A Long-extended Party presents the The Mirkwood Falconers. A short story featuring new player cards in The Aldburg Plot, the upcoming fan-created Adventure Pack in the Oaths of the Rohirrim cycle. Written by John Leo, ALeP Lead Storyteller. Design notes written by Seastan, ALeP Lead Player Card Designer.
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Lanwyn whistled. “Come on, Widfast. ‘Tis not far now.” She bent to squeeze under the diagonal of a fallen tree, and her cousin followed.
The clearing was good for coney hunting, and Lanwyn clambered onto a strong, low branch to nock her bow. Before her stretched an acre of misty ground, the loamy soil grown over with creeper vines and dismal, thorny thrush. She scanned the clearing. Here a toad squeezing into a mud-hole, there a rabbit sniffing the air. At the base of the tree, Widfast sat cross-legged, chattering quietly with a ruby-colored newt.
The girls were young, not yet fifteen, though they seemed still and comfortable amid the vines and dirt and strange music of the woods.
“The newt says the forest is getting darker,” said Widfast. “Foul things creeping up from the south. He said it’s not long before he’ll have to leave.”
“You’re always talking to the creatures,” said her cousin, leaning an elbow against the trunk. “How do you know what they’re saying? Everyone knows lizards can’t speak.”
“They’re always speaking,” said Widfast. “You just have to listen. That’s what Gram says. And besides, he’s not a lizard.”
“I don’t hear anything besides idleness,” said Lanwyn. She hopped up on her branch and raised her bow again. She took aim on a coney, his nose quivering, his eyes black, a shiver racing from his haunches to his skull. “Do you think they have hunting in Dale?” she said.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Widfast. She glanced up at her cousin. “I wish you wouldn’t go.”
“I don’t have a choice,” said Lanwyn. “There are spiders in the forest, they’re saying. Not little tomnoddies, either. Spiders big as a hound. Mother hasn’t had a night of sleep since she heard. She wakes up in a sweat.” Lanwyn lowered her bow and clambered down the tree. The coney, perhaps sensing its chance at freedom, hopped into the underbrush.
“There’s no more evil in a spider than in a Man,” said Widfast.
“Spiders or not, Mother’s made up her mind. It’s no use whinging. She’s taking me to Dale.”
“But you’ll be all alone,” said Widfast. The newt, in a gesture of comfort, scrabbled up Widfast’s arm and took a rest on her shoulder.
“Nonsense,” said Lanwyn. “I’ll have Mother, and besides, there will be more people than I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard they’ve built a great city on the lake, and that it bustles with merchants and fishermen and all kinds of interesting folk.”
“But,” said Widfast, her chin beginning to tremble, “I’ll be all alone.”
“You’ll still have Gram. Besides, you’ve got your creatures,” said Lanwyn. “Isn’t that all you need?”
“No,” said Widfast. “It’s not the same w—”
They heard a crack in the underbrush. In a single motion, Lanwyn readied, nocked an arrow, and loosed it into the clearing. The arrow pierced the coney’s breast, and it tumbled, lifeless, into a mound of fallen leaves.
At supper, the family dined well. Gram skinned the rabbit as she always did, and stewed it with parsley and rosemary and wild carrots. Lanwyn’s mother built a strong fire and had the cauldron bubbling while she finished the day’s cleaning. A grey cat scratched his ears and laid near the fire, waiting for Gram to feed him his platter of offal and bones.
“I met a newt today,” said Widfast. “He said the forest is changing.”
“It’s been changed,” said Gram, sipping a mug of mulled berrywine. “It has been a’fevered since long before you were born. But you’re right, there is a shadow of late. I’ve felt it in my dreams.”
“There you go,” said Lanwyn’s mother, looking up from her pile of dishes. “Filling their heads with nonsense. The only thing the forest is saying is that it’s high time us Woodmen moved on. This place belongs to the Mirk now.”
Widfast pursed her lips. “I don’t want Lanwyn to go.”
Gram glanced at Lanwyn’s mother. The latter looked away, returning her gaze to the basin where she scrubbed a skillet with a mottled rag.
