Cast of Characters Brigid the Badass Barbarian by Heather Thornton Ramona Briars the Small & Mighty Paladin by Candace Reagan Zyrella the Firebrand Sorcerer by Cindy Ferkenhoff Danu the Mercurial Druid of the Moon by Amanda Little Urdes the Flamehearted Monk by Jenna Ashler And Shiva Stoneheart, the Iron Gnome by Brooke Santos (absent)
~ ~ ~
Most of the party set out for the Wizards of Wines Vineyard as dawn's tepid light burned away what mists it could reach. Shiva's armor presented some additional challenges that slowed the iron gnome, but she was never far from her party. Krezk's gate opened to the south and from there they could see the road come to a "T" some half-mile away.
Kristianna, eager for rest after the tumultuous night, added, "The Old Svalich Road cuts through Barovia like an artery. It should be safe during the day, as safe as one might expect. On each side are high towers with gates that, I guess, were supposed to keep out enemies to Strahd. Fine creations if worn. And too bad we have enemies of our own."
"How far to the Vineyard?" Danu asked, her voice subtly plaintive.
"Half-day. Overland may be faster, but more dangerous." Kristianna pointed to a low, misty valley between rising wooded hillsides to the south. "That's the Raven River that flows out of Lake Baratok," her gesture shifted eastward to the misty blue edges of a lake, mostly obscured by a forested ridge. "You'll take the path to the south from Svalich Road. It is fairly smooth till you get to the Vineyard. Past that toward Yester Hill," she turned and spat at the name, "the road is primitive. And more dangerous."
The easterly sun was a vague orange ember next to the steep climb and dark stone of Ravenloft. It looked, if you squinted, like a finger that might move to shade out the sun as a child might do.
"And you spoke with Ezmeralda before she left. She probably pointed out Vallaki along the Old Svalich Road to the east. Past that and down a winding path you'll find the Village of Barovia in Castle Ravenloft's shadow. Vallaki is what passes for a city here and you might find a proper merchant there if that's what you need."
"Anything to be worried about that way?" Brigid asked, patting the grips of her handaxes.
"Oh, I haven't been that way in years," Kristianna punched the stone walls of Krezk, "This place keeps me busy enough," she said with a hint of a smile, though her scarred cheek drooped as she said it."
"Thank you for the shelter," Ramona said, moving to grip Kristianna's hand, which she took and shook heartily.
"You've more than earned your keep, despite the trouble that's come along."
"And for the company," Danu added, moving close to Kristianna, who embraced her. Danu whispered quietly and kissed Kristianna on the cheek, but only keen-eyed Urdes noticed.
They said their adieux and set off on the mist-lined path.
~ ~ ~
Ravens flew overhead, too high to speak to, heading southward. Pools of mist hunkered in the ruts of the road and splashed and shifted away as bootfalls landed in them. A whisper of wind moved through the tall, dense pine wood around them. As they walked the cheer of the pre-dawn fight faded and a malaise moved in. While they would not have known it, they gave each other more space as quiet replaced the chatter.
When they met the Old Svalich Road Urdes managed to spot the vague shapes, like armored giants, of sculpted towers to the west. Though they turned away. The signpost at the fork pointed north with a sign reading, "Krezk," and three others that read, "Vallaki," "Wizard of the Wines," and "Barovia." The path was sodden but easy traveling.
They crossed a bridge over the Raven River and could now see the gentle cerulean meandering of the snow-fed Lake Baratok. an island stood near its center, though the mist seemed to swirl about it off of the lake and the sun overhead darkened just so as they watched. Once across the bridge, another signpost identified the path south to the Wizard of the Wine Vineyard while the main road continued east toward Vallaki.
~ ~ ~
"Hail," a man greeted, flanked by a woman with a longbow and a man with a sheathed sword. They all wore heavy, dark, loose-fitting cloaks fringed in black feather. "I'm Dag Tomescu."
