The Nazgul has been chased off, but the party is now on their own, without the talents of a Wizard to fall back on. Lowthesis being the only member of the company to resist falling into a swoon from the Black Breath, he watched over everyone else around a small campfire until they recovered. Even after regaining consciousness they were quite drained, and so decided to remain at this camp to recuperate a bit. Two lookouts were now posted while the others rested.
The company was plagued by nightmares while they slept. The details are as follows:
Grimwine: Two bears, one of average size and one extremely large walk along the bank of a swiftly-flowing river under a clear night sky. A light frost crunches underfoot. At a fork in the path ahead the smaller bear without thinking about it heads down the path ahead toward a towering mountain. Upset, the larger bear cuffs him and turns down the other fork, to the left. When the smaller bear doesn't follow, the larger runs back and fights more violently with the smaller bear. Before the conflict is resolved the scene fades to darker thoughts of trees and spiders, and one nightmare after another bleeds into the next.
Ranulf: King Bard sits alone on his throne, a look of despair on his face. You call out his name but he doesn't answer. Hearing a clamor of angry voices outside you slowly walk over to an open window, when all of the sudden the shaft of sunlight disappears as the day turns instantly to night. South of the Royal Palace you see that some of Dale's buildings appear to be on fire, and Elves and Dwarves fight openly with each other in the streets while Bardings barricade themselves in the intact buildings. Your remaining dreams are dominated by frantic searching, though you cannot remember where.
Lowthesis: You can feel the oars you hold cut across the still water of Esgaroth, the Long Lake, and you admire your home, the Lonely Mountain, in the distance. You soon find your self inexplicably deep in the Mountain's winding halls, focused intently on the burning forge before you. This is a joy you've long been deprived of, but it's soon cut short. Your thoughts turn to a great jewel, skillfully carved, and you hear muffled shouts, curses, and threats. As the shouts become clearer your vision of the jewel becomes more and more blurred. You suddenly find yourself startled awake as the jewel fades to nothingness. Ranulf and Grimwine twitch uneasily in their sleep nearby. On the other side of the fire you can hear the four Dwarves all awake, softly arguing in the Dwarven tongue. The mood is tense and secretive.
Lowthesis decides to join the other Dwarves, not bothering to wake his human companions. This sounds like Dwarven business, after all. As he approaches he learns that Balin is eager to press on and search for the pony. They still have a mission to accomplish, after all, and he doesn't want to return to his king as a coward. Dwalin and Oin are both less sure of the wisdom of continuing onward, as they'd planned on having Gandalf's assistance and they've already encountered a Nazgul; who knows what other evil creatures lurk amongst these trees? Ori is quiet, and seemingly undecided. Lowthesis is eager to press on as well, not being one to back out of a challenge (Bold), and tries to Inspire the others. He convinces Ori that Balin's is the better course of action, and while Dwalin and Oin still have their doubts, they will accept the majority vote and follow their leader.
Mirkwood's Western Eaves
The argument resumes in the morning when Ranulf and Grimwine wake up. Grimwine is ready to go, but Ranulf voices his doubts and advocates strongly that they turn back. Lowthesis ends the discussion by reminding him that this has already been decided last night, and that he can go back by himself if he so desires. Ranulf grudgingly follows.
