Curse of Strahd – 1 – Once Upon a Time in a Tavern

In which the party meets, gets a strange letter and sets out on a misty road.

With not a penny to my name, I’d entered the inn, hoping that the group of other stragglers would distract from me not ordering anything. They could buy me time to stand by the fire and warm my bones. Last night’s evil dream had kept me shivering all day. Clutching an empty mead-glass left by another patron as if it were mine, I glance around the table where I had slipped into a seat.

At my right elbow, a pair of amber eyes catches mine. “Which deity do you serve?” “Ll-Lliira.” I mutter, before realizing that someone who is that handsome and that well-dressed will surely not be talking to me. I try for a welcoming smile to gloss over the moment, but feel my face flushing with embarrassment. I look to my left to see who this foreigner was talking to, but see only a wide-brimmed hat and a pulled-up scarf and nothing more than little glints of eyes in between. A well-worn leather book lies between their elbows.

Across from me, a jovial-looking dwarf elbows an elf in the ribs. “You? A gnome?” he bellows “Yeah, you’re a gnome and my great-auntie sails a threemaster through the sands of Anaurouch, alright!” The elf looks at the dwarf with a remarkably mild expression. “I do admit I am somewhat vertically overendowed. But for all intents and purposes, yes, a gnome. Fitzworth Tiddlywink of Treewhistle. Pleased to meet you.” The elf…ah.. tall gnome extends a hand to the dwarf, who shakes it as if he were trying to pump water. “Grismar. Of the Stoneburner clan. Much pleased, yes, much pleased to find myself in company again. Since my hunting partner was killed by some foul undead, it’s been lonely out there.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder, towards the door. The figure to my left sits up a little straighter and makes an almost imperceptible nod to that statement.

A piercing screech draws everyone’s eyes to the corner of the table where no one had yet taken a seat. I startle. A barstool slides into the empty spot, and a stout, ruddy-cheeked halfling gets on the level with the surface of the table. He holds a wine glass as big as his head. “Evening, evening, landlubbers. Fillegan is here to share a glass with you. How do you all find yourselves tonight?” Grismar extends his beer stein to halfling’s glass for a violent mid-air clash. Fitzworth gives a cheery nod, and the man to my right gives a hearty smile, displaying an orderly set of immaculate teeth. I bob my head a little, then startle as the man to my left speaks. “Well met, halfling. Name’s Kurwin. What’s yours?” “Fillegan. With double ll. I am of the hin, and I come from the sea, but have come ashore in the hopes of fortune and comfort.” Kurwin clears his throat with the sound of moving gravel. “Good luck, halfling.”

By now, Grismar has poured the contents of his stein down his throat and slams it back on the table. “What about you then,” he asks, as he points at my amber-eyed neighbor with one hand and beckons a tavern girl with the other. “you’re not from this town or the next!” The man gives a brief laugh and shakes his head, causing a lock of hair to almost, but not quite, fall into his eyes. “Certainly not this town or the next. I have come north from Halruaa. My name is Chand.” He turns towards the tavern girl who responded to Grismar’s waving and says “A round for the table, if you don’t mind.” I can see the girl’s pupils dilate from here, but she takes stock of our drinks all the same.

That leaves me. And as if everyone at the table has suddenly realized the same, they turn. Lliira help me. I straighten my back a little, pin a smile in place and try to sound normal. “Uhhh.. I.. I’m Sumu. I’m here because I was asked to come… By the abbess… Because I serve Lliira… And uh…” Lliira delivers me, be she thanked, for the tavern girl puts a full glass of mead in front of me and holds out her hand for the empty one I still have a white-knuckled grip on. I hand it to her and use the movement to shield my face a little.

My deliverance is not yet complete, because the tavern door swings open with some force and a man strides through the door. A shiver runs its many feet down my spine. One of them! The scoundrel looks around the tavern, dismissing farmers and woodcutters in turn, then makes it to our table in three smooth steps. He slaps a piece of paper down on the table, then faces the bar and tosses the barkeep a purse that falls heavy with gold. “Keep them all in drinks tonight, friend. Oh, and give some beds to those folken in the back. They need to be on their game tomorrow.” With that, he is out the door as suddenly as he came in.

Chand picks up the paper and begins to read.

