After agreeing to help the Hatfield girl, the party is joined by Lita the Half-elf and Ghallong the Warrior who are likewise drawn by rumors of a haunted forest. All the adventurers agree to join forces, but the arrival of another Ranger, in the person of Lita, seems to put Radolfo ill at ease. Mumbling something about three being a crowd, he volunteers to take a contingent (including Ala and Fr. Brendan) outside of town to seek the advice of, and give due notice to, the local nobility -- His Holiness Baron Umfre. Meanwhile, Ghallong and Trayven hang around the local public house in hopes of overhearing information without attracting attention to themselves. This leaves Lita and Fenris to attempt to interview Logger McCoy and discover what they will from the general populace directly.
Ala, Fr. Brendan and Radolfo follow directions to the Baron's Manor, but make a right turn instead of a left and spotting a large manor in the distance make for it with haste. The house turns out to be abandoned, but of noble origin. They spend the next three days wandering in and around it, thinking it has some bearing on the adventure at hand. Their pursuits, however, turn up naught but splinters and dashed hopes. They will finally meet the rest of their party as they are on the way out of town.
But, back in Umfreville, Ghallong and Traven discover that the elders of the town are debating four basic, and perhaps intertwined, ideas:
- the area is once again alive with spirit of Kinurea -- a being of some power.
- the Sacred Forest has seen the return of the Tree Shepherds and failure to obtain their permission results in death. The murder and even the appearance of the party (primarily elves or "fairies") portends a return of the old ways.
- Logger Hatfield was having an affair with the Jeanne McCoy and Logger McCoy got his revenge.
- as remarkable as the accident sounds, it was a one in a million occurrence and a strange sort of justice was served because Logger Hatfield wouldn't appropriately share the claim
Lita and Fenris take their leave of the Hatfield house and approach the house of Logger McCoy. Two young men are sitting on log stumps and whittling as the two adventurers approach. One of them stands up and approaches them, but when Fenris opens her mouth to speak he immediately punches her in the face. The counter attack isn't pretty and the one of the two that turns out to be Boy McCoy is left unconscious. His brother Roy attends to his wounds. Lita uses her curate faculties to keep the belligerent Boy from death, but Roy McCoy accuses the two of being assassins. The two of them shake the dust from their feet and continue through town interviewing who they might. They discover that the Baron's Reeve has already investigated the murder and found Logger McCoy innocent of any wrong doing. The official word is that Hatfield died in a tragic accident.
Eventually, Lita, Fenris, Ghallong and Traven meet up at a small roadside chapel and find it tended by the local priest. He offers to pray with the party and answers many of their questions. The people of Umfresville are a superstitious lot, he says, and given to old wives tales about their Sacred Forest and their pagan past. Kinurea, he explains, was the pagan deity of old. Before the Church came, the people of Umfreville would have sacrificed animals in the woods and hung wineskins from various branches of trees in order to appease her. The priest explains that the forest in those days was allegedly kept by Tree Shepherds. The loggers of old used to ask permission of the Shepherds before harvesting. If such creatures ever existed, the priest explains, they are long gone now. Those tales are no more true than the stories of the Old Woman of the Forest. The priest sighs, explaining that it is all he can do to keep these people from damnation. They stubbornly cling to their pagan past even after all these centuries.
Ghallong remains behind to see what other information he might get from the priest, while the rest of the party leaves the chapel and sets off on the north road. Lita spends some time alone and compels a raven to act as her animal messenger. She writes a letter, asking her superior what knowledge might be had about the Sacred Forest of Talir. Then, she rejoins her companions on the North road.
They are midway through the forest when they come across a young man running wildly toward them with fear in his eyes. The party gets him to slow and give reason for his alarm. "A bear," he said, "Has just ripped my brother's head off and is eating him." The adventurers compel the boy to show them where his brother is. The boy is nervous but cannot refuse.
They arrive to find the body and a bloody trail. Fearing this was no bear attack, the party sets off after the creature whose tracks lead directly into the Old Swamp -- a fetid expanse of standing water, biting insects, venomous snakes and man-eating crocodiles. After wading through marshland ranging from ankle to chest deep, they come at last to a small patch of high ground and find themselves in the midst of three Bugbears, one of whom still has a bloody maw and a human femur.
The Bugbears are promptly dispatched. At the battle's end, the party decides to send Traven and the boy back to town after Ghallong the party fighter, while Lita and Fenris wait in the swamp to see if the Bugbears have companions. Fenris hides but Lita turns herself into a small tree and waits in plain view. But, as the hours tick by it becomes apparent that something is awry.
