse he was tied to.

She dreamed of blood. It was whispering something, she couldn’t catch it over the splashing underfoot.

Her feet were bleeding. She could feel it soaking through the wrappings, was she leaving a trail, a clear “here, follow me, right this way” drawn along the trail like a child with paints? Don’t look back, don’t turn around- just go, go-
She’d stopped briefly, getting as close as she dared to the river, to bathe and check her wounds. The cold felt like knives. But she was clean, she was awake. She was alive. More than she could say for others. Keep going. Keep going.

She dreamed of blood. Faces appeared, distorted, ran away with the current. Netta, laying just out of reach. Her father’s braid, hanging on a belt- she knew whose but the face was blurred. The dream wouldn’t let her see clearly-

“Do you speak Gothic?”
She shook her head.
“Another refugee- poor thing.”
The woman made a sympathetic noise and motioned her inside. She was given a change of clothes. A pair of boots. Food. When she made a confused noise- she didn’t want to take it from someone who needed it more- the two women shook their heads. They tried to pray over her, tried to bathe her. She panicked and shoved them away, expecting a slap or a shout. But they just…looked at her. Like a wild thing. Like something to be pitied.

She didn’t want to dream anymore, frenzied and exhausted, trudging on towards the next settlement, the next safety.

But it came in again, like the tide, when fatigue pulled her down.

A Folktale for Rowan

Long ago, there was a little cottage perched high up the side of a mountain. This mountain towered over a little village and only one steep little footpath wound down from the heights. In that cottage, a druid named Bridget lived with her chickens Ruis and Luis, and her lovely red cow Caorann.

So as all observant children know, few things can grow in the high mountains. But the rowan tree loves the rocky cliffs and the wind in her leaves, and folk called the tree flying Rowan because of this. As it happened, the Druid’s cottage had five flying rowan trees growing around it, and in the spring when the tree was in full bloom the frothy white petals made it look like her house was ringed in clouds. In the late Summer, these flowers would ripen into flame red berries and were the favorite treat of Caorann the cow, the chickens, and the Druid herself.

Now on the lower slopes of this mountain, was the finest grazing land for miles around, and Bridget would take her cow to those fields to let her eat her fill. But the villagers would also use these grazing lands for their own cows. For years the druid and the villagers were able to share this land. But the Druid, being wise in the way of the trees, knew that when her rowan trees had a bountiful summer harvest, the following winter would be a hard one; and that the snows would last near to April and the grass on the slopes would be thin and late. So the druid saved the rowan berries. She threaded them on a string and dried them in her rafters, she made them into jelly, jam, and pies.

The druid weathered the long hard winter and sated herself on the rowan jams and other saved summer crops. But hunger struck hard at the village below, and where there are hungry bellies, malefic spirits will come to fill them. Knowing this, the Druid turned once again to her protectors, the rowan trees. She remembered that her mother had taught her the rhyme:

“Red thread and Rowan tree make evil spirits (Malefic) lose their speed.”

So the druid tied charms of rowan twigs with red thread and hung them above her chicken coop, and around the neck of the cow, and on the lintels of every door and window in her home for protection. By night she burned a few rowan twigs to aid her in her divination spells and listened well to what the gods told her. Her divinations told her that a mob of villagers, possessed by hunger spirits would come to burn down her cottage under the light of the full wolf moon.

To prepare, The druid wet down the walls of her cottage and her barn and redoubled her charms and she set trip threads with alarm bells along the narrow path up the mountain and wove red yarn into nets that she strung from her Rowan trees. When the moon rose full behind the winter clouds, a mob from the village tromped up the winding mountain path to her cottage. Blinded by the might of spirits that possessed them, the villagers stumbled over the alarms, and the druid knew that her predictions had been true. As the mob approached her door, she hid among her rowan trees, just as the possessed villager came under their canopies, she whispered to her tree friends, and the roots rose to bind their feet, and the nets fell upon them from above. Thus captured, she drove the spirits out of the villagers and banished them from the world. Now clear of mind, she freed the hapless and hungry people and shared with them some of the food she had saved for winter. She gave each one a protection charm of rowan and told them to plant the seeds near their houses, and sent them back down the mountain. Soon the spring came and new rowans sprouted, and all was well for many more years.

