Welcome back for a brand new adventure =)
Frost layers the bushes and trees and even the long bladed grass in the meadow with a coating of thick white crystals. No breath of wind touches those layered plants and the soft scampering of a squirrel can be heard in the near silence. To most, the early morning stillness hanging over the meadow would appear normal, just like any of a dozen other meadows you might find in the clear rays of morning sun. But this is no normal place. A faint smell, chamomile and lavender, sweetens the frost scent in the air.
“She’s not here,” Hertzmer grumbles at your shoulder. Even though his deep voice is soft, it breaks the silence like the hollow thud of a drum. The squirrel chatters at him in startled agitation.
You shoot a glare his way and then give a long sniff.
He copies your action by breathing deeply through his thick mustache. Perhaps the mustache muffles the scent. It takes him several sniffs to pick up the chamomile and lavender, but then a grin breaks through his bush of a beard.
He almost stands but you catch his arm to remind him to stay put. The chatter of the squirrel has finally stopped and nothing stirred when it burst forth but that does not mean no one is watching.
You know, for one, that Cam is out there somewhere. Until she shows herself, you are to stay hidden.
Finally, after several more nervous minutes of waiting, something moves in the tree line to your left.
A thin figure motions for you to join her with the pre-arranged signal of three fingers against her lips.
You’re not fast enough this time to catch Hertzmer. He bolts toward Cam’s position by the most direct path possible, straight across the frosted meadow. His steps leave large ovals in the otherwise undisturbed grass.
Cam’s original signal turns into a gasp of dismay. Unless the day turns unusually warm, those prints wont disappear for hours. They sit there like beacons for anyone who might happen by, for although Hertzmer’s broad chest and gruff exterior might be deceiving, he’s still a halfling who walks around bare footed. The print of his big toe sticks out like it’s pointing the way.
If anyone sees those, they’re sure to follow Cam and Hertzmer. Like all other halflings, he’s been banned from the country. A person would follow just for the bounty of gold they’d receive when they turned him in to the magistrate.
On all of your dozens of missions to smuggle halflings to safety, you’ve stopped here and let Cam take them the rest of the way to the boarder, but you can’t leave those prints.
With a dead branch in hand, you begin to dance through the meadow, brushing away both halfling and human prints alike.
“Hey,” shouts an unfamiliar male voice. “What’re you doing there?”
You freeze. Three prints remain in front of you as you look over your shoulder toward the voice. As you do, Cam pulls Hertzmer backward to melt into the tree line.
Three men emerge from the trees across the meadow. They carry that look about them, the frayed clothing and the mismatched weaponry, that warns they’re hunters. Unscrupulous and unshaven, such men will do anything for a bounty.
They walk your way with suspicious expressions. If they get much closer, they’ll see the few remaining prints and be hot on Cam’s trail. Probably after disposing of you because they wouldn’t want to chance you’re a hunter too.
Do you act crazy to distract them or run to mislead them?
Smuggling Hertzmer-Act Crazy
The hunters are almost close enough now to see the frosty prints. Whether it’s a good idea or not, it’s time to do something.
You grin at them over your shoulder before throwing your hands wide, twisting and flopping down into the cold grass on your back.
“Weeeeeee!” you squeal as you swing your arms and legs, making a frost angel like all the kids used to do in the snow. The motion brushes the remaining footprints away but you continue flapping your arms and legs while grinning at the three men.
They pause, varying looks of confusion covering their bearded faces.
The closest man, a sun-wrinkled scarecrow of a person, finally steps closer and kicks the sole of your foot. “Stop that now,” he demands.
You scamper to your feet and pivot around to look at the frost angel. “Did it work? Did it work?!” you exclaim. The angel’s wings are perfectly shaped in the crusted grass. However, where the hunter kicked you, there’s a weird smudge. “Ah, man,” you say, pointing at the spot, “gotta try again!” With a couple steps, you clear the disturbed area, twist around and flop onto your back again.
“Hey now,” Scarecrow shouts. “Enough!”
“But it’s got to be perfect or she won’t come!” you swing your arms with more gusto.
One of Scarecrow’s companions leans toward him and whispers none too softly; “Don’t think this one’s right up stairs, if you know what I mean.”
“Who won’t come?” the third hunter, a burly bear of a man wearing a tattered fur jacket, demands while he fingers the axe hanging from his hip.
