The Crone and the Cauldron

(More recounting of RPG adventures as our little gang of misfits and morons blunders through Icewind Dale)

The tracks led away from the ferry, through the newfallen snow into the town proper. They must have been made sometime during the night, for the passage of day travellers had not yet made them unclear. Even the idiot Testikles could follow them, though he refused to involve his pig for once.

“We had underpants in Dougan’s Hole,” he said. “You remember? We gave the underpants to Skrote, and then he could follow the scent. There is nothing here for him to scent.” His hand curled protectively around the nasty little ‘souvenir’ he had acquired – the rapidly-freezing tiny head of a Duergar.

Duergar were evil. Iledove knew that. It was known. It was an article of faith. The proper response to evil things was to kill them. She knew that too. Why, then, was she so horrified when Testikles twisted the head off the shrunken evil dwarf? It was a quick death, assuredly. And the Duergar was evil!

She tried not to think about the sad, helpless look of surprise and horror on the gnoll’s face as she ran it through from behind with her holy blade. It was evil! Creatures of evil had no right being sad or surprised when good people, decent people, holy people killed them.

“Watch where you’re going!” snapped Milo. “What are you doing, you goon?”

Iledove’s hand dropped to her sword automatically, but Milo had the right. She had ploughed into him when he stopped in front of her. Her mind had been elsewhere. (Don’t think about the gnoll! It was evil!) “What’s going on?” she said.

“Testikles says the tracks split up here,” Alea said, looking around. She lurched a bit, and staggered before righting herself, then burped loudly. “Scuse,” she said.

The low buildings of Easthaven crouched like dumb beasts turning their backs to the biting winter winds. Iledove shivered. “What do we do?”

“I can follow tracks,” said Milo, predictably. “We split up. Come on, Iledove.” The little halfling tugged at her arm, and dragged her down the street. Jeoff and Alea watched them blankly. “We can meet up at the ferryboat after,” Milo said. Reluctantly, Iledove went with him.

For once, Milo wasn’t all talk. Of course, following fresh dwarf-tracks through new-fallen snow wasn’t exactly an overmastering challenge. Still, it was something of a surprise when Milo stopped in front of a wind-blasted stone building. “Poomab’s Emporium,” Milo read. “Well. This is it.”

“Why is the sign shaped like a corncob?” Iledove asked. “Nobody grows corn here, let alone sells it.”

“Fuck if I know,” Milo said. “Come on. I’ll let us in.” Before Iledove could say a word, he hauled back and kicked the wooden door off its hinges. “Right!” he shouted, storming into the place. “What about those invisible dwarves, eh?”

Maybe they shouldn’t have let him have those gauntlets of strength, Iledove reflected.

The interior of Pomab’s Emporium was a clutter of bits and pieces – weapons, armour, equipment, even bits and pieces of furniture, cutlery… Iledove looked around the room, but nothing stood out as being worthy of note. There wasn’t even much in the way of dwarf-sized stuff.

“What have you done to my door? Who are you?” A skinny, bearded man blinked owlishly at them from behind the counter.

“Are you Poo-mab?” shouted Milo. “I want a word with you!”

“But… my door!” Clearly, the shopkeeper wasn’t easily distracted.

“We’ll pay for the door,” Iledove said.

“Yes, she’ll pay for the door,” said Milo. “What was it worth?”

She couldn’t let Milo start yet another of his interminable negotiations. He’d probably wind up burning down half the town out of spite. Iledove fumbled at her belt, and brought out a handful of gold. “Five gold sovereigns,” she said, slapping them down on the counter. “More than the worth of any gods-damned door.”

“Oh,” said the shopkeeper. “Yes. Please.” He swept Iledove’s gold into his hand, and shot another look at the ruined door. “Did you… want to buy something?”

“You haven’t answered me,” snarled Milo, staring hard at the shopkeeper. “Are you Poo-mab?”

It was… actually, it was kind of funny. Iledove tried not to giggle. Even though Milo had the strength gauntlets, he was still a skinny little halfling and – face it – he really didn’t look that threatening. Testikles could pull off the intimidation thing. He might be small, but a single glance was all you needed to take in the muscles, the scars, the other muscles, the muscles between those, and the wickedly sharp battle-axe. Milo, though… It was like watching a foul-mouthed six-year-old pretending to be tough.

