About a half-day’s travel from Hillsfar was a hundred-foot deep sinkhole caused by the Heroes of Hillsfar using an earth elemental to collapse the roof of a cavern during their escape from the Underdark (see Side Trek – The Library of Gravenhollow – Part 4 ). Called the Waydown by some, and Cundall’s Hole by others (mainly Cundall), this sinkhole raised alarm among surface dwellers after demons, drow and other horrors began creeping up from its subterranean depths. To allay fears of inhuman invasion, the First Lord of Hillsfar Torin Nomerthal first ordered a wall, and then recently ordered a Garrison built around the Waydown to secure it.
The Heroes of Hillsfar (minus 1 member) found themselves waiting outside of Elventree, on their way to Cundall’s Hole. Elum the mule, carrying a few sacks and Cundall’s chest, accompanied by Ziggy, waited with them.
“So where is the imp?” grumbled Cundall.
“Don’t call him that. Minimus said he would meet us outside of town,” said Zelda. “He’ll be here.”
“Here he comes,” observed Maire. “Why does he have a horse and cart?”
Minimus pulled the cart to a stop next to his fellow adventurers.
“Want a lift?” he asked with a wink.
“What’s all this then?” asked Cundall, looking at the crates, sacks and boxes piled on the cart with some suspicion.
“Apparently we need to get these supplies to the drow rebels, we’re meeting a representative before we head in,” replied Minimus. Cundall thought his face looked too blank. He decided the halfling was up to something, but also decided he couldn’t be bothered with it. The druid climbed up onto the cart and sat on a crate.
“Why is Elum coming?” asked Minimus. "Aren’t we going into the Underdark? We won’t be able to take him into The Waydown.”
“You mean Cundall’s Hole,” corrected Cundall. “And no, he won’t. Ziggy will wait for us with Fapper, or whatever her name is.”
“Felratha,” said Maire, climbing up onto the cart and sitting next to Zelda. “How is it you can remember the name of hundreds of plants and animals, but not someone’s name?”
“I like plants and animals,” sniffed Cundall. “Onward, hobbit!”
“No one calls us hobbits,” grumbled Minimus. “That’s just from a story.” He clicked his tongue and flicked the whip and the cart took off, Ziggy and Elum following behind.
“So we’re going to rescue Olon, right? That supposed sage of the Underdark,” asked Cundall.
“And my brother,” said Maire.
“And the rest of the Protectors of Elventree. They were escorting Olon,” added Zelda.
“And deliver these goods,” said Minimus. “Our contact is waiting for us with Felratha.”
“Remind me who Felratha is again,” said Cundall.
“She’s a Joydancer, a religious performer and worshipper of Lliira, goddess of joy, happiness, dance, festivals, freedom and liberty,” said Maire.
“She travels around in her caravan, performing for communities,” added Zelda. “Honestly, Cundall! Were you even at the briefing we got from the Moonsea Emergency Council?”
“I don’t like meetings,” shrugged Cundall. “Besides, Chauntea was restless, most of my attention was on keeping her quiet. She hates meetings too.” He patted the pig who sat happily next to him, watching the countryside go by.
They spent a day travelling along the road towards Hillsfar, meeting the occasional merchant and their armed escorts. There was one mounted Red Plume patrol who looked them over as they rode past.
“This time two years ago we would have met halflings, elves, dwarves, maybe a smattering of other races,” observed Zelda. “Now just humans on the road.”
“Humans are acting as go betweens in trade with Hillsfar,” replied Marie. “I expected it would drive prices up, but the effect has been minimal. I think the merchant guilds are wary of what will happen if prices get too crazy.”
“Things are crazy enough with the madness,” agreed Minimus. “Stumbleduck thinks the guilds are actually working with the non-human races to smooth all this over. The First Lord probably underestimates how much farming produce halflings actually sell to Hillsfar. But prices are going up nevertheless.”
They spent an uneventful night at a wayside stop with two other merchant caravans, all of which were protected by guards provided by the Zhentarim. Even in these times it was common at these times for travellers to mingle and tell each other news.
“You need reliable help in times like these,” advised a tall merchant with a pencil thin moustache. “The Zhentarim are reliable, although their prices are steadily getting more expensive as their services are more in demand and there are fewer alternatives available.”
“I think I just figured out why prices are going up nevertheless,” whispered Cundall to Minimus.
The next day they set off once more for Cundall’s Hole. They moved off track to the rendezvous point and soon came upon a painted covered wagon resting near a small campfire in a copse of trees. Glass baubles, paper decorations, and a neatly painted sign reading “Felratha’s Merry Minstrels” hung from the awnings of the wagon. Two hooded figures sat around the campfire and looked up at the heroes’ approach. A red haired woman rose to greet each member, introducing herself as Felratha and, when everyone had arrived, she introduced her companion. Hesitantly, the figure drew back his hood revealing a drow with a face scarred by some disease. He nodded at the heroes.
“Arrizz!” exclaimed Zelda. “You’re the contact for the drow. I should have guessed.”
The party settled around the fire to discuss what would happen next.
Felratha was a bubbly woman with a kind heart. She indicated she had been greatly disturbed by the recent treatment of non-humans in and around Hillsfar. A look of deep sadness filled her eyes whenever she described seeing a non-human in chains. She carried a lute strung over her shoulder at all times and frequently used it to play a lively tune whenever things grow dull.
“Things have been bad in the Moonsea area for a while,” she said, playing some chords. “I feel there is little room left for joy in Hillsfar. I aim to change that by travelling around, performing. I am also willing to assist you all get past the Red Plume garrison and enter Cundall’s Hole. Being performers will get us in and allay suspicion, then it’s up to you to do the rest. We just need to work on some acts.”
