Having just bounced off of Melech’s chest, the pixie squeaked “Hide!” shortly followed by “Demon!” having glanced up at the face of the being it had run into and it darted behind Beiro. I carefully peered around Beiro. “Are you ok, little friend?" I asked, but at that moment we heard shouting in the woods behind us. Orcs! Their crazed yells told us that we had but a few moments. Melech and I quickly clambered up the nearest tree. Beiro needed reminding that he was better suited to combat on the ground rather than up a tree, but he and Baldwin readied themselves down below.
The ensuing battle was brief. With the element of surprise, we made swift first blows, Melech’s magic took the leader of the four orcs as I used some of my performance tricks to make them easier to hit. Some javelins went back and forth and I threw my dagger into the fray, lopping off part of an orc’s ear. The last orc alive, however, landed a blow on Beiro, knocking him down. Baldwin finished off the orc and we all rushed over in an attempt to stabilise poor Beiro. He was unconscious and in a sorry state, but we pooled our limited medical knowledge together to stop him bleeding out. Even so, it would be a couple of hours before he would regain consciousness.
The pixie had been flitting around during the battle and we now had a chance to stop and talk to her, after first assuring her that Melech was a perfectly harmless demon, at least not to friends. She correctly identified us as heroic adventurers and thanked us for saving her. There was a deeper problem though, what she was truly running from and pleaded with us to lend our heroics to quash evil once again. “There’s a hag,” she said “she’s corrupted the forest dryad and is defiling the forest. If I didn’t leave, I would be affected as well.” Orcs had been showing up more too, maybe related, maybe not. We assured her we would do what we could, but also asked about the painting from the hall. She didn’t know anything but said if anyone did, it would be the fey friend, who had once lived further up the stream. Unfortunately, the fey friend hadn’t been seen in years and no-one is exactly sure what happened to them. The pixie said if we were to go north, we’d know we were reaching the corrupted area by the thicker, thornier undergrowth. We bid goodbye to her, as she was still worried for her safety and sanity and needed to flee further away from the corruption
We decided to make camp where we were, to give Beiro time to recover and reflect on where to head next. After searching and clearing the orc bodies, Baldwin came back with an announcement. “There’s something more organised about these Orcs. Whenever I saw them before they were disorganised. Ragtag. Reliant on numbers and barely even allied to each other. The orcs we just killed all share the same warpaint. Someone, or something, is bringing them together and organising them”. As much of a concern as this was, there wasn’t much we could do about it, aside from dispatching any other orcs we run into along the way. We were in the fey woods and had fairy and foresty matters to attend to. The hag and the spreading corruption were obviously a pressing concern, but we agreed that if we were to do this right, we should try and enlist the help of the fey friend. They might be able to provide us with some useful information on both how to stop the corruption, defeat the hag and rescue the dryad. Maybe they’d have the painting too, but I think we heroes had now found a truer quest.
The night passed without incident, we had breakfast and set out once again, continuing up the river. After walking for a while, we came across what appeared to be a couple of scarecrows. As we approached, they slowly turned until they were facing us. Given that the slight breeze wisping through the woods wouldn’t have been strong enough to move them, there must be some magic at play. They didn’t seem to be guarding anything, in particular, so we decided to give them a wide berth, crossing the river. As we passed, I cast an illusion of myself near the scarecrow. Suddenly it came alive, swiping through the illusion, but failing to find purchase. Clearly hostile, perhaps made to ward away from an area, but with no obvious placement. We carried on up the river, crossing back a short way away.
A short time later, we saw an old lady by the riverside picking mushrooms. We started talking in hushed whispers. This wouldn’t be the hag, would it? The one that’s corrupting the dryad in the northern forest? Probably not, we’ve not been going north and we haven’t had to start wading through thorns. As we were discussing though, she spotted us and waved a mushroom at us “Hello there! Unusual to see travellers in these parts”. We greeted her and said it was weird to see an old lady like her deep in the woods as well. We got chatting, but she seemed to know little about anything we’d encountered or had been searching for. She didn’t think she was the fey friend, having never seen a pixie or any such creature in her life, had not seen any orcs and didn’t know anything about the painting. She took little time in asking us back to her cottage for a cup of tea though.
Now, pretty much every story I’ve read that features an old lady in the woods would tell me that this is a terrible idea and we definitely should not go back to her cottage for tea. She did seem genuinely nice though and I suddenly really fancied a nice cuppa. We all agreed to tea, although Beiro and Baldwin seemed a lot more cautious, and she started leading us into the woods, away from the little river. After 15 minutes of walking, we reached a small clearing with a cottage in it. It looked pretty well established in the clearing, probably not the roaming cottage. “Has this always been here?” queried Baldwin, although mostly under his breath. He was probably having the same chain of thought as me. “Well houses don’t just get up and walk away” the old lady quipped, which was oddly…well…specific, given our concerns.