Even the shopkeeper wasn’t buying it. “Of course I’m not Pomab,” he said, smoothing his hair into place. “But I am the owner of this store. Now, what is it you want?”

“I want Poo-mab,” Milo spat.

Pomab was my grandfather,” said the storekeeper. “He built this place. I kept his name above the door. Everyone here in Easthaven knows the quality of Pomab’s goods.”

“Poo-mab,” muttered Milo, shaking his fist, but clearly his heart wasn’t in it.

“There, there,” said Iledove, patting the halfling’s curly head. She met the shopkeeper’s gaze, and smiled. “Now… perhaps you wouldn’t mind answering one or two questions?”

***

“But why does Milo have sixteen-year-old mead?” Jeoff said. “You were supposed to get information!”

“We did,” said Iledove. “Some dwarves the shopkeeper didn’t know actually had come into the place. They were after some stuff – chardalyn, he called it. He didn’t have any, but they took an interest in some special dwarf-belt he had, and they bought that.”

“What?” said Alea.

“Shut up, Alea,” snapped Milo. They were sitting on the deck of Scython’s frozen ferry. Milo was reunited with his enormous fish, which seemed to have restored his usual obnoxious sense of humour. “The shopkeeper said they weren’t grey-skinned dwarves, but he thought they were strange anyway.”

“Could have been a disguise,” Jeoff mused. “We know they can do magic stuff.”

“Like shrinking,” put in Iledove. She shuddered, and glanced across at Testikles who was sitting in the bow of the boat playing with his grisly new toy. “Not very clever, though.”

“I want to hear about the belt,” said Alea. She looked bleary, and she sounded as if she was still drunk from her efforts the night before. Iledove shuddered again. How desperate did you have to be to get blackout drunk on nasty cooking sherry?

“Fuck the belt,” said Jeoff. “I want to hear about the mead. Mead doesn’t keep! Why does Milo have sixteen-year-old mead?”

“It was his special stock,” whined Milo. “He said so!”

“TELL ME ABOUT THE FUCKIN’ BELT,” shrieked Alea, but the effort was too much. Her face screwed up in pain, and her hands went to the sides of her head. She leaned over the edge of the ferryboat and let fly with a column of yellow-green vomit that steamed and hissed where it hit the ice and snow below. “Oooh,” groaned the battlemaster. “Kill me. Please.”

At that moment, an unfamiliar voice hailed them. “You there aboard the ferryboat!”

Everyone except Alea paused, and looked over the edge. Three figures in Easthaven Guard regalia looked back at them. The one at the back waved an arm. “Hoy! On the boat! We’re with the guard. You mind answering some questions?”

“What about?” said Jeoff.

“Fuss at Pomab’s,” said the guard. There was a scarf over his mouth, and another one wound about his forehead under his helmet. Both were crusted with ice. “Folk said you were involved?”

“We paid for the door,” said Iledove. “I paid for it. Myself. The shopkeeper said everything was okay.”

“Good. Good,” said the guard. “But there were folks concerned. Now I need to make a report. With names and everything.”

Jeoff glanced at Iledove, and then looked meaningfully in the direction of Testikles, who was rolling snowballs and trying to juggle them. At least, that’s what it looked like. Iledove got the message, and smiled. She turned to the guard. “We’ll send someone down to answer all your questions. Will that be all right?”

“That will do,” said the guard. “Thank you for your co-operation.”

Iledove nudged Testikles, and pointed at the unsuspecting guard. “That one,” she said. “There. He wants to talk to you, Testikles.”

The halfling’s eyes went wide as… as wide, round things. Iledove wasn’t having a good morning for metaphors. “Really? Me?”

Iledove nodded. Inside she winced. Was this really the right thing to do? The poor guard was only doing his job… But it was too late. Testikles was already tearing down the gangplank, practically bouncing with joy at the opportunity to meet a new friend. She watched him go until Jeoff gently took her by the arm.

“Don’t worry about it,” said the magician. “I’m sure the guard will survive. Come on. Scython is making hot drinks in the cabin…”

About twenty minutes later, the guard knocked on the cabin door. Up close, Iledove could see she was actually female. Testikles pushed in front of her and forced open the door. “This is Guard Captain Arglebreath,” he announced proudly. “She says we are Fine Adventurers and we are going to find lost fishermen and she will give Jeoff a scroll she took from a dead guy who was burned up because he was an Arcane Brother.”