Danu approached, gesturing back to her friends to stay. She spoke in a hushed voice to Dag who nodded thrice. After a long pause he looked to the others and nodded. The archer whistled sharply and it was as a muscle relaxing, though why was unclear.
"Join us. We're readying the midday meal," Dag said.
The rutted agrarian path led into a valley, the slopes of which were lined with trellises, paths cutting between them demarcating four regions of about the same size. One region was recently denuded of grapes while others were growing to plump and healthy proportions. Two buildings, which Dag referred to as the School and the House, protected a class of ten children and youth, practicing their knots under the keen eye of a wiry, tall woman.
"Guests?" she asked.
"Aye, Stefania. Perhaps we should break for lunch?"
Stefania set aside her bundles of rope and nodded to the youths, who did likewise and rushed into the School. Dag gestured to his companions who ran to the fields to call in others. In minutes, the clearing was lined with tables and benches as well as arrays of nuts, fresh grapes, smoked game-meat, and roasted vegetables. Eight men and women hefted sacks of food and various weapons before setting out toward the fields, some minutes later others returned to join in the meal, which was already afoot.
Brigid and Zyrella followed the peculiar squishing noise around the House to find men and women stepping out of large mashing barrels set on a large covered patio. Their bare feet were stained bloody red as they stepped into simple wood sandals chatting between them. They could see through two large bay doors four even larger fermentation vats and emanating a thick smell of red fruit.
"Excuse me," Zyrella asked a pair of chattering women moving to lunch, "but this doesn't seem like great wine growing land. What's your secret?" They moved around her, ignoring her requests and she shifted to a man in his late twenties, sweat on his brow and his brown eyes met hers. "How do you grow wine up here? It does not seem... ideal."
He slid a pewter wine glass into her hand and filled it from a pewter carafe. "We don't question the magic, stranger. Just enjoy the fruit of our labor!"
Brigid stood on her toes as she looked down into the barrel, the robust smell of smashed grapes filling her. The last of the workers, a smaller woman in a long black dress that she held aloft, stepped down along the attached ladder. "I want to take a go," Brigid said, plainly, flatly.
"Think you'd be good at it, aye? Well, go ahead and give it a try, then."
Brigid gripped the edge of the barrel and flung herself up over the edge into it, grape mash splashing about her as she took to it with gusto! "You'll wear yourself out like that," the woman said.
"Me? Not gonna happen!" Brigid retorted with a smile as she continued to dance about with loud splashing steps, giving it a little hip-twist that threatened the iron bands of the barrel. With pewter plates and glasses of diluted wine, the workers watched as Brigid put on a bit of a show mashing the tar out of grapes!
Urdes watched the youth, workers, and armed folk dine and eat, speaking in subtle whispers but sometimes laughing with a high, short chortle. As she watched she saw a youth request the bow of another, which was provided, as she practiced pulling the tight cord, showing a steady hand at it. As the archer adjusted the young woman's posture, Urdes noticed a low, long green feather dangling from the archer's belt. Perhaps a raven's, but dyed a forest green. She then noticed around the doors pairs of raven-feather fetishes with bits of bone and dried flowers tied in.
"Excuse me," Urdes said to Stefania as she circled the children who had finished their meals and were rushing about in play with branches and the knotted ropes, "The items next to the doors, are they charms?"
"They are," Stefania responded with a thin hint of a grin. "We've known many troubles in years past. We ask the Raven Queen to watch over us."
"Raven Queen? I'm not familiar with her."
"We're not a particularly evangelical sort. The Raven Queen watches over those that pass from life to death. Death is a sacred thing and there is a tendency of Barovia to corrupt the living as much as the dead. Her blessing protects our Family," Stefania said, her gaze shifting from Urdes to the nearly three dozen people around her.
"And you teach the children-"
"A livelihood in the wine and skills for the wilderness." Stefania tipped her chin to the youth practicing with the bow. "Many apprentice as they grow and some take up residence with my brother, Urwin, in Vallaki before finding a craft there."