Lita, followed gingerly by Fenris, finally sets out after the overdue Traven but quickly loses his trail. It is obvious that he and the boy did not take a direct route back. Now two separate groups are afoot in the Old Swamp. Eventually, though, Lita and Fenris emerge onto the meadow north of Umfreville and look about for signs of Trayven's passage. Assured that he never made it out, they plunge back into the Old Swamp. Lita uses her Curate faculties to communicate with her wildcat pet, which agrees to track their wayward companion. The wildcat leads them into a crocodile infested area, led by one giant croc with malicious intent.
Meanwhile, Traven and his companion have slogged for some time and finally come upon another piece of high ground which is held by no fewer than five Bugbears. They are discussing some stratagem over a crudely made representation of the village. One of the Bugbears, larger than the others, wears a leather cap set with an iron ring and seems to be directing the others. The elf Ranger decides he can move faster and quieter alone, and decides to leave his companion in the reeds and attempt to go back to Umfreville to warn the town. Just as he moves to go, the Bugbears discover the boy and haul him into the center of their foul council.
Traven continues and finds himself hemmed in by approaching crocodiles and attempts to flee. Once cornered he is forced to use his animal empathy ability and successfully gets those after him to lose their hostile intent. He also notes his companions, some bloodied and wounded, high in a tree above still more crocodiles. The three of them barely escape with their lives after the crocodiles grow weary of waiting for food. With Lita's direction sense they are finally able to leave the Old Swamp behind.
When they do emerge from the swamp they come upon Ghallong fresh from adventures of his own. He tells them that he has learned nothing from his additional time in the chapel. He states that he returned to the White Goat, a public house in town, and there overheard the excited townspeople talking about the returned fairies. He also heard rumors of their intent to re-enact an ancient ceremony in the woods. Ghallong joined them out of curiosity and spent several hours watching them sacrifice a pig and sing songs off-key. When the townsfolk finally left slapping themselves on the back and congratulating one another, Ghallong remained behind to collect his thoughts. But no sooner did the last of the townsfolk leave, then he was set upon by several Bugbears and forced to lose them in a mad sprint through the forest. He slew one, eluded the rest, and burst from the trees onto the meadows South of town, barely clinging to life through his wounds.
The party returns to Umfreville and notes that their companions have not returned from their attempted contact with the Baron, so they ride to his manor and seek audience.
At the Baron's manor, the party seeks audience with his Holiness, the Lord Umfre. They claim that the town within his borders will be attacked by a force of Bugbears and that the people need his help. The Baron appears supremely disinterested and highly doubtful, but agrees to send his Reeve back with the party to make a full accounting of the matter. The Reeve takes six of his best men to the town with him.
Back in town, all appears well and the Baron's man is skeptical. Then the party leads the Reeve back into the Sacred Wood to show him the murdered boy. There is nothing remaining of his body but a bloody stain on the turf. The party then leads him into the Old Swamp and they come upon evidence of the Bugbears encampment. Convinced, the Reeve then returns to Umfreville and agrees to stay the night in force. He sends his men to each end of the town to warn the people. One of his men returns, with stories of the chapel priest being consumed alive. The Reeve leads a charge back to the chapel and finds a gory scene, but no sign of Bugbears. Just then, the party is set upon by an ambush.
The battle is fierce and the Reeve calls out for everyone to fall back into the chapel. All obey, except for Fenris who sees that the party is outmatched and overwhelmed. She makes for the center of town for reinforcements. Finding several guardsmen and townsfolk dead, she takes a horse and rides with all haste for the Baron's manor and the might of the rest of his armed company.
At the chapel, the Reeve is clearly the greatest fighter among the group. He loses some men, and is gravely wounded, but the Bugbears are at least routed. The victorious group rides down the surviving horde and returns to the center of town. There they espy the sawmill burning and a hooting triumphant band of Bugbears dancing in the night. This time the battle is joined by the Rangers alone, Trayven and Lita.
Meanwhile, Fenris has failed to rouse the Baron to action, managing only to procure a letter which demands that the Reeve give a full written report of affairs in the town. Fenris, taking advantage of the common man's illiteracy, seeks out the Reeve's lieutenant and waves the Baron's signature beneath his nose. "This order from your lord demands that you and fifty of your men accompany me to save Umfreville," she claims. The lieutenant is cowed by Fenris' visage as much as by her demand, and saddles up a group of men to follow her. They arrive in town to find it still burning in some quarters, with much of the party wounded and near death, but the Bugbears at last defeated.
The townsfolk slowly regroup in the center of the square and celebrate their rescue by the Baron and the Baron's men. The rest of the night passes in uneasy calm with the smell of burning wood and dead bodies in the nostrils of many ordinary folk who cannot sleep. The adventurers, however, fall into easy rest and slumber the rest of the night away until morning. They awake to find that the townsfolk have prepared a feast for the victors -- the Baron's men, as led by the Reeve.