“The nymph!” you say. “She’s a tricky one, but if you get the frost angel just right, she grants you a wish.”
The hunters trade glances.
“Think I’ve heard of this nymph,” the one man mutters, again none too softly.
Bear smacks him on the arm. “You’ve heard of everything. Doesn’t make it true.”
“Could be true,” Mutters, as you dub the none-too-quiet whisperer/mutter, insists.
The three hunters have now moved to circle you where you lay in the grass, still swinging your arms. While they argue, you chance a glance toward the tree line. Cam and Hertzmer’s faces can just be seen watching from the underbrush. You’re still too close for them to safely move away.
“Awe, man!” you exclaim, interrupting the three hunters. “Look at all the areas you guys have messed up. It’s got to be a pristine meadow for the nymph to show up. Gotta find a new one.” You scramble to your feet and turn as though about to run off.
A beefy hand clamps down on your shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?” asks Bear.
“The nymph likes certain spots. Pristine spots,” you say pointedly with a look at the meadow. “There’s another one up the hill a ways.”
Scarecrow strokes his beard as he considers this. It takes everything you have not to look toward the trees when he sends a glob of spit flying in that direction from the side of his mouth.
“You’re going to help us find this nymph,” he finally says. “Now lead the way.”
Bear takes his cue and turns you in the direction you were about to run. “No funny stuff,” he says as he gives your shoulder a shove.
You stumble ahead of them, leading the three hunters away from Cam and Hertzmer. Now that you know they’re safe, you start to consider your own situation. You do know a nymph in these woods. She’s a brook naiad and she’s a friend of yours, but she’s not always the most reliable creature. With an impish nature, she’s just as likely to dump water, lots of it, on your head than she is to help you get away from the hunters. At the same time, if her mood’s right, she might wash the hunters downstream too.
Her brook also happens to be in the same direction as the Avalanche Swath, a steeply sided pass that’s well known for snow slides. With the recent snow that’s hit the higher passes, the Swath will be prime for just such a slide. But you typically avoid the place, not because of the snow, but because of the Rock Giants who call the place home.
Do you lead the Hunters to the…
The Avalanche Swath?
Today’s not the day to face snow slides or rock giants, you decide, but it is a great day for acting crazy some more. You begin to skip as you lead the three hunters through the trees.
“Calm yourself, now,” Scarecrow says as he pitches a pinecone at your back.
You spin and skip backwards facing him and the other two hunters. Then you start to sing. “Up, down, right and left. Up, down, right and left. Spin around and duck and roll,” this last part has you diving under the low branches of a spruce tree, rolling, and returning to your feet on the far side.
Bear shouts. He races around the tree to catch you like he thought you were trying to escape, but as you meet him on the far side, you grab his hands and skip in a circle with him. Then you drop one hand and continue to skip forward, singing, “Up, down, right and left…”
At first he doesn’t join in, but as your start to pull, you get a low, almost grumbled, “Up, down, right and left…” as he begins to skip too.
“ENOUGH!” Scarecrow stares at the two of you with such consternation that Bear drops your hand, slumps his shoulders and mumbles, in a very Mutters like fashion, “Sorry, Boss.”
You go quiet but continue to hop, in place, from one foot to the other.
“Not right up here,” Mutters whispers in Scarecrow’s ear and circles a finger around his temple.
“Bind that one and put a gag in,” Scarecrow orders.
Bear drops a heavy hand on your shoulder, stopping your hopping.
In short order, your hands are tied behind your back and your feet are connected with a three foot rope. It’s long enough for you to shuffle along but not to skip. The gag in your mouth tastes like an old sock and you shy away from wondering what the hunters use it for regularly.
However, your new condition serves the purpose you hoped for. As you reach the edge of the brook that your nymph friend inhabits, you’re obviously a captive, which will warn the nymph of your predicament. The brook runs through a wide meadow that glistens damply in the afternoon sunlight.
The three hunters, upon seeing the meadow, grin at each other and, in their excitement, rush a little ahead to enter the meadow first. They seem completely unaware that the frost you were hoping to make angels in is completely missing from the grass.
You’re following them, about to leave the edge of the trees, when the pine above you drops a large droplet of water onto your shoulder.
