The following post is the first chapter of an unfolding story. The content comes from the perspective of a character I am playing in a game of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The narrator is Scarlet Hughes, a character inspired by the glorious efforts of the hero in my first post on this blog. Much like her originator, Scarlet is a soldier (an officer of the lowest rank) and has been caught up in something beyond her control. The events, locations and characters this story depicts, and those to follow, come from the published campaign Curse of Strahd. I do not own the rights to Curse of Strahd which is the property of © Wizards of the Coast 2016. Despite references to this material, the focus of these stories is on the development of Scarlet as a character. At best, this can be considered fan-fiction. What I have experienced so far of the Curse of Strahd campaign has been superb thanks to the combination of excellent writing from the people at Wizards and Kennedy's top-notch DMing, and I highly recommend getting a copy of the campaign and giving it a go. With, let us begin...
24th day of Highsun, 1491 DR
I have been stationed at Skudthorpe in the Northern region. A godforsaken place I can admit and the locals would agree with me. I had second lieutenants Olma and Sergor in my company overseeing thirty footmen who made up Skudthorpe’s defensive force. Our current project was teaching the local militia basic weapon’s training. Half these peasants wouldn’t think holding a sword by the sharp end was a bad idea and the other half would try it and learn the hard way. I am too cruel though, they are improving.
Mayor Morwen summoned me to her office this afternoon. She’s developed a habit of assigning me personal tasks whenever some inconvenience arises. I find the best way to deal with them is immediately. I informed second lieutenant Olma that I would be absent for this evening’s rounds and met with the mayor.
‘Just the woman I need!’ she said as soon as I arrived. ‘I’m sure you’re aware of the traveller problem we’ve been having in the woods to the east. They’ve been terrifying the locals, distributing unlicensed intoxicants, and now my messenger boy claims they’ve laid a curse upon him. It’s gone on long enough. At first light tomorrow you’re going to head out and tell them in no uncertain terms that they’re not wanted in these parts. In fact, if they are not gone by the evening, I command you to burn their caravan to the ground.’
With that, she began shuffling her paperwork, signifying I was dismissed.
‘Ma’am,’ I acknowledged and returned to my duties.
Nothing more to report on today apart from an arrest on Aro Street. One charge of property damage and one charge of being drunken and disorderly.
Mayor Morwen’s orders required me to watch over the site of the travellers until evening so I must pack for a full day. Ideally they will go peacefully and the most use my bow will get will be hunting supper.
25th day of Highsun, 1491 DR
Today’s report will be somewhat unconventional given my current circumstances. What I will be writing may seem like the ill-disciplined thoughts of a child who has been told too many ghost stories, but alas it is how I have perceived the events that have occurred. I will be as honest as I can in what I report and you may call me a fool if you desire and I will gladly agree with you. I am still waiting for someone to wake me up and tell me I’ve been dreaming this entire time.
My route out to the travellers would take me to the forests in no-man’s land. The locals call them “Bulla’s Beard” because they border the mouth to a large canyon. I have no inkling as to who this “Bulla” character is as local folklore does not interest me. Most of it is nonsense anyway, like witches stealing children and the like.
I arrived at the perpetrators’ camp about an hour after sunrise. The travellers were already making themselves busy but I managed an audience. I was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Stanimir. Five-foot-nine, balding white hair, goatee, large silver hoop earrings and glassy eyes.
‘Ah, you have all arrived,’ he said, indicating to myself and three other curious folk who had arrived from different directions. A strange coincidence indeed. Before I could make my demands he spoke again.
‘I assume you all want us to leave. You need not worry, my friends, for we will go peacefully. We do not want any bloodshed, I assure you.’
His prediction caught me off guard. Perhaps they had dealt with other soldiers in the past and knew I wasn’t here to give them flowers. If they weren’t going to put up a fuss then I could be grateful for that.
‘We will go,’ he continued, ‘on one condition; you let me tell you a story.’
It seemed childish but was also provided the least resistance. I suspect trying to rally this lot against their will would take longer than listening to some gypsy’s folklore anyway. Stanimir took a swig of wine and spat it into the fireplace. The flames turned green and a dark figure on horseback was visible within them. This bard’s showmanship was nothing short of the infamy his kind harbours.
‘We come from an ancient land whose name is long forgotten – a land of kings. Our enemies forced us from our homes, and now we wander the lost roads.’
The dark shape in the fire took the form of a man being knocked from his horse, a spear piercing his side. I had heard of magicks in stories before but this was the first time I’d seen it used to tell one. First time I’d seen it at all, actually. Stanimir continued.
‘One night, a wounded soldier staggered into our camp and collapsed. We nursed his terrible injury and quenched his thirst with wine. He survived. When we asked him who he was, he wouldn’t say. All he wanted was to return home, but we were deep in the land of his enemies. We took him as one of our own and followed him back toward his homeland. His enemies hunted him. They said he was a prince, but we did not give him up, even when their assassins fell upon us like wolves.’