The party eats and then tells the Reeve that they must press into the Old Swamp to eradicate the last of the Bugbears. The Reeve defers, saying that any remaining goblins are probably long gone, and that the Baron recalled his men (all but two of them) to his keep in order to defend the strategic high ground of his personal residence and person. The Reeve also holds an arrest warrant for Fenris, signed by the Baron and on the charge of misappropriation of the Baron's guard.
Just then, the town elder comes forward with his cane and advises that the truth of the matter of the Bugbears can be known by seeking out the Old Woman of the Forest. To many eye rolls and snickers, he suggests nothing can occur in and around the Sacred Wood without her being fully aware of it. The Reeve and many of the townsfolk scoff at such a notion, but the Reeve, sensing an out, agrees to the course of action. So, the party and the Reeve, along with the Reeve's men, take the old man along as they go into the forest to seek the Old Woman.
On the way, the town elder regales the party with local legends of the Old Woman. She lives among the trees, he explains, and hangs great silken sheets from the boughs and branches to ward off intruders. But she has lived in the Forest from time immemorial, since before the Seventh Age began. He saw her once, the town elder claims, when he was but a boy and playing in the wood. He enjoyed her company and found her to be a great conversationalist. She is the reason that tradition holds that none of the serfs will log the north side of the forest road, for that is her domain and she will have no one in it.
At long last, the party comes to an area with great webs hanging from the trees and the party begins to fear the worst. The Old Woman of the Forest finally reveals herself as a giant spider with a protruding thorax and a woman's face. Greatly unnerved, the party asks if there are still Bugbears in the swamp. The spider avers that there are twenty remaining. Trayven asks her whence and why the Bugbears came. She agrees to answer, if the party will return four of them to her -- for she has developed a taste for them. Lita asks if the Old Woman knows anything about the murder of Logger Hatfield. The arachnoid guardian says she saw it happen and will tell the truth of the matter if the party will return her an additional Bugbear. As they turn to go, the Old Woman declares that she will keep the town elder as surety of the party's pledge. Wrapping him gingerly in silk, she secrets him in her webbed lair and shrinks from sight.
The adventurers return to the Old Swamp and narrowly avoid an ambush laid for them. They do battle with the remaining Bugbears, during which the Reeve and all his men are slain. The party narrowly avoids disaster, but is triumphant in the end, with five Bugbears bundled tightly. The release a sixth when it agrees in halting common to show them the horde's treasure.
With prisoners in tow, the party returns to ransom the town elder. They come upon a spider and assuming it to be the same Old Woman eventually realize that there are four such beings. The party eventually makes the exchange and the witnesses one of the Old Women of the Forest prepare her prizes for consumption. She admits that she has others that she has used to host her clutches of eggs, but these will be used for feeding.
About the murder, the Old Woman says she watched one logger and two younger males hold another logger against a tree, and sever his head by means of an axe. The three appeared quite angry at the fourth. Regarding the Bugbears, she says that they came from destinations north and tried to settle in her part of the Forest, but that she drove them off and they took residence in the Old Swamp. Their motivation in attacking the human town would seem to be competition for living space.
Satisfied, the party returns to Umfreville only to find that Logger McCoy perished in the mill fire along with the younger siblings of Girl Hatfield. McCoy's sons are alive, and the party compels them to help carry the Reeve's body back to the Baron's manor for proper burial.
Once in the company of the Baron, they discover he is most interested in the whereabouts of Fenris and surprisingly dismissive of the capital crime committed among his serfs. That mystery, he intones, was solved to everyone's satisfaction weeks ago -- it was a mere logging accident. Trayven steps forward and presents the two sons of McCoy for the Baron's inspection. "These are they," he claims, "which murdered Logger Hatfield with the aid of their father. If properly pressed, they might confess it."
The sons protest the allegation and the Baron is prepared to dismiss all when he asks what evidence the party has of their accusation. When the Old Woman of the Forest is mentioned, the Baron suddenly becomes interested. He agrees to hold and try the McCoy boys and then execute them summarily, if the party will lead his company into the woods to treat with the Old Woman.
Suspicious of his motives, the party declines the Baron's request and takes their leave of his court. They rejoin their friends Ala, Fr. Brendan and Radolfo just East of town at the abandoned manor house and set out away from his Holiness' land and toward new adventures. As they make their way to the High King's Highway, the bird messenger sent by Lita returns with a message from her superior, the Lawspeaker of the Mistwood.
It is a fitting epilogue. The missive reads that the Sacred Forest is known to be kept by an ancient guardian from another plane and that it is a force for neutrality and should not be trifled with.
*Several corrections as of 07/09