“Arlagath,” she said weakly. “Captain Imdra Arlagath.” Testikles smiled at her, and she shuffled away a few steps. Iledove knew how she felt.

“What’s this about a scroll?” said Jeoff.

Captain Arlagath brought a copper tube from somewhere under her furs. Uncapping the end, she unrolled a parchment and showed it to Jeoff. He frowned in concentration.

“Dimension Door,” he said. “Oooh!” A gleam came into his eye, and he muttered something under his breath, finishing with a quick hand gesture. He turned to Captain Arlagath. “You like me, don’t you?”

“Uhh…,” said the guard, blinking. “Yeah. Sure. I like you.”

“Why don’t you give me the scroll as an advance? We’ll find your fishermen for sure.” Jeoff smiled. That didn’t happen very often unless someone had just burst into flame, and Iledove shivered.

“Yeah,” said Captain Arlagath. Then, as if the idea had just occurred to her she said, “Why don’t I give you the scroll as an advance? I’m sure you’ll find our fishermen.” She handed the scroll to Jeoff, who tucked it into his clothes.

“And ten gold each,” said Jeoff.

“Uhh,” said the guard. “I don’t know. That’s…”

“We need the money. And we deserve it. We’re really good.” Jeoff’s eyebrows danced up and down as he stared into Arlagath’s eyes.

“I can ask the council,” she said slowly. “I’m sure they’ll listen…”

The four lost fishermen were supposed to be farther up the lake to the north-east, where there still was open water. They were several days overdue. Scython helped Iledove and her companions rent a skiff from a man who spoke only in single-syllable grunts, and they dragged it across the snows until they reached the water. At that point, Testikles and Skrote took off along the shore, while the others followed the shoreline in the skiff.

It was – Iledove hesitated a moment in her thoughts before admitting to herself that a most un-paladinish adjective was required – fucking frigid in the boat. Spray off the open water leapt up, freezing onto their furs, onto their faces and hands, their clothing and weapons. Even though there was water for the sailing in, there were still lumps and chunks of ice everywhere, and the going was treacherous. They were all so anxious about the dangers of the ice that it took some time before Iledove realized Testikles was waving from the clifftops. She waved back. He pointed north-ish. She peered in that direction, and after a moment –

“Hey,” she said. “There’s a boat floating loose!”

They weaved through the ice floes, using poles to push the bigger chunks away, and finally managed to catch up with a dinghy. Painted on the stern were the words: Bunch O Knuckleheads.

Milo pointed scornfully. “It’s funny because they were fishing for Knucklehead Trout,” he said. “Only ‘Knuckleheads’ are also idiots. See? Big laughs. They’re calling themselves a bunch of idiots. It’s hilarious. I vote we don’t bother finding them. Jeoff already got the scroll.”

“Shut up,” said Alea.

“Hey! That’s my line,” said Milo.

“No. Seriously. Shut the fuck up.” Alea cocked her head as if listening. “Anybody else hear that?”

Iledove listened. At first, all she could hear was the lapping of the water against the boat. Then Milo farted, long and bubbly, and he giggled. But after that… “Is that someone moaning? Like, a woman?”

“Sounds like it,” said Jeoff. “Might be it’s coming from one of those caves.” He pointed at four openings in the lakeside cliffs ahead. Testikles and Skrote were already picking their way down the slope towards them. “And… shit,” Jeoff said, sniffing the air. “Do I smell… curry?””

“It’s a fuckin’ fisherman orgy party,” cried Milo. “They’ve come out here to get their kink on!”

“Shut up, Milo,” said Iledove, but Jeoff was right. She could smell something spicy and delicious on the air. “This is ridiculous.”

“Orgy! Orgy! Orgy!” chanted Milo. Alea swatted at him, but he danced away, rocking the skiff with his idiotic capering.

Despite Milo’s performance, they managed to haul the skiff onto the ice next to the shore, and roll up the sail so it wouldn’t blow away. They tied the Bunch O’ Knuckleheads to the blunt end of the skiff, at the back. Iledove was sure there was a word for the back end of a boat, but she couldn’t remember it, and she wasn’t going to call it ‘the boat’s arse’ like Milo did.

