Disclaimer: The following narrative depicts events, characters and locations that feature in the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign Curse of Strahd. I do not own the rights to Curse of Strahd or Dungeons & Dragons, which are the property of © Wizards of the Coast 2016. Despite references to this material, the focus of the narrative is the development of Scarlet Hughes; a character of my own design. At best this can be considered fan-fiction. Curse of Strahd has provided my friends and I with hours of fun with plenty more to come. Please support the official release.
Day One in Barovia - Part 1
In the act of self-preservation I have unintentionally gotten myself caught up in something I do not fully comprehend. By Stanimir’s claim I am now in the land of Barovia yet no map of the northern territories I have seen indicates such a place is even remotely close. Despite this, we have arrived in a manner of hours. For this reason I will be abandoning the standardized calendar system and simply count the days as I perceive them. Perhaps the act of documentation will help minimize the punishment I receive for abandoning my post.
After a time we reached a small township. As grim a hamlet as I have ever seen. Stanimir referred to it plainly as “Barovia Village.” It had several muddy streams that resembled streets, the banks of which were lined with dilapidated houses. Most of these dwellings were heavily boarded up. Those that weren’t looked more or less abandoned. Even in the grey light of the overcast sun I could make out unsettling scratches all over the windows and doors. Somewhere in the distance I could hear anguished wailing.
The village was nestled into the space beneath an overlooking precipice, atop which the dark spires of a castle loomed. The shadow of the cliff veiled the town in a menacing darkness that seemed to ignore the sun’s light. Buildings of note were a manor of sorts near the entrance to the village and an old church near the cliff face. The dismal state of the place must have left a mark on my face given the expression Stanimir met me with.
‘This place is cursed, my dear,’ he spoke solemnly. ‘The land and its people. We have not known happiness in a long time. Not since our great prince became cursed as his curse is ours to bear also. Only we,’ he gestured to our caravan, ‘the Vistani, are free to leave Barovia. And it is with that small blessing that we can find heroes who might be able to help us. We must do what we can to free our dark lord.’
I ignored his comment about heroes. Whatever curse that sapped his happiness seemingly took his sensibility also. Even if I was reckless enough to abandon my own responsibilities to help these people, what good is one soldier going to do on the grand scheme of things?
The further into the village we got, the loader the wailing became. The sheer volume of it was enough to make my hair stand on end. What was most disturbing of all was how every other resident of the village seemed to be actively ignoring it. Even my hosts seemed determined to ride on by.
Stanimir caught me looking at him and gently shook his head. For all his charm and flare, it was evident in his eyes that he was a defeated man. Unlike his fellow countrymen it seemed he was still in a state of desperation rather than hopelessness.
A portion of cheer returned to Stanimir’s face as we made our way up the road. ‘Come, drink with us,’ he said, pointing to a structure ahead of us. ‘My people will be thirsty. We will stop here for a time.’
The sign above the building read “Blood of the Vine,” albeit someone had scratched the “of” into an “on.”
‘I mustn’t drink on the job,’ I replied curtly and stepped off the carriage as it slowed to a stop outside the tavern. ‘Water will do fine.’
Stanimir released a cough of a laugh. ‘On the job? We’re pretty far from your home, my dear. Whoever you answer to must have long arms if they think they can slap your wrist from here.’
I raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Personal discipline does not have arms.’
‘Of course,’ he replied, bowing his head slightly. I left him at his carriage to investigate the tavern.
The inside was as dreary as the outside. Mismatched grey tables were scattered about the room housing a few guests. A tall stone-faced barman methodically polished glasses behind the counter. His eyes watched me under heavy lids. A group of three women who appeared to be locals sat in one corner whispering conspiratorially. They glanced repeatedly at a man on the other side of the room who sat alone. He wore the same morbid colours as everyone else, yet their make was of a higher quality. Despite the women’s volume, I overhead one refer to him as “Ismark the Lesser.”
I was jostled by a dwarf on his way to the bar as the rest of the Vistani convoy arrived. I slipped my fingers under my belt pouch. The leather was uncut. I turned to check if there were any more entering the bar and caught the eye of a middle-aged woman.
She was about five-foot-eleven, wiry build, brown eyes and mousy brown hair in a taught bun. Wore an expensive looking tweed and leather traveller’s outfit and a disapproving glare. She certainly wasn’t Vistani.
‘You don’t appear to be a local,’ I said as I approached her. ‘Perhaps you can assist me.’ I extended a hand. ‘Second lieutenant Scarlet Hughes.’
She looked down at my hand, met my eyes, then took my fingers and gave them a brief tug.
‘Enib Blöten,’ she said and began to survey the room.