"I am curious to see what you teach them of herbalism," Urdes said, partially unrolling the leather bound set of vials, mortar, pestle, tongs, and small clipping knives. As she did, her cloak revealed the suspended potions of healing along her belt. "Perhaps I could offer a lesson to them."
"That would be splendid," Stefania said with a smile and a wound strand black hair slipped from her braids as she did. "Let me show you the School," Stefania stepped toward the entrance from which much of the food had come in and guided Urdes in.
The main floor of the School was a single large open space, wooden beams suspending the second story, with the walls set with a kitchen, woodworking tools, leatherworking supplies, and various drying herbs. The two spoke at some length as Stefania explained the stairs along the south wall led up to the bedrooms for the youth and herself, from which she and her husband Dag wrangled the children.
Outside, Danu had wandered about eating nuts and grapes out of a pewter cup while Ramona strolled with. Ramona pointed out the half-dozen ravens perched on the School's roof. They danced about watching them, or trying to claim any dropped meats and nuts, it was hard to tell. She set down her cup on a barrel and cawed up to them from a slightly private vantage. Two dove down to perch themselves on the barrel and inspect the cup while a third set itself on a nearby window ledge.
"Good day, Feather-friend," Danu greeted in her animal speech, perhaps a bit too formally.
"Good day," one on the barrel cawed, the other two imitating the first.
"Ask them about the card reading!" Ramona whisper-shouted to Danu, who continued to focus on her wing-speech.
"As a Feather-friend myself, are there dangers about?"
"Always dangers. Always!" cawed the first on the barrel. Cackle, she thought, That one is Cackle.
"Blades and keen eyes keep these Feather-friends safe," added the second on the barrel with a spread of its wings. And Grackle for that one, Danu decided.
The three cawed in agreement.
"Greenfeathers know the woods and have strong wings," said the one on the window sill. How about Hop, for you?
"Greenfeathers?" the name seemed strange in the wing-speech.
"And there are the Shadowwings," said Hop before diving down and arcing with a flap toward Ravenloft, standing high over the Barovian Valley. Danu shivered as she thought about it, always just over her shoulder.
The three cawed as Hop circled back around and explained, "In the shadow of Ravenloft. Shadowwings stay close to Strahd."
"Not as close," Grackle added, but the others cawed cacophonously, cutting her off.
"What are you talking about?" Ramona jabbed.
"I guess there are two groups," she explained, quickly adding what she could make sense of before turning back to the ravens and asking, "What do you mean?"
The three were silent, then they hopped about on their ledges. Grackle approached and tried to quietly explain. "Some are closer than even the Shadowwings."
Grackle cawed and the door around the School opened as Stefania and stepped out with Urdes. Cackle, Grackle, and Hop dove low and flapped their wings, clearing them to the roofline where the other ravens hopped about and cawed greeting. Stefania looked over to Danu who smiled and waved greeting.
~ ~ ~
They helped where they could through the afternoon, cleaning up from the meal, aiding in wine making or in the field, corralling the youth who were distractible with the newcomers. Despite their efforts, Brigid was the only one to ingratiate herself to the "Greenfeathers."
"I don't think they like elves," Ramona whispered, hand to her mouth, as the others watched Brigid repair trellises in the field.
"Or halflings," Zyrella added.
"Or genasi, it seems," Danu murmured.
Urdes was running after one of the younger children who had gotten bored and run off during her lesson on wilderness medicine. The class had been turned over to one of the other workers as they practiced their letters.
Stefania moved between groups of workers as they finished up their tasks in the workshops and field. Something about her movement, though, attracted Ramona's attention.
"I'm gonna see what she's up to. I still got questions," she said.
"Mind if I tag along?" Danu asked, her skin already prickling with wolf's fur.
"Not at all. Hate to go anywhere in this place without backup."
Zyrella poured herself another glass of wine and shrugged. She poured a second, nominally for Urdes, who was rapidly returning the child to the School.