Hail to thee of might and valor.

I, a lowly servant of Barovia, send honor to thee. We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance.

The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of our village cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace.

There is much wealth in this community. I offer all that might be had to thee and thy fellows if thou shalt but answer my desperate plea. Come quickly, for her time is at hand! All that I have shall be thine!

Kolyan Indirovich
Burgomaster

We ask each other questions. Who is this person? Why us? What does he mean? Along with what is said, glances fly across the table. The real question is thick in the air. Will you go? How about you? And you? And I? It’s said within the faith that when Lliira wants something for you, she leaves no doubt. While that is often comforting, I catch myself wishing for an out. “Lady Joy, please let me accept what I cannot change.” I mouth, silently. With that short prayer I turn my mind to other matters.

The mead is lovely. Thick and sweet, but citrusy enough not to be cloying. I nurse my third glass. Grismar, now on his twelfth beer, gesticulates his way through a yarn that involves smashing vampire skulls. Previously, Fitzworth talked about the tree his village is named after. At some point, Kurwin opened up his leather book, picked a bit of charcoal out of the band of his hat and sketched a quick likeness of Fillegan who was just then distracted by Chand as they discussed some news of piracy and trade routes. Suddenly, Chand slides his chair back, stretches, and announces he is off to bed. Apparently, he says, there is work to do in the morning.

I’ve got to give it to him: a real bed sounds wonderful just now. The tavern girl points me to a room and takes care to tell me how to lock the door. I nod, smile and stumble over a thanks, then quickly close the door.

Before a single rooster has even crowed, someone knocks on the door. Not too long thereafter, we’re all back into the common room. Some of us are a bit more bright-eyed than others, but that mysterious letter must have gotten to us all, because we find ourselves on the road in no time at all.

The first wisps of fog soon form around our ankles.

###

We approach a gate. It is flanked by two statues, both of which have their heads lying at their feet. Grismar hems and haws a bit, rubs the stone then says “No one’s looked after these for at least 3 centuries.” That is when the gates swing open with the rough sound of rust flaking off ancient hinges. It feels like a pit has opened in my stomach along with that gate, but what is there to do but go through. A thick, old forest crowds around us as we stand in the road. It smells of long-forgotten nightmares.

The gate is not that far behind us when another smell hits us. The source is easily found: a young man, dead, a little distance from the road. In his hand, another letter, almost identical to the one we found last night, although it identifies the evil as a vampire. Kurwin informs us that the young man likely died of a wolf attack and that the size of the prints indicates very sizable wolves indeed.

Before I have recalled the benediction of departure, a howl echoes. One voice. Then a second. I grip my staff tight and see Fitzworth mouth a familiar-looking spell to his club. A third, then a fourth voice joins the eerie chorus. Kurwin is getting noticeably twitchy. Fillegan begins swinging a grappling hook on a rope. A fifth howl starts up and Kurwin shakes his head. “Move, now! Stay on the path and keep walking fast.” No one objects, least of all me.

Some time thereafter the forest falls away from the road, even if the mist stays. As the trees fade, so does the howling. We continue our march at a more relaxed pace, until the road brings us into a village that appears entirely abandoned. We wander down the street that cuts through the middle of the town and see nothing but shuttered windows, until we reach the nice, taller houses in the center of town. There, we are approached by two children in unusual dress. They seem distressed and babble about lost parents, a baby and a nurse, as well as a monster in the basement, which was kept locked up by those same, lost parents. Chand takes an interest, squatting down and even letting the younger child hold his hand. They quickly share that they are called Thorn and Rose, and point out to us the house in which they say they live.

Kurwin fairly vibrates with unease and murmurs about a lack of footprints from the children, but most of the others are curious enough to want to look into the matter. We peek into windows and even send Fillegan up to look in at a higher story, but nothing seems out of place, except that the children seem to be unable to answer any questions about the duration of their parents’ absence or the fate of their baby sibling. I can’t blame them – I’d be scared out of my wits too.

Eventually, we enter the house, hoping to locate an adult who serves as guardian to these young ones.