Once inside, the old lady put a pot of water on to boil within the hearth. “No tea for me” Melech muttered. Maybe there was something here he didn’t trust? I kept my eye on the pot, I would be able to see if the old lady did anything funny with the water, I might even stop it boiling if I watch it hard enough. The old lady pattered around the kitchen, getting some mismatched crockery and putting a cup and saucer down in front of each of us, including Melech, oblivious to what he had said. “Take a seat!” she said, as she reached Beiro. “No, I prefer to stand” Beiro responded, rather shortly. “I insist, I insist!” the old lady repeated, but Beiro refused again. The old lady narrowed her eyes at him, then removed his cup and saucer “Well no tea for you then!”. This actually put me at ease a bit, she didn’t seem so hellbent on getting tea down everyone’s throats after all.
As the water was heating up, she started to ask us about why we had all come so far from home. I told her about my journey to play my music far and wide, in an attempt to bring joy to people. Melech told her about his trek from far-off lands in his search for new knowledge. She no longer tried to address Beiro and he was stone quiet in return, which isn’t exactly unusual, but Baldwin excused himself to the outhouse before the conversation truly turned to him.
I started playing my rendition of “Bluechaps” on my ukelele, which had proven popular since reaching Ustia. She seemed to enjoy it, saying it was nice to hear music again. Then I had a brainwave, she was quite old and could well have been somewhere more populated when my mother was around. I started to play “Amazing Mace”, an old song about a mighty Paladin, which was apparently one of my mother’s favourites. “Oh, I haven’t heard this in a while!” she exclaimed, clearly happy to hear it again. “Oh, you recognise it?” I responded, “Oh, I get about a little bit from time to time.” The old lady chuckled “Where did you learn it?” “It was one of my mother’s favourite songs,” I said, quietly. The old lady leaned in, “I’m hearing the past tense there, my dear, what happened to your mother?” I explained about my parents and the orc raid. I opened up more than I’m normally inclined to do so, but it was like something was tugging the information out of me. I took a deep gulp of the tea. It was a proper tea, dried leaves from the south, rather than some local herbal concoction. It was fantastic, I had only tried such tea once or twice before. Unusual for a mysterious aged lady in the woods to be in possession of such things, but I felt like I was already getting the hang of things not being normal here.
As I was finishing my stories, the old lady hefted a large pot onto the fire with a great “ooof!”. “Do you want a hand with that?” I offered. “No, I’m quite fine. But would you like a hand?”. Suddenly the atmosphere in the cottage changed. It darkened, closed in, grew heavy, but with a certain sense of intrigue. “I’m…sorry?” I responded cautiously. “You’re all searching for something,” she said, grinning while stirring the contents of the small cauldron. “Yes, we told you, the painting” Melech interrupted “do you know something?” “No, not that, you’re not all out here just to find some old piece of cloth, you’re all searching for something more”. Turning to me “You’re searching for your mother”, to Melech “you seek knowledge”, turning to Baldwin “You seek validation for your work defending the land“, although slightly less sure of herself. Finally, she turned to Beiro “And you seek a bath!” “I can help you all find these things” she continued, to all of us “except you”, snapping at Beiro.
Melech was clearly having an internal struggle, he didn’t trust her, but here was someone offering him an opportunity to broaden his knowledge in a rapid fashion. “What do you want in return?” Melech queried, aware that there’s no way there wasn’t a catch. “Oh, just some favour down the line, I’ll think of something suitable.” This lacked the clarity Melech was looking for and he stopped, deep in thought. “Ok,” he said, mind made up. They shook hands, but Melech came away from the exchange looking like he had been deeply wronged in some way. “Take the fifth book from the right on the 4th shelf. You’ll find what you’re looking for there”. Melech got up and retrieved it. As far as I could tell it was some sort of spellbook. Melech sat down and started flicking through it, nodding slowly as he went. “Am I able to borrow this book for a while?” Melech asked. The old lady nodded sagely “Of course, I’m sure you will return it when the time is right”
“And you can help me find my mother?” I asked, cautiously. “Not exactly, I saw her in passing, but not since she was taken to the mines” She hadn’t explicitly for a favour in return and we hadn’t shaken on a deal, but I knew her telling me that would probably still tie me to one of these ‘favours’. “Th…thank you” I stuttered, surprised I finally had some sort of lead. “Just remember who gave you the information,” she said. “Of course,” I said warmly, genuinely thankful. It’s something to look out for at the very least, although these mines could be anywhere.
As we were getting up to leave, Beiro finally broke his silence “What is your name?” he asked. The old lady smiled a toothy grin and hoisted up her mushroom basket. “Oh, people call me Old Mother Basket. I’m sure I’ll see you all again soon”