Curse of Strahd – 10 – Crusty Business at Old Bonegrinder

In which the party deals with a coven of hags, reflects upon the truthfulness of Vistani fortune-telling and deals with the consequences of Barovia’s unusually vivid nightmares.

Large, warm muscles shift under him. It smells vaguely of hay and mammal. Someone… tousles his hair? Chand jerks awake, startling Dusk, who had turned her head to her flank to nuzzle him. Annoyed with his sudden movement, she stamps a hoof. At that moment, two high-pitched voices begin shrieking.

Chand lets himself slide down the flank of the horse and turns around in time to see two small figures run back into a familiar-looking windmill. A huge direwolf with a cracked window frame around his neck stares after them, more puzzled than hungry. “Ho, Fitz, they’re scared of you, I think.” Fillegan’s voice comes from above, where Chand now notices a direwolf-sized hole in the wooden wall. Looking back down, a crumpled body lies between Fitzworth’s front paws.

Ismark’s voice comes from within the mill “Wake up now! Hey, come on. Wake up! Let’s get you some fresh air.” He comes outside, a barely conscious Ireena hanging in his arms with a blissful smile. He carries her a short distance away and kneels beside her, looking worried.

Next, Sumu appears in the door frame, two children peeking out from behind her. “It’s just Fitz, “ she says to them “He’s not really a wolf. Just wait. He’s really quite nice.” The children eye her for a moment, but don’t seem convinced.

“Look out below!” Fillegan calls out as he hangs his grappling hook on a sturdy rafter and slides down the rope, only occasionally pushing off from the side of the windmill. He lands next to Fitzworth, then turns towards the door, where the children still stand and stare. He gives them an exaggerated wink and say “Here, I’ll prove it – nothing to be afraid of.” With that, he takes off his sailor’s cap, turns to Fitz and says “ Kind Sir Wolfworth, would you please open your mouth? Nice and wide, that’s the spirit!” Fitz, looking as confused as his wolf’s face will allow, opens his mouth. In response to Fillegan’s gesturing, he then lowers his snout, until Fillegan’s entire head fits between his jaws. Neither of them moves for a number of seconds. The children stare open-mouthed. Then, a large glob of wolf drool falls on top of Fillegan’s head. The little rogue makes a disgusted face. “The only dangerous thing here is your breath, Fitz. Do direwolves not brush their teeth?” Only then does he pull his head out from between the wolf’s teeth, and takes a bow in the direction of the children. They now look from Fitzworth to Fillegan to Sumu, evidently not feeling very secure with any of them.

The scene is interrupted when Samael appears behind Sumu and the children, carrying a large bundle. As the small cleric and the children step aside with alacrity, Chand sees a hand sticking out of the many layers of fraying fabric. Its fingers are bony, and the nails impossibly long. Strange stains and discolorations of the flesh are visible – this person worked with strange substances and processes. Potion-brewing, perhaps?

Before he can get a closer look, Samael has placed the body on the ground, next to the one that Fitzworth still stands over. The bear-sized wolf nimbly moves aside.

At the appearance of her rider, Dusk whinnies, drawing the eyes of the group with her enthusiasm. Samael smiles at the mare and casually tosses a bit of dried apple into the grass in front of her. Fitz wags his tail. Sumu gives a sheepish wave to Chand, then bends down towards the two children. “There is someone I think you should meet. He’s a friend of mine, sort of. Come on.” With that, she walks towards him. The children follow. “H-Hi Chand,” says, while biting on a thumb nail. “We found t-these little ones inside of that windmill. Someone had unsavory plans w-with them.” From behind Sumu, Umus pipes up, “Savory plans, more like. Ahahaha!” The children go wide-eyed with terror, as Sumu claps her hands over the back of her head. “Umus! Be quiet!”

Knowing an emergency when he sees one, Chand quickly squats down and puts on a beatific smile. “Who wants to hear a story? I know a really good one.” Sumu’s shoulders sag in relief and she turns to walk towards the two corpses that Samael has now straightened out. As Umus catches sight of Chand, she whispers at him “Cracked human thigh bones make a really good broth, you know.” Chand ignores the jibe, even though Umus tries to wink at him. Sumu sighs in defeat, reaches back and begins to braid her hair.

Some time later, the corpses burn in the roaring fire. Samael and Sumu have said their prayers and the children were given food and now lie sleeping under Samael’s spare saddle blanket, next to Ireena, who still dozes and smiles in pastry-induced bliss. Even the bags with live chickens are silent.

Fitz, now having resumed his human shape, has relayed to Chand what the party found inside the windmill: the oven full of meat pies, the haggling witches, the toads and chickens and children, Ireena’s response to a bite of pie, the elixers. Chand grills him on every detail, focusing especially on the disappearance of the older woman. Fillegan keeps rubbing his drooled-on hair, insisting on a hot bath. Conversation strays: what to do with little Freek and Myrtle, who cannot go back to their parents? Is there time to visit the standing stones some ways behind the mill? Are the direwolves getting bolder, now that they’re killing people in the road, and even attacking a group when they’re outnumbered? What else will we do once we’re in Vallaki?

“How long did I sleep?” Chand asks, suddenly, “We have not yet dined with Lady Wachter, have we?” “Oh, no, we have a few hours yet,” Samael responds,“Why?” “Oh, there’s just this little thing that Sumu and I agreed on for a few days. Nothing important.” Chand’s narrowed eyes measure the distance between the mill and Dusk’s tether, which is well over 30 feet, then rest on Sumu. She looks down and bites on another nail. He clears his throat, and raises an eyebrow.

“I-I don’t understand why you want me close by. You were sleeping, anyway.” she murmurs, “Besides, I’d just be another one of those friends in low places you’d then have to -” Chand makes a chopping motion. “Don’t repeat that Vistani nonsense back to me. You can’t possibly think there’s value in anything she said. What fantastical story did she spin for you? Your home is closer than you think? Pah.” Sumu looks up at him, incredulously. “She spoke true! My home is close. She told me where it is.” A deep red color begins to crawl up from her neck. Samael cocks his head. “I didn’t hear her say that. And I listened very carefully.”

“It’s personal! I w-wasn’t going to d-discuss that with all of you standing around,” Sumu says, now beet-red. “I went to see h-her when you were sleeping. I had to know and wh-who else would tell me?” Fillegan jumps up. “You kept a secret? From us?” Sumu nods. “But why? I mean… You can’t be from Barovia. Barovia is not a place you get to leave!” “It’s not entirely unheard of.” Ismark says, thoughtfully. “Although I’m not sure how you would have managed it. You don’t have the look of a Vistana.” Sumu shakes her head. “No, I don’t. I’m n-not sure how you do it. I don’t even know why mama made me leave. She just woke me up one night. She had been c-crying. Papa too. There was screaming. Then she made me put my coat on, gave me this little key she always wore around her neck and made a hidey-hole for me between the crates and sacks in the back of a Vistani cart, telling me not to move or make a sound until they stopped. I tried.”

Huh.” Fitzworth says, after a few seconds. “I did wonder why you were so scared of direwolves.” Sumu gives him a weak smile. “I tried to be quiet for as long as could. But I was about their age,” she nods at the sleeping children “and eventually I really had to pee. So the Vistani found me. Halted the cart, dumped me out and left me there. I tried to follow them, but the fog came in. And the wolves. So I ran blindly for a long time. Ended up in front of some building eventually, which happened to be one of Lliira’s sanctuaries.”

Chand rolls his eyes. “Fascinating, I am sure. I propose we get under way. After all, there is a dinner we have to attend, and we can’t keep Lady Wachter waiting.”