The last leaves still cling to their branches at lower altitudes, but a frigid wind whirls around the peaks of the northern Sword Mountains. On one inhospitable plateau on an eastern flank stands a small lean-to. In front of it, a large area is cleared of snow. In the middle of that clearing, with a single bare foot on the frost-covered granite, stands a half-orc. His stance appears relaxed and effortless.
On the edge of the clearing, a handful of men and women have gathered. Most of them are human, but two young half-orcs are present as well. Some sit huddled around a tiny, smokeless fire. A few others stand, appearing to imitate the man in the center with limited success. They windmill their arms. They sway sideways. One eventually falls, but gets back up to try again. The man in the middle pays them no mind. They might as well not be there at all. This scene continues without change from morning until well past midday. The students break for a meal and hot tea, but the man in the center continues his meditations, as interminable as the wind.
Just as the students begin preparations to descend from the plateau, the unending rush of wind is interrupted by a sound. All but the monk in the center look around in bewilderment. What causes this eerie noise? Where is it coming from? Why is it getting louder? Just as some are starting to look up, seeking a bird, a wild pig of enormous size comes tearing up the narrow goat path that is the only access to this remote location. In its haste, it bowls over three students, and scatters the rest with a long, ear-splitting squeal. Seemingly ignoring the fleshy obstacles in its way, the pig runs straight for the half-orc, who remains unmoving.
Just as the pig lowers its head in preparation for a charge, the meditating man responds. With a nigh imperceptible movement, he is suddenly airborne, landing again just behind the pig, still on one leg. The pig attempts to stop and turn but slips on the smooth rock and collides violently with the little lean-to. Its dried-out branches break apart into a cloud of splinters that shower the pig. Once the boar emerges from the wreckage, the monk puts down his other leg, opens his arms and grins widely. The pig trots up to his friend and nuzzles him, then presses close and squeezes its little eyes shut in deep contentment. Nong puts his arms around the pig’s neck and smilingly intones: “As Elder Brother Talik says: ‘An unexpected visit from a friend is a string for any harp’.” Hearing him speak, the students suddenly approached their chosen master. A young human woman speaks up: “Elder Brother Nong, please tell us. What is the lesson of the pig?”
Nong stares at her and scowls for several seconds. She blushes and moves to the back of the little group. From behind them all, a voice says “The lesson of the pig is that a visit from a friend is only unexpected if you don’t tell them where you are.” The students turn en-masse to gawk at the windblown, mousy half-elf who seems to have appeared out of thin air “The lesson of the ranger, if you care to hear it, is that you should go down from the mountain for the day. The wind is picking up and night will fall soon. Shoo! Off you go.” Leaving Nong and Tusker to their re-acquainting, she begins to herd the students down the path.
Some time later, when the students’ puzzled, excited voices have stopped echoing off of the mountainside, Ilian, Nong and Tusker huddle together in the ranger’s small tent. Its sides bend and billow under the freezing mountain gale.
“A few days to yourself, Nong, of course. No one would begrudge you that. But leaving for weeks? No one has heard from you for months! You could at least have sent word.” It’s rare for Ilian to take such a reproachful tone, but Nong is not impressed. He snorts. “Time is like scales on a snake: many, but slithering by without notice. One day of meditation here outweighs a full month of vapid courtesy and listening to the trite little woes of over-fed lords and satin-wrapped ladies. Besides…” Nong lifts a finger at Ilian and gives her a hard stare “you coming here and lecturing me is rich. You’re the one who left. It’s different for you, even. You don’t have Royce watching your every step, eying you like a dog that might be rabid, jealously guarding your own hard-won treasure from you.”
Ilian sighs and scratches Tusker behind a plate-sized ear. “I’ve told you as much as I can about why I left. The Emerald Enclave needs my help. I’d invite you along if I could, but it’s really a one-person job and they’ve asked for me to be discrete. Otherwise, you’re right. I don’t have Royce watching me. I didn’t pick up the Wand of Orcus. You did. And I think half of what you’re feeling now, is the price you pay for it.