Straßen, the Game of Kings

Straßen is played on a square board with even spaces not unlike a chessboard. Though there are variations, the most common boards used in the court of Morgstadt from whence the game originates are 7×7 spaces. At the start of the game the board is empty, and in a standard game each player is given 40 common stones and 2 schloss stones.

Starting Play
Players alternate turns throughout the game. You must play on your turn – there is no option to pass. Straßen is played with only orthogonal movement and connection; squares are not connected diagonally and diagonal movement is not possible. On each player’s first turn, they will place one of their stones flat on any empty square of the board. Play then continues with players placing new stones or moving existing stones they control.

On Your Turn
On each turn, you can do one of two things: place a stone on an empty space, or move stones you control.

Placing Stones
On your turn, you can opt to place a stone from your reserve onto any empty square on the board. There are three stone types that can be placed: Flat Stone – The basic stone, laid flat on its face. This is what you use to build your straßen, or road. Standing Stone​ – The basic stone, but standing on an edge. Also called a wall. This does not count as part of a straßen, but other stones cannot stack on top of it. Schloss Stone – This is the most powerful piece. It, like a flat stone, counts as part of your road. Other stones cannot stack on top of it. The capstone also has the ability to move by itself onto a standing stone and flatten the standing stone into a flat stone. You can flatten both your opponent’s and your own standing stones in this way.

Moving Stones
The other option on your turn is to move stones that you control. If your stone is on the top of a stack, you control that entire stack. All three stone types (flat, standing, and schloss) can be moved, and moving is the only way to create stacks. There is no limit to how tall a stack can be. When moving stacks of stones, you cannot move more than 7 stones.

Stack Moves
Pick up any number of stones up to 7. Do not change the order of these stones. Move in a straight line in the direction of your choice – no diagonals and no changing direction. You must drop at least one stone from the bottom of the stack in your hand on each square you move over. You do not need to leave a stone in that stack’s starting space. You may not jump over walls or schloss stones. The schloss stone, if on the stack, may drop by itself onto a standing stone at the end of a move to flatten it.

Winning
The object of Straßen is to connect any two opposite edges of the board with your flat stones and schloss stone, creating a road. Any square or stack you control can count as part of a road (except ones with walls on them), but stones in a stack controlled by the other player do not. A road does not have to be a straight line; it can zig-zag across the board as long as all squares in the road are adjacent, not diagonal. If a player makes a single move that creates a road for both players, then the player who made the move wins. In the event that neither player creates a road and the board is either completely filled (no empty squares) or one of the players places their last piece, a secondary win condition comes into effect. When either of those cases is met, the game immediately ends and the winner is determined by counting who has more flat stones controlling the board. Only flat stones on the top of stacks or solely occupying a square are counted. The player with the higher flat count wins. A tie in the count results in a tie game.

Etiquette & Variants
As this game has been declared by many to be the Game of Kings, proper manners whilst playing have become an integral part of the game. That said, what constitutes good manners varies based upon the context of the game, and some variations have become standard for different rules sets.

The most commonly used etiquette is what is known as Court Manners, a style of play that is intimate and deferential, and is most closely associated with the game in its standard 7×7 variation. When threatening a road win on the next move, you must declare “Straßen”. Undoing your moves is both permissible and acceptable.

There is a variation of the game popular with the underclasses for its ease of transport played on a 5×5 board with 21 stones and one schloss per player, commonly known as Tavern Manners Straßen or derisively as “The Game of Merchants”. It’s a rowdier game than one played with Court Manners, and is prone to spectators, boasting, and betting. The goal is to win at any cost; as such declaring “Straßen” is considered to be against the spirit of the game, and taking back moves is not allowed.

A less common variant is known as Mage’s Manners Straßen, and originates from the halls of the Infragilis Vigilo in Scrow. Played on an 8×8 board with 50 stones and two schloss to a player, with the goal being to prove one’s cleverness and foresight. Moves can be taken back, but asking to do so means admitting a mistake. “Straßen” isn’t called; rather, when a player completes a road through an oversight of another player, it counts as a win, but the move is then taken back and the game continues. The player who wins three times first, or else orchestrates and inescapable win, is the one considered to have properly won the match.