Deep in the bonfire the figure was standing with its sword drawn, fighting of a host of shadows.
‘This man of royal blood fought to protect us, as we protected him. We brought him safely to his home, and he thanked us. He said, “I owe you my life. Stay as long as you wish, leave when you choose, and know that you will always be safe here.”’
The figure in the flames vanquished its final foe then disappeared into smoke and embers. Stanimir’s demeanour seemed to darken.
‘A curse has befallen our noble prince, turning him into a tyrant. We alone have the power to leave his domain. We’ve travelled far and wide to find heroes such as yourselves to end our dread lord’s curse and put his soul to rest. Our leader, madam Eva, knows all. Will you return to Barovia with us and speak with her?’
His request was ridiculous to say the least. His concept of societal responsibility was laughable, but I suppose it is to be expected, given the man’s lifestyle. I pity his children. It’s take a lot of willpower to rise above the cycle. Even getting such a thought into their heads would be a small miracle on its own.
Needless to say I declined. Once he and his lot were gone I surveyed the site of their encampment. They had been surprisingly thorough with their evacuation of the site, leaving only cart tracks and smouldering embers. I buried the fire and spend the next hour on guard in case they returned.
Over the hour a thick mist set in from the canyon. It crept up through the trees until it surrounded my position. I do not know how much further it extended beyond that point. It was so dense I could barely see ten paces ahead of me. It would be impossible to hunt in these conditions so I decided it would be appropriate to head for home.
The mist had a strange quality to it that I can’t fully articulate. It felt unnaturally heavy and the air was unnervingly chilly. Somewhere deep within it I could sense something. I’m exactly sure what, or even if it was alive. At any rate, it heightened my urge to return home.
The path was easy enough to find. I had my bearings so I knew I was heading in the right direction, which makes the next occurrence all the more perplexing. At first I could hear it, ahead of me through the fog. Then a large dark shape edged towards me. A cart. A whole convoy in fact. And at the front was Stanimir.
‘I see you’ve changed your mind,’ he said with a grin.
‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘If you intend on returning to your previous campsite I have permission to torch your wagons. Whether or not you are still in them at the time was not a detail that was specified.’
‘A curious response,’ he said, maintaining his grin, ‘for we have been travelling home this entire time. Perhaps you have gotten lost in all this mist?’
‘Impossible. I have been following this path which leads directly to Skudthorpe.’
‘Of course, my dear. But that does not change the fact that we too have been following this path directly as it takes us back to our home. And back to you so it seems. Perhaps we can offer you a ride, at least until this mist clears out. If what we both say is true and we have been unerring in our journeys home yet still arrived at the same place, then we must be truly nowhere. And if we are nowhere, then it really doesn’t matter what direction you take for you will be nowhere still. In which case, will you join us for a ride? Surely you would not wander these roads to nothing alone?’
Stanimir made me uncomfortable, but the mist made me more so. The prospect of spending the next hour or so wandering through it in near-blindness lacked any sort of appeal.
‘Fine,’ I replied, albeit hesitantly.
Stanimir shuffled over to make room for me at the head of the cart. I climbed aboard and we continued through the mist. For the most part we didn’t talk. Some of the gypsies several carts back were making music. Eventually Stanimir felt the need for conversation. I can’t say I provided much in return but I tolerated him talking at me. If I was going to be spending the next hour or so with this man, it might pay to know what he thought was worthwhile talking about.
His tales consisted largely of family and the various lands he had visited in search for “heroes.” Given how many places the man claimed to have been to, his “heroes” didn’t seem to be all that accomplished. The fact that he expected me to abandon my own responsibilities to help him and his people over a campfire story only goes to show how poor a judge of character he was. Although there is an element of flattery in his request, he seemed delusional.
I lost track of time as we travelled. Not because of any preoccupation with Stanimir but the mist was so thick I could not even see where the sun was. Gradually it began to thin and the gypsies’ music quietened. Through the mist I could make out twisted tree unlike any I had seen before in the northern territory. They were without leaves and looked dead for the most part yet I could see moisture glistening on their mossy trunks.
Beyond our sight, things moved in the underbrush. I looked to Stanimir but his face revealed nothing. It lacked the naïve cheerfulness he had held up to this point. The rest of the convoy was mostly quiet as well.
Eventually an enormous shape rose out of the mist. A set of gargantuan iron gates that split an equally tall wall blocked our path. Standing on either side of the gates were giant stone knights. The statues had been vandalised as both of their heads lay half-concealed in the overgrown grass beneath.
Our approach was greeted by a horrible shrieking as the ancient gates opened on their own accord. Completely unsettled, we rode on. Stanimir turned to me, his face grim.
‘Welcome to Barovia.’