‘Circumstances have brought me to this town and I desire to leave as soon as I am able. How well do you know these roads?’
‘Not at all I’m afraid. There was a curious mist on the way here that hampered my ability to navigate so I cannot provide directions if that is what you seek?’
‘I suspected as much. The mist was strange indeed. It’s hard to articulate.’
She watched me carefully, her face a passive mask. ‘Perhaps you should ask the locals?’
‘I was hoping to avoid that,’ I said with a light sigh.
A smirk flashed briefly across Enib’s face. ‘If it cannot be avoided…’ She continued to examine the room. Shortly after she made her way towards the man they called “Ismark.” Enib seemed to have a capable head on her shoulders. I followed.
The man met us with a weak attempt at a smile. It was difficult to tell his height from a seated position but he was relatively well built for a man living in such an impoverished looking place. He had shoulder length blonde hair and greyish-blue eyes that watched our approach with little enthusiasm. He pulled out an adjacent chair.
‘Greetings,’ he said. Enib took the seat he offered and I pulled out one for myself. He raised his goblet and his other hand. ‘Barman. Two more please.’
‘Actually, just water for me thanks,’ corrected Enib.
‘Likewise,’ I added. The man seemed momentarily surprised but rapidly regained his composure.
‘Two waters please,’ he called to the barman then returned his attention to us. ‘My apologies. There aren’t many people in Barovia who would elect to be sober. Though by the looks of things, you two aren’t from around here.’ He nodded to me. ‘That uniform seems familiar but it’s certainly not ours. Stanimir must have done it again… I forget myself. Ismark Kolyanovich. A pleasure to meet you.’
I was momentarily distracted by the loud grating of two tables being dragged together by the dwarf and a crossbreed of sorts. Perhaps elven, given the fold in his ears. The dwarf placed an obscene amount of wine on the table and made attempts at drowning himself with it. Disgusted, I turned back to Ismark.
‘I have been speaking with Stanimir about this land and he claims only he and his people can leave,’ I explained after introductions were complete. ‘What do you make of this?’
‘Stanimir may be a storyteller but what he says is true, to the best of my understanding,’ Ismark said darkly. ‘Nobody who has left Barovia village for the outside lands has ever returned.’
The dwarf and the crossbreed were taking an uncomfortable interest in our conversation.
‘That’s not to say they didn’t make it,’ interjected Enib. ‘They just haven’t come back. I mean…’ She rolled her head in a way to indicate our current surroundings.
Ismark gave a stale laugh. ‘Right you are. There’s not much to come back to here. As miserable as the people of Barovia may seem, we do maintain integrity of character. If someone had found a way to escape this godforsaken place, we would know about it. Hell, if that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’
My disappointment must have shown because Ismark’s demeanour lost its bitter edge. ‘Fear not. You are not of this land which means you may be able to escape it. Alas, I do not have the means of getting you to your respective homes, but at least let me extend an offer of hospitality. Come by my manor this evening where you may seek shelter. Trust me when I say you do not want to be out at night.’
The sincerity in his voice as he spoke his last sentence was like rain down the back of my neck.
‘Stanimir mentioned a “Madam Eva” to me,’ I said. ‘He claimed she may be able to help me get home. Does that hold true with your knowledge?’
‘Madam Eva?’ Ismark thought for a moment. ‘Her witch-magic or whatever it is she does may be of assistance. In all honesty, I do not know. But if Stanimir thinks it might help, it’s better than sitting around hoping for better weather.’
We sat in uncomfortable silence as Ismark finished his drink. The water the barman brought us tasted like wood.
‘What can you tell us about this place?’ asked Enib, gingerly sipping at her mug.
‘Barovia?’ Ismark cleared with throat with an expression reserved for gazing at mold. ‘This village is named after the greater land. Though “greater” is not a term I would use. Barovia is ruled by Strahd von Zarovich.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Strahd is a tyrant. He is a monster you do not wish to cross. If you can get out of here before he notices you, all the better.’
‘What can you tell us about this Stahd?’ implored Enib quietly.
‘I make no jest when I call him a monster. But we will not speak of him here.’
‘Certainly,’ replied Enib. ‘It looks like the Vistani are settling in so we may have a little time on our hands. Do you know anything of that awful wailing? Surely not everyone is deaf to it?’
I didn’t think it possible but Ismark’s expression fell even further. ‘Ah. Dear Mary. It can only be one thing.’
His response was a mix of exhaustion and helpless sympathy.
‘And people are happy just to let a woman suffer like that?’ Enib pressed. ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?’
‘I’m sure you will come to understand that the misery in Barovia is ever present.’ Ismark’s eyes were locked on the table. ‘Those of us who have enough soul left to persevere rarely have any to spare for others. What is her misfortune today will be someone else’s tomorrow.’