It doesn’t absorb into the fabric of your shirt but instead stays perfectly round and glistening. When you look at it from the corner of your eye, you see the distorted shape of your ear reflected in its surface, and the swirl of motion that tells you you’re not alone.
“Well, this looks like mischief,” says a soft, lilting voice next to your ear.
“Want to help?” you mutter.
“I would love to wash someone downstream today,” the nymph offers with a giggle. “Imagine the flailing limbs and soggy cloths. Humans make for such fun.”
You pause. Is she offering to wash the hunters downstream or you downstream?
“Want to wash all three?” you ask, trying to gauge her.
“Hehe,” she giggles. “LOTS of flailing limbs! Although you’re fun too. Want to jump in?”
You glance at the brook, which really is a river with the spring runoff, beside you and shiver. It’d be a cold, and dangerous, ride but it would get you away from the hunters. On the other hand, it’d be fun to see the nymph sweep up all the hunters, but if they get far enough away from the water, she might miss one or two of them as well. Then you’d have to deal with some angry hunters.
“You should jump in,” the nymph whispers in your ear. Her voice has gone from excited and slightly teasing, to subdued.
When you glance at the water droplet on your shoulder, it no longer shows the distorted reflection of your ear, but reflects the three hunters who are throwing rocks into the rushing brook and hollering for the nymph to show herself.
“Jump in, human,” she says again, “let’s be away from these scoundrels.”
Somehow, her change in tone is comforting. Instead of possibly tossing you around like a rag doll, she might focus on simply getting you away.
The water hits you like a slap in the face. It’s entirely fed by the spring runoff from the mountains and, as it sucks the air from your body, you have no doubt the rushing brook carries water that was snow only days, perhaps even hours, before.
With your hands and feet bound, you quickly find there’s no way to navigate the water either. It floods over your face and swirls you around until up and down mean nothing.
Breathe, human, the nymph’s voice sounds in your head.
I can’t breathe water!
Breathe, she insists.
Even if you wanted to argue, your body starts to guppy breathe despite your attempt to hold in your last breath.
Giving in, you suck in—air? Your eyes pop open. The nymph giggles. She’s created a bubble around your face. The rushing brook still swirls and throws you around but you can see the rocky bottom one moment, and the glimmering surface the next.
They hollered like stuck pigs when you washed by! The nymph chortles. But they’re not bold enough to jump in.
You hiccup a relieved giggle and the nymph takes that as a cue to laugh in glee.
Look there, human, she says, laughter still lightening her tone. That’s where the fish like to stay when the sun goes down. And over there, that tree joined my waters seasons ago. She guides you around the long branches of the fallen pine. So much debris has collected in the branches, logs, leaves, even small rocks, that it’s almost a dam. Luckily, the tree’s not tall enough to span to the far side of the water and the nymph carefully takes you through the gurgling portion where the water funnels.
Finally, her brook spills out into a familiar lake that borders town on the north end. The nymph stops you just before you’re washed into the larger body of water.
I can go no further. The lake nymph is—fickle. You ignore the irony in her statement.
Thank you, you tell her as she deposits you onto the bank of the brook.
Jump in anytime, she giggles, I like a human who’s willing to trust me.
You grin even though your entire body is numb from the freezing water. You lie back on the rocky bank and soak in the sun until the tingling in your limbs subsides. You’re just about to stand when a shadow falls across your face.
Squinting, you find yourself looking at a tall, slender woman. She sways in place and her long, silvery hair shifts back and forth with her subtle motion. Dark gray eyes watch you.
“The brook put you here?” she asks.
Considering the brook’s comment about the lake nymph, you slowly nod. This woman looks like the brook nymph, except she seems more solemn. There aren’t a lot of bodies of water around for her to call home.
“She said you were escaping from some hunters, she said you trusted her with your life.”
Again, you give a nod.
“Then you should know the hunters beat you to town. They’ve started searching the far side of the lake, and they’ve gathered a large party to help them.”
With that, the lake nymph dissolves and flows back into the water.
You evade the hunters repeatedly with the help of the local nymphs. Although it’s a hard life, you take it as an advantage. If they’re searching for you, they can’t really search for halflings, so after a while, you take it as your personal goal to keep them distracted while Cam continues to smuggle halflings from the country.
Well done! You survived and made some new nymph friends.
Thank you for joining in this adventure =)
Until next time, blessings,