“She must go,” said Gram. “Her mother needs her.”
“Then shouldn’t we go too?” said Widfast, her face reddening. “I could be a woman of Dale. I could learn to paddle a boat across the long lake. I could fish off the pier and we could always be family.”
Lanwyn, who had sat in silence with her bowl of stew, looked up with tears in her eyes. “You mean we won’t be family anymore?”
“Nonsense,” said Gram. But she had a hard and sad look about her, as if defeated.
That night, Widfast slept poorly. She turned and twisted on her cot. She dreamed of a shadow returning to Mirkwood, a shadow heralded by bitterness and rot. She dreamed of a falcon, wing pierced by a black-fletched arrow, spiraling out of the sky like a maple-seed. When she awoke she was drenched in sweat, auburn hair matted to her face, the cat sniffing the air, fangs bared at an invisible dread lingering on the breeze.
The girls lit out early the next morning. “Back before mid-day,” said Lanwyn’s mother. “This cart shan’t pack itself, and woe betide you if I have to load it all alone.”
“Yes, Mother,” said Lanwyn, shouldering her bow. Then she turned and faced her cousin, and together they went into the woods.
“I suppose this is our last hunt,” said Lanwyn. “Or mine. You never seem to do much hunting.”
“I’d rather talk to any creature than put an arrow through it,” said Widfast.
“You never listen to me,” said her cousin. They walked a while in silence, and then Lanwyn shrugged the bow off her shoulder. “You ought to have it,” she said. “I’ll get another one in Dale. I’d hate to think of you and Gram alone in the cottage with naught but a fire-poker to fight off the spiders.”
“I don’t want it,” said Widfast.
Lanwyn frowned and laid the bow across her shoulders. She moved a pace ahead of her cousin, her expression dismal and rejected.
At last Lanwyn crouched on a branch at the edge of the clearing. A light rain had begun to fall in misty curtains on the loam and soil and rotting logs. She scanned the landscape. She would not be ambushed by giant spiders, of that she was certain. A spider would have no chance against her, even one as big as her hand. Somewhere below, a nightcrawler dragged itself out of the muck. Above the canopy, a falcon, pinions like dark knives against the thunderhead.
Her ears pricked. She looked westward and ducked behind a great dark tree. Widfast heard them too. Two figures, nearly man-sized, slashing and caterwauling through the brush. They were two hundred yards away, maybe more. “There! There! That bedeviled raptor! Shoot it afore it gets away again!”
Then Widfast heard a sound—the familiar swish of a bowstring being released. Her eyes locked onto the arrow, watched its black fletching and black head rise in a sharp arc toward the falcon, snapping into its wing. The bird dropped into a freefall, landing rough and sudden in the clearing’s dark mud. Widfast leapt from cover and ran to it.
“Widdie!” whispered Lanwyn. “There are villains about—get back here!”
The bird was a peregrine, perhaps. It flapped its free wing wildly, lashed out with yellow talons, snapped its short sickle of beak. Widfast threw her cloak around it, wrapping it tightly as a babe. The hunters were moving toward the clearing now—Widfast could hear them just beyond the treeline, moving speedily, yet clumsily, among the logs and drooping boughs.
“This way, it fell this way!”
“I seen it, I seen it!”
The two hunters burst through the treeline. Widfast had never seen anything like them: squat, ugly things with pale green skin, their noses studded and ringed with foul metal bands. One of them wielded a bow of burnt black wormwood. The other carried a blade of dented iron. At the sight of them, the falcon began to squawk and flutter madly.
“Orcs,” said Widfast.
“Look what we’ve got,” said Wormwood, his voice guttural and wet. “I shot the bird and she turned into a ripe little Man-whelp.”
“Nope,” said Dentblade. “The likkle birdie’s wrapped up right there in her shawl.”
“Well don’t just stand there,” said Wormwood. “Knock her out cold. We’ll have the bird for breakfast and Man-flesh for supper.”
Though she stood barely to their height, Widfast was small by comparison. Still, she had never felt so big, so sure of herself. Something noble flashed in her eyes. She drew to her full stature. “You won’t have him,” she said.