Ramona scurried up a not-very-busy vineyard path and Danu shifted onto all furry fours as they trailed Stefania just as she was moving into the treeline at the edge of the vineyard. They halted as they saw Stefania look up into a tree. No, not a tree, a platform like a treehouse where stood the now typical trio of archer, swordsman, and a third, whose raven-feather fetish swung loosely on his belt. Urdes came on them, a bit of wine reddening her lips.
The Greenfeathers exchanged discrete glances and hand gestures, obviously suggesting the lookout had been quiet. Stefania walked two fingers off her hand toward the woods and scanned about, to which the others nodded. Ramona looked to her two companions and they nodded themselves as they took a wide route around the guard tower.
When they came back, Stefania was in a clearing with a large tree stump at its center. The evening light was quickly fading amidst the high pines. Stefania scanned about and not spying Ramona, Danu, or Urdes, opened her cloak and pulled forth three items: a scroll, a knife, and a quill.
First, she used the knife to mark the stump, though without a higher vantage it was unclear in what way. Then, she unrolled the scroll and wrote on it, dipping the quill into an interior pocket for fresh ink. And then she looked overhead for a long moment.
"Checking the time," Ramona whispered, Urdes and Danu nodded.
And they waited.
After several minutes, the evening sky obviously darkening in the waining hours of the day, Stefania set her knife into its leather loop and returned the quill to her pocket. She then pulled from her bag flint and a bundle of... kindling with a piece of steel bound up with ti. Stefania about to ignite the kindling, Ramona stepped out into the clearing.
"Wait. What are you doing?" Ramona asked, Urdes and Danu's muscles twitched with anxious anticipation.
"Aw, curious, are you?" Stefania responded, turning about the stump to face Ramona. She set the kindling and flint down and wrapped the scroll tightly.
"What is going on here?"
Stefania looked Ramona over: A small, nimble woman with blue hair, shield and rapier at her side; her breastplate polished but marked with dozens if not hundreds of dents; and her face bright with concern and confusion.
"A generation ago, so-called heroes came to this land. We returned their aid with kindness, even generosity. And they set off to battle Strahd.
"Then, they left. A silver light shone from the Luna River valley for a month. My father died thinking that a long winter had finally passed. But Strahd, by whatever devilry he knows, has returned. With his defeat, other devils have risen to threaten my Family.
"So, I ask: would you favor the Devil you know or the fiends you don't?"
Ramona stared at the woman, holding scroll and the tools of its destruction near at hand; a woman, a teacher, a protector of those around her; and a woman whose shoulders bore the burden of secrecy. Ramona could see the long silver hairs peppering Stefania's braid; not the signs of age, but the sign of anxiety, of doubt, of a woman doing her damnedest and doubting it could be enough.
"Stefania, we mean you no harm. We are stranded ourselves, uncertain of what to do."
"I know." Stefania's hand clenched around the scroll. "I don't know what to do either. But I must protect my Family as best as I can."
And with that, she lit the kindling and moved it to the scroll. Ramona's hand twitched to grab the scroll. Behind her Danu's fur bristled and Urdes's muscles tightened. And they watched as Stefania lit the scroll and watched it burn.
~ ~ ~
DM'S Note: Okay, so that was a really cool note to end on, I felt, but we also wanted to get in a short fight. The fight is cannon but will be summarized as such:
The party rested in space between the House and School after the evening meal. A fire burned between them keeping them warm as mist shifted in from the woods.
Brigid was the first to act as even those on watch failed to feel the shaking of the ground. A large mantis-like creature (Ankhegs) burst from under the fire and grappled Ramona with its mandibles! Two others came in from around the buildings.
The party was able to easily dispatch them, though with some minor damage. The creatures had emerged from near the trellises leaving earthen tunnels.
This very much agitates Dag and Stefania, as well as the other adults as their guards around the Vineyard was not effective in protecting the Family from this attack.