‘Well that is unacceptable,’ said Enib curtly, rising to her feet. ‘If you can direct me to her house, I will go and see her myself.’
Ismark inhaled deeply through his nose and stood up. ‘Of course.’
I stood as well. Seeing this woman might have helped me get a better understanding of what I had gotten myself into. The crossbreed followed, leaving the dwarf to kill himself with alcohol.
The mud sucked at our heels as we made our way through the village streets. Residents gave us passing glances, looking away whenever I met their eyes. One man even shook his head. The wailing grew louder as we walked until Ismark brought us to a dreary, two-storeyed stack-house.
‘Mary?’ he cried, knocking on the door. When there was no break in the wailing he tried the handle. It twisted open without resistance. After kicking off some of the mud on his boots, he led the way inside.
The volume of the wailing doubled once we were indoors. The sheer anguish in it was harrowing to behold. The bottom storey consisted of a single room that doubled as the kitchen and dining space. A skinny staircase clung to the eastern wall. Ismark tentatively climbed it, calling out to Mary as he did so. Enib followed him directly, as did the crossbreed with surprising confidence.
I set my teeth and followed them up. I was half expecting to see the walls coated in gore by the all the noise she was making. I would say I was relieved when it was just a middle-aged woman cradling a doll, if it wasn’t so unsettling that is. Seeing Ismark prompted her to attempt to articulate the source of her distress but the best she could do was scream two names at him.
‘Gertruda! Gertruda! My sweet Gertruda! Strahd! Oh Gertruda!’
Ismark knelt down on the floorboards next to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘Hush. Hush, Mary. I’m here. Speak to me.’
Mary’s wailing subsided to choking sobs. ‘Stahd, Ismark! Strahd took my Gertruda from me! She’s gone! She’s gone! She’s-’
Mary’s words collapsed into cries once again. Ismark stroked her shoulders then removed the doll from her arms so he could take her hands. He passed it behind where it was received by the crossbreed, of all people.
‘It’ll be okay,’ he said with such sincerity it made both Ismark and Mary turn to look up at him. He turned the doll over in his hands as he spoke. ‘My name is Asher. I’ll help you get your daughter back.’ He gave them a smile so genuine I couldn’t tell if he was delusional or brilliant. Either way, he managed to calm Mary enough that she stopped crying. I had heard stories of the magic of elves and I suspected he had elven blood in him.
‘What happened Mary?’ asked Ismark with a steady voice.
She sniffed loudly and rubbed her eyes with her sleeves. ‘Strahd. Strahd came two nights ago and stole Gertruda away. She opened the window to him and he pulled her into the night. He must have taken her up to Ravenloft.’
‘Well if he wanted her dead he would have killed her right here,’ I said from the back of the room. Mary’s eyes welled up as her face contorted.
‘What she’s trying to say is that it’s likely Gertruda is still alive,’ cut in Asher before Mary could start crying again. ‘And if she’s still alive, then we can bring her back to you.’
‘Yeah… that,’ I added sheepishly. I wasn’t sure of this “we” he was referring to, but he’d succeeded in comforting Mary. I doubted anyone’s ability to help Gertruda. Any entity that steals people from their homes at night is hardly going to treat them pleasantly. I was unsure if it would be crueller to be upfront with her or suspend her misery for a few more days.
‘Come,’ said Ismark, hauling Mary to her feet. ‘It’s hardly safe here. Come stay with us at the manor. At least there we can look out for one another.’
Mary bit her lip and nodded slowly. She took the doll back from Asher who gave her a pat on the back. On the way out Ismark nearly tripped over the dwarf from the bar. Somehow in his drunken state he’d managed to follow us to Mary’s house. He was sitting on the doorstep plucking away at some kind of malformed lute.
‘Excuse me,’ Ismark said as he stepped around him. The dwarf staggered to his feet and we shuffled past. He stunk of wine and soil.
‘I must return to the Vistani but will be back this evening,’ I said, adjusting my travel satchel.
‘Be sure to be indoors before then,’ said Ismark grimly. ‘I will take Mary back with me so she can be safe… Well as safe as I can provide. Nowhere is safe but in rumour.’
I turned to leave and was joined by Enib and Asher.
‘You will go to see Madam Eva also?’ I asked them.
‘To see if she has anything worthwhile to share,’ replied Enib. ‘I would keep my expectations low, however. If she is a leader of sorts for people like the Vistani, I am sceptical as to how useful her rambling may be.’
‘Any information is going to be more useful than what I currently know.’
‘A fair response. And you…?’