“A bold one!” said Wormwood. “The bold ones always taste best.”
Widfast smirked. “There’s more bold here than you think.”
At that moment, an arrow streaked through the air, sending Wormwood spinning to the dirt. Lanwyn leapt down from her perch and nocked another arrow. Wormwood groaned. She did not wait for him to get up. Her second arrow laid him low.
Dentblade was not as slow as he looked. Lunging with incredible speed, he charged across the clearing and launched his thick, boarlike body toward Lanwyn, sending her into the tree and scattering bark like bits of glass. She slumped to the ground, her bow jammed into a bed of reeds just out of reach.
“Well, too bad for you,” said the orc. He raised his dented sword over Lanwyn. The metal glinted. A screeching noise pierced the air, and the falcon’s talons sliced deep into the meat of his wrists. The bird was on him, slashing and raking, batting him with its healthy wing. Dentblade grabbed the bird with both hands and lobbed it into the brush with a crunch. His breath ragged and wild, he wiped the blood out of his eyes with a brutish hand.
When his vision cleared, he saw a girl standing before him, her shoulders rising and falling steadily, her hands gripping a bow, the string pulled taut, an arrow poised on nock. “My Gran says the world is always speaking,” said Widfast. “All we have to do is listen.”
The falcon screamed and flailed uselessly in the brush. Lanwyn moaned in pain.
The orc smiled through rotten teeth. “Yeah? And what’s your likkle bird sayin’ now?”
Widfast saw the bird’s great black eyes, the tips of its feathers, the bright claws streaked with blood. She heard its cry, like a trumpet peal. She listened. She heard.
Lanwyn woke to a grinding pain in her ribs.
“Your mother is furious,” said Widfast. “Your little injury pushed back the trip. You two are stuck in the woods a bit longer.”
Lanwyn rubbed her eyes. She was home, in her room. A bed of straw, a leak trickling just beside her head. “You saved me.”
Widfast nodded toward the table. “I had a little help.” Next to her, there stood a falcon, its wing wrapped in white gauze, its eyes fixed on Lanwyn. “He wouldn’t leave your side.”
“Thank you,” said Lanwyn. She knew the bird could not understand her, but she said it anyway. But then he blinked back at her, and she understood.
“He’s going to Dale with you,” said Widfast.
“I don’t know why,” said Lanwyn, “but I think you’re right.”
“He scares your mother, but Gram says he’s good luck. He’ll watch over you.”
“And what about you?” said Lanwyn. “You’ll be here all alone with Gram. I’ll worry.”
“It will be a few weeks before he can fly again, but when he’s ready, he’ll let you know. Then, you can write me a letter. Gavin can fly it back to me. He’ll know the way.”
Lanwyn smiled. “Gavin?”
“That’s his name,” said Widfast. “We may be separated by leagues and leagues, but he can keep us connected. Always.”
“Always,” said Lanwyn.
Ten Years Later.
Widfast steadied her breathing. Her breath was cold in the morning air. A coney sniffed the breeze, then turned. Widfast released the bowstring. Her arrow sliced among the vines and branches, whizzing an inch above the rabbit’s ear. Pinned to the tree, directly behind the rabbit, a great spider wheezed and shuddered. Spared for the moment, the rabbit dashed into the undergrowth.
“Thank me later,” said Widfast. She shouldered her cousin’s old bow. Only then did she sense the presence of her friend. Up through the clearing, she heard the gentle battering of Gavin’s wings on the easterly wind. He descended raggedly, bearing with him the strong scent of seawater.
“Hello, Gavin. Brought word of Lannie’s adventures?” Her heart caught in her throat as she unwrapped the scroll tied around his leg. Though stained with blood and salt, the parchment was covered in Lanwyn’s rushed scrawl.
A thing in the depths. We’ve pursued Sahír … Calphon’s dream. Strange creatures beyond Andrast. Help. If you can find us, help.
And as Widfast left behind the eaves of her homeland, she was followed by the bright falcon of her youth, and wherever she went the beasts of the land gathered, and Widfast listened.