The moaning was even louder when the got near the caves. It really did sound like a woman. A huge woman, doing… womanly things. Things that, as a paladin, Iledove wasn’t supposed to be thinking about. “Let’s not go in the cave that sounds like that,” she said, and pointed at one of the quieter holes in the rock. “Let’s go there!”

They made Milo go first, on account of him being a sneaky thieving bastard. He stuck his head back out after a couple of minutes and said: “Three wolves. Big ones.”

Were wolves evil? Iledove wasn’t sure. But wolves could definitely eat fishermen. Anyway, it didn’t look like there would be anyone listening if she had doubts…

By the time she made it in, it was practically over. Alea was peppering the cave with arrows which went everywhere except wolf-wards, as usual. But Milo and Testikles were making up for that. Milo shot hell out of the wolves, and then Testikles punched a wolf to death. Worse, he kicked another wolf in the scrotum so hard that it actually vomited its testicles. How was that even possible?

“I am preserving their skins,” said Testikles, peeling wolf-skin away from a sadly smashed wolf. “If I kill them with my axe, there are big holes.” He tossed the vomited organs in Milo’s direction, where they were enthusiastically – if not gratefully – accepted. What did Milo do with all the bits of genitals he collected, anyway?

The cave itself came to a blind ending. There was evidence someone had camped there a long time ago, but it was clear the big-ass wolves (Jeoff called them ‘Dire Wolves’) had been in residence for quite a while. And there was no evidence of the missing fishermen.

So. Cave two.

This one had a frozen river in it. Milo sneaked in, then came back and reported there was a low waterfall a bit of the way in, but it too had frozen. They ought to be able to climb it, according to him. Easy for him to say, the sneaky little bastard.

The cavern passage was wide, with a high ceiling and ice on the stone walls. The frozen waterfall was perhaps half again the height of a tall man. Testikles grabbed Milo and hurled him effortlessly to the top, then scrambled easily up the jumble of ice to join him. Unfortunately, Alea and Iledove weren’t quite as nimble.

“What’s all that fuckin’ noise?” Milo asked. “You want to tell everybody we’re coming? Climb quietly, bitches!”

Iledove looked up at the little halfling who was leaning out over the ice cliff. A huge curtain of ice off to one side fell away in a mass as Alea tried to climb it. “We’re not all featherweights,” she retorted. “Ice is brittle!”

“Uh, people?” said Alea. There as an uneasy tone in her voice. “I’m not sure it’s all ice, either.”

Iledove looked at the battle master, and saw – well… what? It looked like some kind of long, snakey thing made out of… water? Yeah. Water. But it had an ugly, snakey sort of watery head. It was big and thick and long and the other end of it seemed to loop away, connected to a pool of black water hidden behind the ice curtain which had fallen away. It reared up with a hiss, and stared around the cavern.

“Is that thing hostile?” said Iledove. But it didn’t matter, because Testikles roared, threw aside his clothing and leapt high with his axe, jumping down from the ledge above to cleave the thing. If it wasn’t hostile before…

“By Thrund!” cried the halfling as he landed in a balanced crouch on the thick ice of the cavern river. “My axe passed through the creature!”

And indeed, it had. The beast did seem angry, though. It darted its head at the little barbarian and seized him in a great coil of… well, water, raising him high above the ice. Milo shot it with a quarrel from his crossbow, but that too passed through without visible damage.

In a stroke of genius, Alea held her torch under what might have been the belly of the thing. “I’ll boil it!” she shouted. It might have worked, too, if the water-snake hadn’t been the size of a gods-damned tree. It was like watching somebody try to make a vat of soup over a candle.

Milo folded his crossbow away and laughed. He sat on the ice with his back to the stone. “Help!” said Iledove. “Don’t just sit there!”

“What am I supposed to do?” said Milo. “It’s made of water!” He giggled as Testikles broke free of the thing and dropped to the ice once more.