A simple variant rule that can apply to any game variant is known as the Peasant’s Rule, which states “A player may not play their schloss stone until an opponent has played a wall or a schloss stone”. Though simple, this variant creates a clear delineation between two phases of gameplay: one where only flat stones may be played, and a second phase where anything goes. This variant rule is growing in popularity, as it grants the early game a unique flavor, opens the door for interesting strategy as to when one might wish to place the first wall, and leads to a dramatic ramping of tension throughout the game.

In Cold Blood

*Click.*
The mechanisms of his crossbow turned as Rosto thumbed the brass cylinder, a new habit formed quickly with the unusual machine. A bolt, tip honed to a murderous edge , settled snugly into place along side it’s siblings
*Click.*
His tools laid out on oil cloth, cleaned and tended to after a Market of hard use. Knives sharped and polished, throwing daggers honed and balanced, bow unstrung to rest and fouling blood and wrenched rust removed with the care of a master craftsman preparing for the next day.
*Click.*
His mind wandered, lulled by the familiarity of routine. To the Market, to the forest, to the cold and wet and dark. To his death. He hadn’t wanted to worry them, and with the murder of Nobility his own death was… inconsequential. Wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do the right thing. A great-blade singing through flesh and bone and fat and gore.
Funny, he remembered his blood being a different shade of red last time….
*Click.*
Laying in a pool of his own blood, the chilling mists stealing what warmth he had left, dim lights fading as everyone else left him behind. A whispered voice he could still hear, cold and soft, like freshly fallen snow
“How was your first death, hmm?”
*Click.*
Some part of his brain, far off and distant, wondered if he would ever be warm again.

*Click.*

*Click.*

*Click…*

Unlikely
After all, they always said he was a cold blooded killer

*Click.*

Postmortem

Esparei had died.
She knew that with terrible clarity.
Murdered on the bridge, then hidden in the woods. How cowardly. How cruel. How- cold the world suddenly was. Like nothing she’d ever felt. There was no gentle embrace of the divine. No final comfort. Just- cold.

“You poor girl.”
She didn’t know the voice. Her limbs started to twitch. Her skin knit together.

You’ll never be warm again.

She could sit up by some miracle- her fine gown crusted in blood and dirt, her pistol still clutched in her right hand. And the feeling of absolute dread, making the back of her neck tingle. Alone? No- not this time. Not her murderers. A woman.

Then- she was at the tavern door. Then, she was speaking plainly, artlessly, feeling hollow and violated until the anger shot up unexpectedly like a viper.

She had stripped bare, showing Vernon the ugly gashes across her torso- hacked at like she was nothing more than a thing, a piece of meat. She had demanded blood for blood, as was her right. She- she-

You’ll never be warm again.

She screamed. Like something had come undone in her. Like all the grief and rage were pouring out like a storm and she couldn’t stop. Not even if she tried. Screaming and sobbing and pressing herself as far into the corner of her room as she could, until Vernon, barely awake and panicking, rushed in and held her. Soothed her. Let her cry herself out while murmuring prayers softly and squeezing her hand.
“I think you should let the High Inquisitor examine you. I’m worried about you.”

She didn’t respond. Just squeezed his hand a little tighter.

Apple blossom

Esparei had delayed unpacking for as long as possible. But she’d finally caved and put everything away carefully, every gown, every robe, all of her furs, her books, things that reminded her of Capacionne. She unpacked the portrait last- her family, in a dreamy pastoral scene, a smaller copy of the painting in their home in Beauclair. A tree laden with blossoms on an island that had never known a storm. Whole and perfectly preserved for all time. She couldn’t look at it for long. It hurt too much. It just made her think of…that night four years ago. There had been so much blood. And fire. And- no. Don’t dwell on it. She already couldn’t shake the image of Victor collapsing, bloody and shocked. She’d thrown up after, begging Rollo to help her out of her masquerade gown, nearly in tears as he helped her change into something easier to move in, so she could go help that reckless Njord.

