A bit of further events in our game world, courtesy of our DM. I'm adding it here because it's directly relevant to the events of this week's game, and also because it saves me from feeling like I need to compose anything of my own.
Darvinin hiked over the last rise and looked down at the forest below him: The Devil’s Orchard.
“Not very inviting, is it?” Tiatha stood to his right and just behind him, looking over his shoulder. She was graceful, quick, lithe, and to be honest quite easy on the eyes. Several of his barracks mates had been jealous of him going on a scouting mission with Tiatha. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend a couple weeks in the wilderness with a beautiful elven lass like Tiatha? Darvinin supposed he should consider himself lucky, but couldn’t help wishing she were Mistra, or that he’d had a choice in anything at all related to this matter.
Perhaps that was the rub. He’d been the hero of the garrison, the quick-witted soldier who’d sniffed out the grand doppelganger conspiracy. For he’d identified the first, and they had subsequently identified half a dozen more, penetrated into numerous positions. The king himself had been in great danger and all were grateful to Darvinin… until they identified the Grand Marshall’s concubine as one of the shapechangers. He was none too pleased when his pretty blonde bedmate transformed into a genderless, bug-eyed freak. “Elf-man, use some of your elf-a-nese gibberish to change her back the way she was. She wasn’t doin’ no harm.” Darvinin of course explained that he could not, in fact, change her back. The Grand Marshall muttered something about him being lazy, and when the next perilous scouting assignment behind enemy lines came up, Darvinin was conveniently chosen.
The injustice was also why he was taking his time. Their intelligence indicated a potential enemy force building in the Devil’s Orchard, the somewhat swampy forest west of Duendewood proper. Instead of approaching directly, they had come from the south, through the Blood Hills. Years ago, when Aldanor, the Elfbane Emperor had declared jihad on elves and ordered Sol Povos to round them up, the Duke of Corwick had happily complied, marching his army east from Janbridge. Countless bloody battles were fought on those ridges, and today it was revered as a sort of holy land with shrines topping many of the small hills. Neither Darvinin nor Tiatha had ever visited them before, so it seemed like a perfect way to both cover their tracks and get in some sight-seeing.
Darvinin was pleasantly surprised at the number of humans he saw at the shrines, and at their relative open-mindedness. They approached him, talked to him, and in some cases even asked forgiveness for sins of ancient family members. Said forgiveness was of course given, and in several cases he and Tiatha found themselves breaking bread with the humans and discussing diverse subjects. It reassured him that not all humans in Sol Povos were hate-mongering racists, and a great many did not support the king’s new policies. The current Duke of Corwick, however, was not one of them. It became clear from his discussions that Duke Corbin not only supported King Luc III in his persecution of elves, but doubled down on the bet. When Darvinin had left Lith’laur he had merely suspected the rogue force in the Devil’s Orchard was the duke’s doing. Now he was sure.
“Well, are you going to just stand there?”
“Sorry, I was thinking about my brother again.”
“You’ve been doing that a lot.”
“Well, a week ago I thought he was right about the humans. Now… I’m not so sure.”
Tiatha nodded, “I know what you mean. Some are good people. War would hurt them. It would hurt good people on both sides.”
“Do you think it will come to war?”
Darvinin sighed, “Why don’t we go find out? I’m afraid the answer may be in that forest down there.”
Tiatha sneered. “That’s not a forest! That’s a bunch of trumped up, over-watered shrubberies!”
Tiatha’s description of the Devil’s Orchard wasn’t exactly correct, but her insinuation that it was inhospitable place was entirely accurate. The Devil’s Orchard was similar in composition to its sister to the northwest, the Blackwoods. Whereas Duendewood was a lush spectrum of oaks, birch, maples, and every other tree imaginable, the Devil’s Orchard was composed almost entirely of gnarled pines with blackened bark. The black was from fires, which these trees had an uncanny knack of surviving thanks to the calcified salt bark. This salt bark was a side effect of the interminable wind that blew through the woods, coating the trees with salt from the cold, moist air off the Copo Deus Bay. The trees were tall enough to block almost all light, which meant the ground never dried and their boots were soaked inside and out with peaty mud that squished with every step. All in all, it was a miserable place.