“Let me try something,” said Jeoff. He stepped back and did the hand-waving, chanting thing, and suddenly the water-snake-thing floated up into the air. It’s long tail stretched out behind, still hanging in the pool under the frozen falls. Testikles growled and lunged, slashing through the thing again and again with his axe. “Chill,” said Jeoff. He gestured, and the water-snake-bastard-thing moved farther to the side, away from its pool. It lashed and coiled, but there was nothing to fight against. The long, skinny tail bit stretched thinner, finer, thinner still and then –

“Fuck! I’m all wet!” shouted Milo as the water-snake-bastard-thing exploded into simple water, splattering half the cavern with its demise. “You did that on purpose, Jeoff!”

The elven sorceror sniggered.

With the weird water thing duly obliterated, they followed Milo farther into the caverns. The delicious, spicy smell seemed stronger from a branching passageway off to the right, and they followed it as quietly as they could. A moment later, Milo returned. “Couple of skeletons ahead,” he reported quietly. “I think – ”

“To the abyss with thinking!” cried Testikles. “Skeletons! Pah!” He trotted on ahead, axe held aloft.

“Aren’t you gonna drop your clothes?” called Milo. “You know? The rage thing?”

“Pah,” said Testikles. “For skeletons?”

He disappeared around the corner with his war pig. There followed the usual battle-squeals of the Boar Tribe, followed by something very unusual. “Fuck, by Thrund!” cried Testikles, his voice echoing down the cavern.

“I tried to tell him,” Milo said. “I think they’re Frost Giant skeletons.”

Oh fuck indeed!

There were two of them, and they were definitely gigantic. They’d apparently been encased in ice columns. One was free, locked in battle with Testikles and Skrote while the other was still thawing. Jeoff tossed a couple of fire bolts at the active one, while Alea took her usual random shots. Milo had a crack at it too, but the thing wasn’t slowing. It had an axe of genuinely alarming size, and from the looks of the heavily-bleeding wounds on Testikles it knew how to use it.

Undead, though. Iledove knew what to do about that. Drawing forth her holy symbol, she called to the heavens: “Helm? It’s ya paladin Iledove. Little help here, buddy? Big Evil!” Raising the symbol on high, she felt the power course through her. The thawing skeleton cowered away, breaking loose of the last of the ice and clinging to the cavern wall to escape Helm’s glory. The other one… Even as it pulled back away from Helm’s power, its eye sockets flashed ice-blue, and a wave of incredible cold washed over Iledove, driving the breath from her body. She sank to her knees, desperately clinging to Helm’s symbol, struggling to keep the abominations at bay. Her sight greyed, and the world faded…

…and a timeless time later, Alea pulled her upright. “Come on. We’re getting out of here.”

Iledove forced words past her chattering teeth. “What… happened?”

“We won,” said Alea. “You held them off long enough. Jeoff spiderwebbed that second one to the wall while we finished off the first. Then we all ganged up on the webbed one. It broke free, but between fireballs and good old-fashioned brutality, we smashed it up. We’re going back to the boat now, though.”

“F…fishermen?” said Iledove, stumbling along with Alea propping her up.

“We’re going to rest and regroup,” Alea said. “Those big bastards fucked us up good. But we’ll be back,” she growled, shaking her fist at the cavern depths.

***

The next day, after a good deal of resting and healing, stitching, repairing, oiling, eating, and all the other necessities, they returned to the cavern of the giant skeletons. Only the enormous bones remained, along with the two colossal axes, too big and heavy for any normal human to use. “Not even a fucking copper penny,” growled Milo. “Fucking cheapskates.”

Oddly, the smell of spicy stew persisted, blowing gently through the cavern from somewhere deeper within. A light showed somewhere ahead. Milo crept in. Everybody else hung back, peeking through gaps in the stone, listening carefully.

Iledove peered carefully around a stalagmite. She saw an old woman, stirring what looked like a very large copper cauldron. Fragrant steam rose from the cauldron, filling the cavern with an odour that made her mouth water. Milo approached the old woman from behind, then spoke to her, though his voice didn’t really carry. There was a brief exchange, and then the old woman gave Milo what looked like a bowl of stew. Milo scarfed it down, and held out the bowl for more. The old woman frowned and shook her head. Predictably, Milo pulled out his knife – but at that point, the old woman underwent a hideous, grotesque transformation, turning into an indescribably ugly, putrefying old hag. Worse still, Iledove’s arcane senses kicked in: there was something undead in there!