The house is clean and well kept up, and is fair brimming with depictions of windmills. All trim is exquisitely carved, even if close inspection betrays hidden horrors in the at first sight delightful work. We work together to clear the ground floor of the house, and I am a little comforted about my own tightly-wound nerves when Kurwin reflexively aims for a taxidermied wolf, reducing it instantly to fluff. We find no entrance to the basement, however.

Soon, we take the main staircase to an upper level. The stairwell contains a family crest (of a windmill), but also portraits. We spend some time trying to date the painting, but other than the number 647, which may, or may not be a year, we do not find a clue.

The hallway is lined with suits of armor, which are eerie, but otherwise unthreatening. The music room has a harp and harpsichord, which remind me of the ones we have in Mirth’s main concert hall. Chand makes a skeletal hand appear (he himself seems somewhat surprised) and plays a small ditty. If we were not yet convinced the children are not what they seem, Rose’s sudden appearance to play along with Chand’s melody settles the point. Kurwin radiates with a sense of righteousness (not undeserved, I admit) and I decide to one day ask Chand what he was playing. It was a nice melody – good for dancing. It may have to wait until I can talk to him without stammering.

The library is an inviting place, with a desk stocked with although the selection of books seems haphazard. We soon find a fake book and upon bestirring it, we see an entrance to another room appear. Here, the books are quite curious indeed. There is also a chest with an skeleton sticking out of it. We approach it cautiously, and find the old chap is clutching a letter. I don’t recall the exact words, but it is signed by some ‘Strahd von Zarovich’ and seems to gloat at some other man’s misfortune. There is something there about a stillborn child. Is it possible that this is the little brother that the children spoke of? Next, we find deeds to the house, as well as a windmill (no surprise there), as well as a will listing our unsettling youngsters as beneficiaries.

There is another room on this level. Probably servant’s quarters, as it contains some uniforms and is sparse compared to the luxuries of the house.

The next level up catches us by surprise for here all is dusty and riddled with cobwebs. The suit of armor standing in the hallway is a matte black and properly terrifying. As we get closer, the glove releases, bringing it’s weapon hurtling down upon us. The fight is mercifully quick.

We stumble on, quickly finding ourselves in a small store room, where we are assailed by a broom. It is a strange irony that the wolves of this place howl frightfully but easily puff into dust and cotton wool, where empty armor and household articles are fearsome forces. I make mental note to bring this up later, hopefully to humorous result. It turns out that none of my companions are domestically inclined. To a fault, they fail to handle the broom and it takes us embarrassingly long to subdue it.

The main suite upon this floor is gorgeous. It clearly shows it’s age, but the bed looks firm and the mirror is still clear. It showed me nothing out of the ordinary (in as much as my endless rat’s nest of hair counts as ordinary), but it caused Chand to startle and turn away immediately. Not sure what that was about – Lliira knows that admiring one’s own good looks is not an unworthy act. I decide not to remind him of that in the moment.

Fillegan and some of the others have bent themselves over a small box and are ooh-ing and ah-ing. They pull out a very well-wrought necklace, as well as some rings. We then turn our attention to a small door, which we open most carefully. A crib stands covered, with a ghostly appearance bent over it. We barely move before it flies towards us, and we are forced to defend ourselves. Kurwin takes and awful blow, from which he cannot seem to rally. Once the appearance is defeated, we turn our attention to the crib, where a swaddled bundle lies. It is empty, which disturbs us all. Another mirror hangs here, and we soon find that it opens, leading to a staircase.

All our nerves are frayed right now, so we decide to retreat to the bigger suite and take some rest there. I notice no one wants to sleep on the bed, or look in that mirror. I offer to take watch, and spend most of my time in quiet contemplation, until I hear crying coming from the nursery. It seems there is still an echo of suffering there, so I pour a few drops of holy water into the palm of my hand, dip my fingers and fling them into the crib and onto the ground in front. “Lady of Laughter, please bear witness to this great pain and be a balm to it. Please allow wild grief change into calm acceptance and then to glad remembrance. Please take up the one who was so very young – this child of greatest innocence and happiness, and let him always play and be merry with you. Please mend the heart of she who loved so fiercely and protected so fiercely, but whose love was cruelly curtailed and cut off, leaving bitter dregs to tie her down in suffering. Please hold them in warmth and comfort and let them dance with you.”

I’ve managed not to wake up anyone, and I feel a little better.

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