‘Asher,’ he said with a grin. ‘I’m not too sure what’s going on. Talking to her might help so I’ll give it a go.’
Enib squinted at him but nodded all the same.
We arrived back at the bar just in time to see the carts packing up. I hustled to catch one at the rear. When I noticed the dwarf was still following us I upped my pace enough to get an extra cart ahead. Maybe if we were lucky he’d fall off into a gutter somewhere. Asher took a seat on the back of the cart with me.
He was very well built; toned muscle of a labourer. I was taller than he by several inches coming in at six-foot-three. His hair was dark brown, almost black. He had quite a plain face that hosted a pair of shining green eyes. Whatever happiness he displayed for Mary seemed genuine. Whether or not he fully grasped the weight of my, and assumedly his, predicament was uncertain. Regardless, his demeanour would make for a pleasant switch from the Barovian locals.
I nibbled on trail rations as we rode across the countryside. Clouds made it difficult to tell the time but from what I could gauge it was past noon by an hour or so. We approached a crossroads which was marked by gallows. What I saw next perplexed me greatly.
Believe me when I say I have keen eyes. A markswoman needs to have high visual acuity to strike a moving target at distance. I do not doubt my eyes, which unfortunately leads me to doubt my head. For hanging from the noose, swaying gently in the wind was Asher. Or someone who looked exactly like him. I looked from Asher to the hanged man and back to Asher. He hadn’t noticed.
In writing this I am beginning to question the integrity of my memory and I may very well be still in my bed in Skudthorpe. Yes, work has been monotonous but I could dream of something less… drastic.
Eventually we reached a Vistani camp. Our hosts parked their carriages and went to join their friends and family. Stanimir beckoned us from the back of the convoy to a tent that stood taller than the others. Strange patterns were sewn into the tent’s fabric.
‘Madam Eva awaits,’ he said and pulled the entry flap of the tent open.
I ducked my head and entered. The inside was surprisingly spacious. A hunched woman buried within a hand-sewn shawl stooped over a tiny stove. Smoke from the coals was being funnelled out of a hole in the top of the tent but kept the whole structure a comfortable temperature.
The woman twisted her head and greeted me with a semi-toothed grin. ‘Welcome, welcome. Take a seat, travellers.’
I didn’t like being boxed in with the other stragglers, especially since the dwarf had managed to stay with us, but I wasn’t here to argue. Similarly, Madam Eva was clearly a soothsayer of sorts. I don’t buy into that type of tomfoolery but disrespecting her would get me nowhere. So I kept quiet and let her talk. I’ll admit I was curious enough to take notes, however childish that may seem.
‘I know why you are here, travellers,’ said Madam Eva as she removed an item from within her robes. ‘You seek information.’
The object was a deck of cards which she began to shuffle.
‘Information I can provide. How you interpret it is up to you.’
She began placing the cards in front of her in some kind of formation.
‘I just wish to go home, Madam,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me how to do that?’
Madam Eva looked up into my eyes. They were so grey I was doubtful she could actually see. Her mouth stretched into a wicked smile.
‘That power is not with me, child. Only Strahd can let you leave. You would have to convince him or kill him. In either case in your current state, your chances are laughable. But I may be of some assistance still.’ She gestured at the cards that formed a cross on the ground between us.
‘Well,’ said Enib, standing up and dusting herself off. ‘What you’re doing here is clearly pagan and I won’t partake in it.’ Before Madam Eva could respond she was gone.
Madam Eva didn’t seem affected by her comment at all. ‘We shall begin.’
The first card, the topmost to Madam Eva and the closest to me was revealed to be a kneeling woman clutching a rose.
‘The Enchantress,’ Madam Eva explained. ‘Knowledge of the ancient. A rose plucked too soon. The master of the marsh knows.’
The second card, the rightmost to Madam Eva, portrayed an armoured man lying on his back.
‘The Paladin. A holy symbol of great hope. A sleeping prince. A servant of the light. A brother of the darkness. The treasure lies with him.’
The third card, the closest to Madam Eva, was of a character wielding fire and lightning.
‘The Elementalist. Power. A weapon of vengeance. Look to the Wizard of Wines. In wood and sand a treasure hides.’
The fourth card, the final point of the cross, depicted a spirit moaning in the skies.
‘The Ghost. An ally against darkness. A fallen paladin of a fallen order of knights. He lingers like a ghost in a dead dragon’s lair.’
The final card, the centre of the cross, revealed a spectre-like figure riding on a black stallion.
‘The Horseman. The guide. He lurks where he must return. A place of death.’
Madam Eva leaned back on her haunches, observing our reaction. I looked to Asher who seemed delighted. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this meeting but I can say it didn’t make me feel any more secure.
What a load of poppycock.