They spent a couple of hours working out some acts that would satisfy the garrison and pass as entertainment. A plan was hatched to sneak through the garrison once everyone was abed to enter Cundall’s Hole. Then Arrizz and Minimus went through the inventory of goods on the cart.
“That’s a lot of gear to be bringing down,” observed Felratha.
“We’ll work out a way,” said Cundall.
“This mission relies on discretion,” said Felratha. “Captain Maggarl Helck is the garrison commandant, a corrupt man who is likely to happily hide a minor incident at the garrison to keep safe his position. If a major battle breaks out, however, he has no other option than to report the disturbance to his superiors. He will no doubt blame it on local non-humans which, in turn, may lead to more violence against those in the area. We must try to avoid an all-out violent incident.”
Later that day, just before dusk, Felratha’s wagon, followed by Elum and Ziggy, made it’s way to the garrison built over the top of Cundall’s Hole. The non-humans were covered up, and Minimus made to look like a human child. Cundall was dismayed to find signage indicating the area was called The Waydown. Used to Felratha’s wagon, they were waved into the stable area where they were met by the officer on duty. He obviously knew Felratha and they shared a joke before he nodded to Cundall and Marie standing nearby, and cast his eyes over the others, unpacking their performing gear before leaving.
“We’re up before dinner, so we have about an hour to quickly rehearse and get ready,” Felratha said. They set to it. Ziggy assisted where he could, grinning at the costumes they tried on and helping Minimus shave.
An hour later they entered the area where they were to perform, pushing a screen before them where they could make costume changes. The wooden tables of the dining hall had been pushed against the walls. As Felratha and the heroes entered the room, dozens of Red Plumes soldiers stood and gave a rousing cheer. A moustached man wearing a more elaborate uniform raised his hands to silence the crowd. He smoothed his moustache and called out, “Red Plumes, your Captain speaks! In light of recent tragic events, I felt that an extra helping of good cheer was in need. I give to you Felratha’s Merry Minstrels! As you make sacrifices for me, I too will make great sacrifices for you!” The Captain clapped his hands and beckoned for the show to begin.
Felratha started the show by performing a bawdy drinking song to great applause, while Arrizz, totally disguised behind a lion mask and golden cloak and gloves, juggled shortswords with Minimus, who was dressed and made up to look like a young human boy. His youthful face and slim build helped with this illusion. Both acts received tremendous applause.
“Behold, Red Plumes,” said Felratha, one hand indicating the screen. “You are about to witness an amazing act. Soldiers and sergeants, officers and orderlies – I present The Dancing Beavers!” There was huge applause, cheers and catcalls, until from behind the screen came two actual beavers – Mairie and Cundall who were shapechanged. There was silence for a dreadful moment, before the entire audience burst out into raucous laughter and joined in Felratha’s song while the beavers danced and cavorted before returning behind the screen at the end of the song. They took it in turns to perform for an hour. Marie told a heroic story of the First Lord as a young man, assisted by illusions and glamers to bring the story to life. Minimus, dressed as a clown now, did a tumbling act, and Cundall told jokes, which he was good at. Felratha finished with a few popular songs the Red Plumes could join in with and then it was over.
Felratha took out a lap harp and began to play some soft music. The soldiers quickly slid all the tables back into position so that dinner could be served. Cooks ran back forth from the kitchen, delivering a feast of roast meat, mashed potatoes, and cabbage. Cheap wine and ale was served in plenty throughout the night. The Red Plume had set aside a small table near the back of the hall for the Felratha’s Merry Mistrels. Over the dinner period a stream of Red Plumes visited the table to deliver free drinks and chat, saying how much they had enjoyed the show. Arrizz at this point had returned to the wagons, taking some food with him for himself and Ziggy, as it was too hard to maintain his disguise in this situation. Zelda kept her hat on, covering her ears and said little. Minimus still looked like a boy. Felratha took her lute and moved among the tables, playing a song here and there. Cundall and Marie kept most of the attention of the visiting soldiers on them. They found out some interesting information.
“Captain Helck has the only key to open the door to the Waydown,” said a sergeant, looking like military sergeants the world over. “Lately he has been organizing expeditions to explore the Waydown River. The goal of these trips is to treat with some local denizens for goods that Captain Helck personally takes control of. On the last excursion, two soldiers were dragged into the water when a creature with giant, bone-white tentacles attacked the boat. At least that’s the story the survivors gave.”
Another soldier told how the kuo-toa who they had been trading with have recently become hostile, trying to drive the Red Plumes away.
A different soldier, a veteran of recent trips into the Underdark, said that the area to the Waydown was guarded by two golems, given to them by the Hillsfar Mages Guild. They would attack anyone entering who did not know how to disable them. But only Captain Helck knew how to disable the golem. He kept the passphrase given to him by the Mage’s Guild on a piece of paper because it was in a foreign tongue and difficult to pronounce.
An officer informed them that Guard Commandant Vuhm Yestral, who was in charge of the construction of the keep over the Waydown had been assigned to Yûlash after the speedy completion of the garrison. The Red Plume officer obviously did not think highly of Guard Commandant Yestral.
“You don’t seem to like him much,” said Cundall. “Was he a bad officer?”
“Not at all, he was a good officer,” replied the Red Plume. “However Yestral was not very zealous in enforcing the Great Law of Humanity and there was also some kefuffle at court. Apparently he accused Gheriot, the Master of the Arena, as being in league with demons. Apparently quite true it appeared in the end, but at the time Yestral was banished from the court and still has not been forgiven. His reassignment to Yûlash pushes him even further from the city and any influence he might gain there.”
Time passed and the Red Plumes started drifting away – some to their duties but most to retire for the night, no doubt having full days on the morrow.
“I’m going to talk to Helck,” said Cundall, getting up.
To be continued…