Ragnar.
She looked at the red flowers on her desk, next to a little wooden figure painted crimson. Such sweet gestures, from a person who was so loud, so, so chaotic- the gentle nature of his gifts was jarring, almost. When he’d been stabbed in the tavern, when Victor had gone after him, she’d shielded his body with hers, unthinking. That’s what you do when you protect someone, right? Not just with words and titles. Not hiding away waiting for her grandfather to call her home.

A tree laden with blossoms on an island that had never known a storm. Until the storm came. And now…being able to speak openly about the coup with Saga had felt like a cork had been pulled from her soul and everything poured out in that moment. They knew. They’d heard terrible things. They listened when she said how important it was to serve the people you are responsible for. They told her the plight of the Njords, of the suffering and the harsh, unyielding land they fought so hard to preserve. And it made her heart ache. She wanted to talk to Vernon more too, she’d felt so guilty for ruining her atonement. She wanted to tell Svanhildr everything. She wanted to hug Ragnar- he gave such good hugs, like nothing could happen and she was safe, if only for a moment. That comfort meant a lot when she was painfully homesick and lonely.

A tree, stripped bare by the storm. But still living.
A Lady, alone.

The Woodsman’s Hope

((Sentences or parts of sentences in all capitals seem to be written by a much more frantic and chaotic hand))

The warm summer sun shone down through the verdant canopy as a woodsman, new to this particular area, trudged on through the underbrush. There was a bit of a reprieve from the hotter-than-normal summer Njordir was having in the cool shade of the forest just outside Runehiem, but the evidence of hard work and exertion showed on this man’s clothes and brow. His pack, filled with materials gathered from the land, weighed on his shoulders, albeit still a burden he could bare. His clan taught him well the value of hard work and respect for the land. He ventured toward the top of a hill deep in the woods in search of a vantage point to get a lay of this new land, as well as a place to sit to enjoy his hand-made trail rations.

As he shifts through the brush, steps over fallen trees and rocks, and skips over small sinkholes, he thinks back on his parents. They were so caring and knowledgeable in their craft and taught him much raising him. HE’S JUST SO DISAPPOINTED THAT THEY HAD TO BREAK THE FAMILY APART. They taught him the best mixture of nuts, berries, flour, honey, and just a bit of animal fat to make these trail rations just the right thing for a hungry gatherer. All he’s learned in life has been from either his parents or his clan, EXCEPT VIOLENCE. He still misses them, EVEN THOUGH THEY DID THE UNTHINKABLE. As the woodsman sits on a fallen log atop the hill to enjoy his trail rations, he looks out into the forest and hopes he continues to make friends in this new village. For the short time he’s been here, it’s felt more and more like home AND WHERE HE BELONGS. He sees new paths forming toward bright futures, and not only the one involving taking a priestly vow. As he’s dwelling on the new friends he’s made, he finishes his trail rations and is ready to venture forth again.

He looks back from where he came, and a small ephemeral bird darts across his sight line. It was so quick, even the trained woodsman couldn’t fully catch it. He looks toward where it went and is met with just the typical sight of the dense foliage with several rays of sun piercing through the canopy for illumination. A voice stirs in his mind, “I HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR LIFE, EVERY ASPECT OF IT”. He blinks a few times and shakes his head. For good measure, he takes a drink from his water skin, and tries to focus on the voice again. Nothing but the chirping of the birds, the buzzing of insects, and, in the distances, the soft rushing of the river. He says a brief prayer for safety and turns to make his way back to his work and to town. This incident sits uneasy in his mind, BUT AS SOON AS HE LEAVES THE FOREST AND GETS BACK TO TOWN, IT IS OF LITTLE CONCERN TO HIM. He finds peace in his community and the act of helping them with their needs.

Over the next few weeks, during days when he ventures not into the wilderness, the woodsman is found practicing archery in whatever suitable open area is available, mostly out of preparation for the next season’s hunt BUT ALSO YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOURSELF. His thoughts, again, drift back to his parents. His mother was such a dependable hunter and member of the clan, BUT SUCH A DISAPPOINTMENT IN THE END. The clan trusted her with many a folkwise and leaned on her frequently for food and clothing for the winter. WHY DID SHE HAVE TO DO IT? WHY? WHY? WHY? The woodsman, gathering his arrows from his last volley, had tears welling up in his eyes. He wiped his eyes, nocked another arrow, and took just a second to aim. Just before he let the arrow fly, he closed his eyes and let images of hope fill his mind. Next he opened his eyes, he was met with the arrow jutting from the center of the makeshift target. “The light of Benalus is the gateway to hope, the road to salvation. I feel I have hope, so I must be on the right road,” The woodsman mumbles to himself.