“Well, I’ve decided,” Tiatha said.
“I’m marking this place off my list of potential locations for a summer home.”
Darvinin chuckled, “You can say that again. This place is oppressive.”
Darvinin chuckled again, more loudly, “Yes, both of those.” He smiled to himself. Yes, the boys had reason to be jealous. Tiatha was both beautiful and witty.
“What in the Seven Hells of Baator were those?” Tiatha exclaimed.
Darvinin stopped and leaned on his knees, panting. “Mephits… I think.”
“They’re like… little devils.”
“Well, what the hell are they doing here?”
Darvinin stood up and arched his back, stretching. “I don’t know. This forest is a strange place. There are tons of stories, about strange creatures crawling out of the dark woods and harassing Blackbeach to the north. Hence the name: Devil’s Orchard.”
“Then why station an army here? This seems to be about the last place I’d pick.”
Darvinin grinned, “It’s the first place I’d pick. They would be well hidden because only a complete idiot would venture in here.”
Tiatha stared blankly at him for a moment before she burst out laughing. Darvinin didn’t crack jokes very often, but he liked to think that when he did, he made them count.
Tiatha slid quietly back down the small mound of roots and mud, halting next to Darvinin. “There’s definitely a camp up there. I see movement in the trees in all directions – scouts for sure. And in the distance, I see the glow of fires.”
Darvinin felt naked in this foreign place. If he’d been back in Duendewood, he would have marched right up to the camp, confident in his ability to blend into the surroundings. But here in this place where everything squished and sloshed, he was out of his element. He closed his eyes and recited one of his mother's verses, intended to generate focus. After a moment, he opened his eyes again. “We need to get closer. Or higher. Both will work. If the scouts are on the ground, let’s go above them.”
Tiatha grinned, “Good plan, old man. I saw an exceptionally tall and prickly tree about a hundred and fifty paces ahead. I think we can get there without being noticed, then climb out of this murky darkness.”
They nodded at each other and spun around the tree, loping as quietly as they could over the boggy ground. True to Tiatha’s word, a behemoth loomed in front of them. Two quick steps up the trunk allowed him to catch a low-hanging branch and swing himself up. Tiatha was even quicker, hanging upside down from a branch in the second level. She smiled at him and extended an arm. He leaped, locking wrists with her, and swung to another slightly higher branch, ten feet away. From there, he was able to hop up to the second level where Tiatha was now standing upright. Together they worked their way up another twenty feet before finding a suitable perch on the northern side of the tree’s under-canopy.
“Thought you might throw out your back on that last jump, Darvinin. What are you, like a hundred years old?”
“Something like that.” Darvinin replied. He decided Ruin would have liked Tiatha. Truth be told, Ruin spent far more time climbing trees and testing himself than Darvinin, who’d always fancied a good book, and therefore would have been a far better match for Tiatha’s constant challenges.
Time passed slowly up in the canopy, but finally darkness started to fade and the sun burned off the fog. As it did, the sight before them was revealed slowly, like a puzzle being completed. When at last the image was clear, they both stared dumbfounded for a long moment.
“What… the… hell?” Tiatha muttered under her breath.
Strewn out before them was a large and disorderly camp of some 500, flying the banners of Aramar. As far as they could see were jade and cream colored tents, flags, and surcoats. Before they could discuss this most unexpected sight, a twig snapped not more than fifty yards away. They both instinctively put a hand on the other to indicate the need for silence. The first crack was followed by a second, and a few moments later a man appeared in the clearing below. Not just a man – an elf. Like the others, he wore a pristine surcoat indicating he was part of the standing army of Aramar. He was apparently looking for kindling, and paced around the clearing for a few minutes picking up small branches before returning the way he’d come. When he was out of earshot, Tiatha turned to Darvinin.
“It’s… an elven army. What do we do now?”
Darvinin scratched his chin for a moment before replying, “I guess we go talk to them.”
“Either our Grand Marshall is a complete idiot…”
“Possible. Probable.” Tiatha interjected.
“…or something very fishy is going on. Either way, we won’t know unless we talk to them. I say we throw on our own surcoats and march right in there.”