Nong glowers. “That’s a cheap bit of spirit-reading you’re trying there. Leave it. I need to make something clear to you. We’re a team, sure. I’d put my life on the line for you. Often have, in fact. But that doesn’t mean I have to like you. Tusker, sure, he’s easy to get along with. I like him well enough. Food is really all he wants. But with you, there’s all these added expectations. Play nice. Say pleasant things. Don’t leave without saying so. Be a team. Same with the others. I thought Royce and I could be friends once. Now, he looks at me like he can’t decide whether I am a dangerous madman or a disobedient pupil. Like his motives are pure, hoarding the Wand the way he has been doing.” The monk snorts in anger.
In the silence after that harsh exchange, Nong busies himself by feeding Tusker some scraps of groundhog stew and crusts of rye bread. Ilian pulls her bow on her lap and starts waxing the string. Eventually, she says: “Don’t mistake concern for condescension, Nong, or worry for pity. Maybe you’re right and Royce has his own battle with the Wand of Orcus. And sure, he’s not the man he once was. His return from death took a toll on him. I think it changed how all of us feel about him. But like you, he’d put his life on the line for yours. Often has, in fact. As would I. Any of us would – I’m sure of it. But you’re making it hard on all of us when you disappear like you did. It’s even worse because I had to go away, and then you were nowhere to be found. Drow’s Bane can’t be effective with two of its members missing. We… I mean. They. They need you to come back.”
Nong looks at the ranger for a while as she straightens the fletchings on the arrow that killed their dinner. “So you’ve come to fetch me back? Is that why they sent you?”
Ilian shakes her head. “No one’s sent me. I’m on my way already for the work that takes me away from you. And I’m not fetching you. But your absence has all the others worried, and they don’t know what to do. I thought I might take time to find you while I’m on the road. Reason with you. See if I could persuade you to come back. Beg, if I have to. Leave your little flock to their own devices and spend time with those who you don’t need to answer questions for.”
The monk pulls his cloak tighter across his shoulders, and rolls to face the tent wall with a grunt, using Tusker’s meaty shoulder as a pillow. After a minute or two he grumbles: “I’ll sleep on it.”
The tent gets dark as Ilian blows out their candle. “You do that. I’ll take watch.”
The next morning Nong wakes up in an empty tent. In a single, fluid movement, he rolls out through the tent flap, onto his barren mountain refuge. There, he sees some splintered wood from his lean-to set ablaze . A small metal kettle stands beside it in the hot ashes, steam billowing out of its spout. Next to the fire lies the one unbroken piece of wood that formed the backbone of his lean-to: his magic quarterstaff.
Ilian soon appears with a cloak pocket bulging with tubers and roots and thin, green stalks. She carries a few pale eggs in her hands. “I was hoping we could have breakfast before I go.” she says. “And you figured you could use my house to cook it?” Ilian’s shoulders drop a little. “There was no way you could have repaired it after Tusker collided with it. I might as well use it for kindling.” After having set down the eggs, she pulls a small pouch out of yet another cloak pocket and tosses it at Nong. “Make tea, will you? I’ll cook all of this.”
They eat in a silence that’s almost companionable. “Where’s the pig?” Nong asks, as he mops up some yolk with his finger. “Foraging, I guess.” Before the half-orc has finished his food, however, the pig appears with an excited trot and something dangling from his mouth. Before Nong can even ask, Tusker drops his catch at the monk’s bare feet. The dropped items are wet with drool and have a couple of porcine teethmarks, but are nevertheless recognizable as a very nice pair of very magical boots. Nong stares at the pig in astonishment. “I buried those. Where did you find them?” Ignoring the question, the humongous boar sniffs enquiringly at Nong’s bowl. The monk pushes the remains of his breakfast over to the pig, then uses a corner of his cloak to dry the boots. He stares at them for a long while, face unreadable. Eventually, he puts them on.
Across the fire, the ranger begins to smile.
Through the steam of her mug of tea she says: “Once you get down to Mountainside, go to the inn of the one-horned ram. The innkeeper knows my name, and she’s got a lovely sorrel gelding in her stables. His name is Acorn. Do me a favor and ride him to Silvanus’s Shrine in Waterdeep for me. I can’t take him any further, and you might as well make good time on your way home.”