“Look out!” she called, but things were already unfolding. Milo stabbed the ugly old woman, and then out of nowhere a bolt of lightning plunged down and zapped Milo, knocking him off his feet.

A bolt of a wholly different kind, Testikles squealed into the cavern, axe upraised, with Skrote at his side. Clearly, he’d changed his mind about the whole ‘rage’ thing after getting hit with a giant axe the day before. He was fully nude this time, and the infamous ‘war horn’ was pointing due north. In a brutal flurry of gouges and chops, Testikles and Skrote carved great, flaccid chunks of flesh from the hideous old woman until she screamed: “Stop! Stop! I’ll give you gold! So much gold!”

At once, Alea and Iledove cried out: “No! Don’t listen!” but really, it was a waste of breath. Testikles was clearly out for revenge. Between him and the war-pig, they stomped the weird old lady into a mass of disgusting jelly on the stone floor.

Milo got hit with another bolt of lightning, but by now Jeoff and Iledove both had seen the weird light flitting around the ceiling. Arrows, firebolts and holy rage flew. Alea finally got her shit together with the archery, and the nasty little floaty-light undead bastard thing (Jeoff said it was a ‘Will-o-wisp’) just sort of… burst, like a bubble of evil light.

“Here,” said Testikles. “I think I found the fishermen.” Around behind a boulder were the remains of four dead men and a loose pile of fishy-smelling clothes. “I will gather keepsakes,” said Testikles. “Their families will know. But… parts of them are missing?”

“I think I can explain that,” said Alea, her voice quivering. “Did you eat that stew, Milo?”

“Sure,” he said. “Spicy! Tasty!”

“Full of dead fisherman bits,” said Alea, tipping the cauldron over. Stew went everywhere. There were hands in it. Iledove struggled not to puke, but Milo shrugged.

“Waste of good stew there,” he said.

Aside from the fishermen’s personal effects, there was nothing of interest in the place except perhaps the cauldron. It seemed to be made of copper, and it was fucking enormous. “I can carry this,” said Testikles. “Skrote can help. It is a lot of copper. We can melt it.”

With the cauldron roped to Skrote’s back, they finished exploring the caves. There wasn’t much to be found. There was a cave that moaned disturbingly as the wind blew through it. There was a frozen pond with a lot of dead giants down deep in it. Another cavern had an abandoned campsite, and some notes left by some kind of dwarvish archaeologist… which was a weird concept, really. Finally, another cavern was covered in petroglyphs which Jeoff interpreted. Apparently, Frost Giants used to come to the cavern to drown themselves in a hot spring, which probably explained the frozen pond with all the skeletons – but didn’t make a whole lot of sense, really. On the other hand, who could expect sense from Frost Giants. They were EVIL!

The caverns had one more surprise for them – or rather, the cauldron did. Once they were all back outside, Testikles decided to put his new cauldron to the test. He filled it with water, and was about to go looking for snails and mussels to make soup when without warning, a familiar scent filled the air. Cautiously, Testikles scooped out a mugful of what looked like…

“Is that stew?” said Alea, staring.

Testikles nodded cautiously.

“Are you going to eat it?”

“There are no fishermen in it,” said Testikles. “But… it was only water a moment ago. I have not even lit a fire, but now I have hot stew. I am a wonderful cook!”

“Don’t be silly,” Jeoff said. He gestured at the cauldron. “Magic. It’s the cauldron, not you, Testikles.”

“No!” said Testikles. “I am the cooking person now!” He sampled the stew. “There are potatoes!” he announced. “Turnips! Carrots! Delicious meats! All this, and I used only water!”

“How much does that cauldron hold?” said Alea thoughtfully.

“About a fuck-ton,” said Milo.

“Magic food,” said Alea. “Wow!”

“It will fetch a great price in the starving towns,” said Testikles, finally accepting the fact that he wasn’t suddenly the King of Chefs.

Alea looked stricken. “No! We have to keep this! I’ll buy it from you!”

“I will hear offers elsewhere first,” said Testikles. “This is worth much money.”

“I’ll match it,” said Alea. “We can use it!”

“We can,” said Testikles. “But starving towns can us it too.” Then with a wisdom that belied his often childish demeanour, he said: “Imagine what they will do if they find we have kept this from them…”

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