Sunday, January 22, 2017

Chapter 3 - Three Tasks

The Lukomorye campaign returns from its holiday break, to find the companions learning old secrets and trying to peddle a few of their own.

Chonkorchuk bows down before the hag. He tells her that he is seeking to reenter the realm in search of the Alatyr stone, and wants to introduce two new followers he has recruited to her cause. She hisses in response that she expects followers to carry out simple instructions, such as not seeking her out of their own accord. She intends to punish them for hurting her friend – and mutters something about ripping the eyes out of Plamen’s head. The young man is made of sterner stuff, however, and resists the crone’s spell, though he does carry out her demand to attend to the lynx. Plamen heals it, and upon rising, it slinks back behind its mistress. Chonkorchuk continues his enthusiastic entreaties, and the crone, after learning of their partnership with Zhitko and Katerina ultimately consents to grant the companions access to the Queen’s realm in exchange for three services:
·      “You must bring back the pure treasure that was stolen from us”
·      “You must bring back the galumphing oaf who hides away from us”
·      “You must bring to us the young bride, who is to wait on us”
Chonkorchuk asks for clarification, but the hag replies that she expects her followers to possess sufficient acumen and determination to solve such obvious riddles. In response to her pressing, the trio quickly give their consent, with Rodion/Raskel, still smarting from the cat claws that nearly tore him up, being especially anxious to have the hag take her leave as soon as possible. This she does, vanishing into thin air, while her pet bounds away. Rodion flings a stone at Chonkorchuk’s head for getting them into this predicament.
It is too dark to attempt to find their way back from unfamiliar territory, so the three companions decide to camp in the woods for the night. Rodion, having changed back to human form, conjures a spirit to collect firewood, and places mystically flickering lights at the perimeter of their encampment to prevent another assault by predators. As they prepare to sleep, they discuss the meaning of the crone’s riddles. Rodion, being the most experienced, recalls that ‘pure’ is an appellation that commonly refers to silver, while the ‘galumphing oaf’ seems to denote a bear, or perhaps a bear skinshifter. The bride is possibly Katerina, though the meaning may be a code. In any case, the third task can be tackled after the first two are dealt with. Since no one seems to know anything about a silver treasure, or a bear ‘oaf’, the first order of business seems to be to talk with Zhitko, to see if he knows anything. Interviewing Hegumen Yaakov, or searching the abbey, is another plan discussed, but the companions agree to indefinitely put off this line of investigation for the time being.
The night passes uneventfully, though Rodion’s deep wound begins swelling. Chonkorchuk easily finds the way back to the hermitage in the daylight, and even bags a pheasant along the way.  Finally at home, Chonkorchuk attempts to summon of a vision of the ‘pure’ treasure they are to seek out, and is somewhat surprised to see a simple, though sizable trove of coins, numbering in the thousands, shining in the darkness.
After burying the pheasant for future use, the companions head back to Lazarevo, trying to make haste so that they can return to the hermitage before dark. The journey is pleasant enough for this time of year, and they reach the outskirts of Lazarevo by mid-afternoon without any trouble. Plamen steps up and knocks on the door of the smith’s house, and Katerina, who is doing household chores, invites the guests in. After briefly relating their adventures of the previous night, the companions ask if Katerina is aware of any treasure or bears, and whether she knows where Zhitko is. She has no information to share, but sends a younger sibling to fetch Zhitko from his workshop (which seems to be some ways away). While they wait, Plamen offers the young woman a piece of his toadstool (though she complains in jest at not being given the whole mushroom). Soon, her mother appears, and is a bit taken aback at having such strange guests in her house. They quickly ask Katerina to arrange a meeting with Zhitko at noon tomorrow at the ford in the Vydra, not wanting to risk being noticed by the hegumen’s people. Then they take their leave, and head back to the hermitage.
Fort Trofimov prepares for winter

The ford is roughly halfway between the village and the hermitage. There is a fort nearby which used to belong to Taras Trofimov – the old proprietor of what is now called Lazarevo. In his youth, Rodion and Taras were in business together, smuggling high-value goods past duty collectors in another village downstream, and reloading them on boats at the fort. As the companions pass the structure on the return trip, Rodion wants his raven to fly over and investigate who, if anyone, lives here now. The fort’s gate happens to be open, and as Rodion communes telepathically with his familiar, Plamen hails people who are moving emerging from inside. They bid the traveling party approach the gate. The fort is obviously still occupied, and busy with normal late fall activities. Rodion informs the people at the gate that he was a friend of Taras Trofimov, and wonders whether he still resides here. They respond that the old boyar died two decades ago, but his nephew Dem’ian is the new lord, and may be interested to meet a friend of his uncle’s. After a short wait, Dem’ian, flanked by two armed henchmen, approaches, and invites the party into his feast hall, where he plies them with drink and viands. 
In the ensuing conversation, the companions learn that old Taras apparently died a troubled man, because he felt very guilty for the Kochmak raid on the village, and apparently tried to assuage his conscience by willing the village to the Church on his deathbed. Chonkorchuk wants to know if the old boyar was pressured to do so by unscrupulous priests, and relates the theory that Hegumen Yaakov is not as pious as he seems, and has a pagan past (as indicated by the carvings on the hermitage). Dem’ian is less than convinced that this contention is provable (and finds nothing unnatural about the hegumen using the famine to press famished people into peonage), but apparently considers this information worthy of recompense. He offers the companions a meeting with Mother Nadezhda, the old boyar’s confessor, because she may know interesting details about his death, and then conducts him to the chapel.

Mother Nadezhda is very old but still quite canny. She initially refuses to violate the sanctity of the confessional, but indicates quite clearly that her chapel is in need of funds to further the Lord’s good works. After some false starts at negotiation, Plamen bursts out that though he has nothing, the group is about to come in possession of a thousand kopecks, and pledges a third of that to her. Everyone is taken aback, but Mother Nadezhda has him swear on the cross that he will hold true to his word. When he does, she relates the story of Taras Trofimov’s dealing with an ‘entity’ that lives in the woods to the north (by which she clearly means Baba Yaga). This ‘entity’ was responsible for much of Taras’ worldly success, but at one point, she apparently demanded that Taras stand aside and not intervene when a band of Kochmaki were coming to raid the village. Evidently, they had a deal to hand over the village’s wealth to the ‘entity’, while they themselves would get to keep the captives as slaves. Later in life, Taras indeed attempted to expiate his sin by giving what remained of the village to the Church. There was no pressure by Hegumen Yaakov for him to do this, according to her telling, but the hegumen knew the story. In response to Chonkorchuk’s questions about the hegumen’s possible involvement in the raid, Mother Nedezha says that he was born nine months after the raid, to the lone surviving captive, who returned to the village shortly after the massacre.
Returning to the great hall, resume the conversation with Dem’ian. Apparently, he is continuing his uncle’s old business. Since Rodion and the others are interested in this line of work, he tells them to speak to his current middleman – a character named Lionia the Red, who lives downstream on the Yelizarov estate. Lionia has an ‘arrangement’ to avoid harassment by the abbey, which is now the main duty collector in the region, and though he has people he works with, he may be looking for help. Dem’ian says he will pass along a message next time he sees him. Before the lord of the manor turns to retire, Rodion asks him to keep the information about Hegumen Yaakov under wraps for the time being.
The companions spend the night in the great hall. Before turning in, Chonkorchuk seeks a vision of the bear, in human guise, if he has one. He sees a fat-faced, bawling teenager with dirty blond hair, being dragged somewhere. He doesn’t recognize the face, and his description rings no bells with his companions either. 
Mother Nadezhda - a shrewd operator