Renown: Lord Wrex

Wrex’s reputation followed him to Runeheim as he arrived and made himself known to Court. Those in the know or those able to get rumors from abroad hear tales of their fearsome adherence to the fellowship of all Njords. Wrex prefers to leave his opponents alive with a permanent scar, a blemish from any injury inflicted even once it heals. Thus, they leave a reminder of Wrex’s ferocity and unwillingness to bend. Rumormongers speculate whether he uses a special blade whose wounds heal imperfectly or do they twist the edge just right upon striking to leave a jagged slash.

The Struggle of Writing Vows

“Two years ago when your father offered me your hand in marriage to solidify the alliance between our clans I thought that I could be content with. At first glance you were a right fit lass and when you demanded I take you to Saragossa with me I was impressed with your spirit. You took the journey in stride, the trials and tribulations of the city, my admittedly limited capacity for coping with stress—all of that you took in stride. You kept our home warm and inviting, food ready for me even when I was returning home from the taverns at ungodly hours in the morning. You’ve been a rock since we came to this cursed valley, and even then I couldn’t say to myself that I loved you. I was a bloody idiot.

As I held you in those woods and watched the light fade from your eyes I knew at that moment a world without you waiting for me when I got home was not a world I could not accept. As I chased the people that had done this to you through the woods I was hardly concerned with my sword…I just wanted to hurt them for what they did to you. That was the moment I realized that there was nothing in the world that meant more to me than you. Every kind word, small gesture of affection, every moment spent with you drove me forwards and I truly believe brought me out of that alive.

Fiona MacLaren I love you with all of my heart and soul, and until I draw my last breath I will continue to work to be a man worthy of your love. I will live my life as the sword and shield that protects you from all the bad things in the world and nothing and no one will keep us apart.”

With a heavy sigh Niall crumpled the parchment he was writing on and tossed it to the side. This was the seventh time he’d attempted to scribe his weeding vows to Fiona, and the seventh time he’d found himself increasingly disappointed at the lack of words he could muster to describe his feelings. He looked over at the bed they shared and smiled softly watching the heavy wool blankets rise and fall as she slept. As much as he wanted to send her to Porto Fino, there was a great comfort in having her here. Seeing that she was alive and well, reminding him that he didn’t lose her. Occasionally he’d find himself in a moment of panic unable to calm down until he saw her or heard her.

The last few days he’d been so focused on tending to her recovery that he’d still been putting off the emotional labor of working through his own truama. As far as Niall was concerned that could come later, keeping Fiona safe and seeing them and the rest of his circle of friends through this crisis was top priority. Though he could hear Saorise and Arineh chastising him now about taking care of himself, in fact he was overdue for one of those conversations sometime soon.

As he set his writing supplies away Niall found himself thinking to the conversation he had with Sinnoch last forum. At the time when he was asked if he was happy Niall couldn’t respond. He didn’t know what happiness was, all he knew was his duty. But for now as he crawled beside the woman he’d given up his moorsword to protect he could imagine that one day he could very well answer yes to that question—and that was all he could ask for at the moment.

Tales of Dark Folkwise

Eloi had traveled through most of the lands occupied by man, and every place he had been had their own local folkwise. Most of these ventured into dark territory, often literally.There was always that one hill that people didn’t go up after dark. There was always some place that was colder than the lands around it. There was always something that lived in the woods that there were customs on how to avoid. These were tales on the dangers that existed and how to avoid or at least mitigate them.