“Ballsy,” Tiatha nodded, “but also stupid. Perhaps more the latter. But I have to say those fires look fairly inviting after three days trekking through the Devil’s Armpit, so I’m in.”
They had been in the camp for over half an hour before someone finally stopped them. The army was decidedly, without question, elven. Darvinin had even cast detect magic on a few to rule out the unlikely theory that this was a whole army of doppelgangers, but they checked out. However two things stood out to Darvinin about this army. First, discipline was shit. Tents were erected haphazardly rather than in orderly rows, and whereas most military encampments echoed with lieutenants barking orders, this one had more the feel of a tavern the morning after a late night binge. When he did observe lieutenants barking orders, the subordinates rolled their eyes and proceeded to execute the orders in a most leisurely fashion.
The second thing Darvinin noticed was that the uniforms were too clean. In fact, they looked brand new. It was this last part that finally gave him and Tiatha away – they were the only ones in the whole camp with patches and stains on their surcoats. A burly man named Turg stopped them. He was broad-chested for an elf, with a scar running down his cheek. He chewed tobacco, spit frequently, and demanded to know who their superior officer was. When they informed him they were emissaries from the Grand Marshall, he replied that they would need to see Finrod and escorted them there, along with six of his ugliest friends. The whole lot of them smelled like they needed a shower and Tiatha wrinkled her nose.
Finrod’s tent was a legit, standard-issue colonel’s tent. Two guards at the door stood at attention and saluted. Darvinin and Tiatha saluted in return, and the flaps were pulled back for them to enter. Turg and his friends left to pursue other activities.
Inside the tent, the man named Finrod sat behind a rich, mahogany desk. There were four guards stationed inside the room, wearing full platemail armor. Finrod himself was well-armed and looked capable. He appraised them and immediately determined they were not from his company and demanded, “How do I know you are not spies?”
Darvinin shuffled his feet, “Spies? Elven spies?” He had somehow never considered this possibility.
“Yes, elven spies,” Finrod replied, “Our enemy is quite clever. Recite the creed of Aramar to me.”
Both Tiatha and Darvinin capably recited their soldiers’ creed, which seemed to satisfy Finrod. He nodded and Darvinin felt the time was right to ask his own questions. “Begging your pardon, colonel, but couldn’t I ask the same question of you? This is a strange place for one of Aramar’s armies.”
The man raised an eyebrow, “Is it? A whole company of Aramar’s finest, hidden carefully behind enemy lines, ready to surprise our enemy at a command? You think this is a bad idea?”
Darvinin stuttered, “Well, no, but you see the Marshall sent us…”
“Boy, the Grand Marshall is an idiot. A figurehead. He couldn’t lead a horse to water, let alone lead an army! Make no mistake about it, Ar’Pious is not the one calling the shots.” Finrod grinned, and for a moment Darvinin thought he caught something in the man’s facial expression, but he quickly continued, “You are unconvinced. Fine. I was born on the grainway, in the second borough of Aramar. My father was a peddler. I lived my whole life in that city. Nesterin?”
One of the guards behind Darvinin stepped forward, “I was born in Caelidel – wood elves. My dad tried to train me as a ranger, but I was never any good at it, so I came to the city.”
Finrod nodded approvingly. “Idril?”
“Sir?” A female elf stepped forward.
“Where are you from?”
“Sir! Fourth borough, born and raised. My father was a tanner, and often worked with the elves of the forest.”
Finrod nodded again. “Satisfied? We’re good, traditional elven stock from Aramar.”
Darvinin nodded apprehensively.
“Good, then it’s time for me to ask a couple questions, seeing as I report to those who are truly in charge. Speaking of, which of you is in charge?”
Tiatha looked at Darvinin and they nodded at each other. Darvinin spoke up, “That would be me, sir. I lead this expedition.”
Darvinin barely caught the grin on Finrod’s face. Then he heard a swift, wet sound and a small squeak. Horrified, he looked at Tiatha, a sword protruding from her chest. He spun to grab his weapon, but it was too late. The second guard, Nesterin, hit him on the head with something hard. There was a blaze of bright light, and then only darkness.