In Capacionne, there was no exception. Travellers hurried past crossroads at night and knew that if you were addressed by somebody familiar that called you to wait in the middle, it was not them. The traveller would apologise and continue forward and wait till what was considered a safe distance away to see if they were still being addressed. Above all, when experiencing something unknown or possibly supernatural, it was important to be polite and pretend nothing was out of the normal. Then, never to speak of it again to anybody except perhaps you priest. To talk about such things publically was ….unwise. Similarly, farmers, gardners, and even woodsmen would address the plants they were to cut or disturb, either to apologize or thank them. A lack of respect never gained any friends and a kind or flattering word might put an enemy off just long enough to escape.

Rogalia was a nation that still had respect for the night. The vampire lords were gone, but many of their servants still exist. Never go into the woods at night to investigate the strange lights. If you live away from a town or village, you don’t look out of the windows into the dark. Just don’t. Even if there are strange noises, you might think it is animals, but it’s not. If you have to investigate, go to the door and open it boldly with a lantern and weapon in hand. Whatever it is seems not too keen on being confronted. They flee, …usually. People know that there are packs of wolves that will hunt lone travelers which not only are able to speak but will know the traveller’s name. Do not run or they will sense weakness and tear you apart. Do not listen, because their words are more dangerous than their claws. Sometimes eyes will peer out of the woods. Not the eyes of an animal reflecting a lantern’s light, but those that glow like hot coals of a dying fire. It is best that you make it to a spot with light and other people, as if you keep watching for them, they will be moving closer to you when you are not looking at them.

Dunland is no different. As it gets late in the pubs, and the Rogalians are gone and it is nothing but locals, you can hear things only spoken in whispers. There’s a road through the woods that you do not take, even in the day. There is that cold feeling you get in that one place. There is a deep understanding that something exists out in the moors that is older than man, that doesn’t care about us particularly, but is more than willing to kick us in the slats as let us pass unmolested. Those that are more drunk will tell of things that stand like a man but run on all fours, at least till they figure they have spoken too much and will refuse to talk any more. Every pub has their own methods of avoiding trouble if one must venture into the moors at night. Most involve some form of tribute or distractions such as beer poured into a hole dug in the ground or an offering of small cakes left on a rock, but these are all closely guarded secrets. Many Rennets disappear in Dunland and not as many are due to the Dunns as the Rogalians think.

The Shariqyn have their own stable of tales of monsters that inhabit the desert and the night. Witches with tangled hair that will steal children that wander away from a caravan or perhaps cause a man to wander away from his camp and deeper into the desert. Ghosts that demand hospitality. Birds that will mimic the whistling of a nightguard, and even other sounds including speech. Caves filled with treasure that will curse anyone that takes some. So many there could be books filled with such tales. Most of these seem like the standard assortment of cautionary and morality tales told to children. Then you see the fear of a mother who can’t find their child at night, or how the old men will grow quiet and alert when they hear and owl far from any trees.

Gotha, the seat of the Throne, has their own tales and customs. The woods are dark and ancient and filled with things that are also dark and ancient. When traveling through deep woods, make sure to keep track of everybody in the group and know them all by face. It’s a game to them and they like to insert themselves into the group and just observe before they strike. It’s said that the dower demeanor of the Gothic is because there are Things that laughter summons best not met. Even in Holy Lethia, there are cellar doors that are always locked from sundown to sunrise, rooms that shouldn’t be entered, and alleys to be avoided. These are always done on the orders of a priest, or so people say.

The Hestrali have their own collection of wisdom that seems to deal mostly with lovers or eating and drinking. If you have been pursuing a person who has rebuffed your advances, yet you meet them alone at night by the sea wanting to swim, just don’t. It’s not them. When serving meals at a table, never have an empty seat. Invite somebody, put something in it, or just move the chair. An empty seat is an invitation. So is a full glass nobody has claimed.

The Njords know that no matter which god you worship, you do not bother the large stone in the middle of the field or that old tree. If you do, bad things will happen as the fea and elves still have their places of power. There is always some idiot that will decide to chop down THAT tree, and you will see the bravest warrior decide they should not be a part of what is going on. Older njords will just say “Those poor fuckers. They’re doomed.” In some of the farming villages built recently, an important person will have some rock that was cleared away dug back up from the rubbish pile and put back in place. The most impossible things have been happening to sabotage the village production, and only replacing the rock makes things return to normal.