Ori and Grimwine scout out ahead to look for the pony. After following his tracks to a point where the stop, with signs of a scuffle, Grimwine determines that the pony was eaten and that they should turn back and tell the others. [LM note: the pony was captured, yes, but was still alive wrapped up in a web nearby. I never described any blood splatters or anything, and honestly I expected Grimwine to try a little harder. Oh well, that's just fewer supplies that they have now, and they're suffering more Fatigue because of it]. The remaining week in the western eaves of Mirkwood are relatively uneventful, though several ruins are discovered and explored. Low on water, the party is quite thrilled to discover and old well, though after lowering down a bucket it's obvious that something metallic is down there. Ranulf lowers himself down to investigate, and finds an old skeleton covered in spider webs. An elven dagger lies on the corpse's lap, with no webs around the dagger's perimeter. Ranulf finds that the dagger cuts webs like butter, and cuts off a broach with an unfamiliar family crest from the tattered remains of clothing. [LM note: There were some other goodies in this area, but nobody found them]. A larger ruin of a small village was discovered a few days later, and it appeared to be some kind of trade center based on the numbers of different coins present. Some representatives included old Elven and Dwarven coins, as well as unfamiliar old coins with Dalish runes, and coins with horses on them. More treasure points were acquired. The first treasure found was a chest located by Ranulf, though he couldn't unlock it and called Lowthesis in to assist him. Lowthesis easily opened the chest, but claimed all of the treasure inside for himself (earning a Shadow point since a cut of that loot was rightfully Ranulf's; he's definitely living up to his "Grasping" flaw). The final ruins encountered was the wall of a large waystation, and atop it was a large boulder carved in the likeness of the Eye of Sauron. Lowthesis and Grimwine devised a lever that they used to topple the abominable carving (incurring Shadow points for approaching it), and by doing so allowed everyone else to pass by without making Corruption tests. Lowthesis may be greedy, but that doesn't mean he can't also be heroic.
The Mountains of Mirkwood
The players seemed to go out of their way to surprise me here. As the elevation increased and the terrain became more rocky, the forest soon became dominated by dark, twisted fir trees. Early on this leg of the journey a gorge was encountered with a 40 foot span, and a raging river 200 ft. below. A ruined bridge crossed over the gorge along the road, but about halfway across a large chunk had fallen off so that by the far end it narrowed to only 3 feet wide. [LM note: I fully intended for the party to head upstream to find a way around this gorge]. Lowthesis wanted to make a rope bridge across the chasm, but it meant that someone had to cross on the bridge first (at least to test its stability). The Adventurous Ranulf volunteered, and roped off though he was it was obvious that the bridge was unstable, and an unsuccessful Stealth roll made it obvious that he wasn't able to cross it. Thinking he could do better, Grimwine roped himself up and got an extraordinary success on his Stealth roll (easily an AP thanks to his Bold trait). I had him get nearly to the end, and then said that the only way further was to attempt a jump to the other side; I was quite clear that this was a one-shot deal, that a great roll was needed, and that a failure would most likely result in death. [LM note: this is usually a good way of telling your players "I'm not going to stop you, but this isn't a very good idea.] I think he had to blow a point of hope, but he ended up passing the daunting difficulty and made it safely to the other side, collapsing the ruined section of the bridge in the process.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR DON'T LEAVE THE PATH!!!!
A few days after the incident at the bridge I had Balin go down to a stream to fetch water as the company was making camp. They all heard a "yelp!" and Ranulf and Grimwine rushed down to see what happened (one of the two, I think Grimwine, noticed that Balin had left his axe at camp). They found muddy Dwarf tracks followed by a set of spider tracks, both of which led to two trees with broken strands of webbing between them. Grimwine shouted for everyone to follow him, and he proceeded to track for several hours in the dark. Finally they came to a moonlit clearing, in the middle of which stood a ruined castle covered with spider webs. The defensive walls and outbuildings had long since crumbled to the ground, but a single tower still stood, as well as two sections of the keep's wall which formed an L-shape, above which was suspended a wriggling mass of webbing (Balin). Ranulf used his dagger to cut some webs off of the wall, noticing that the blade was glowing blue. When he climbed higher to continue cutting webs, he failed his roll and fell to the ground, sustaining some endurance damage and cracking a rib (failed protection test resulted in a wound). Grimwine tried next, but luck was against him and he too fell and was wounded. Ranulf then proceeded to tie a large knot in the end of his rope and toss it up the wall to stick onto the webbing. The impact caused the webs to vibrate, and Ranulf's dagger to glow brighter blue. First one spider jumped down amongst them, though it was easily dispatched by Grimwine in one hit. One of the players asked "do you think there'll be more of them?" to which Oin replied "there's always more." Using the general guidelines in Tales from Wilderland I had an increasing number of spiders appear each round, though in rounds 4 and 5 I substituted an attercop for a great spider. Several companions and Dwarves (I had each player running one of the Dwarves in combat) ended up ensnared by spider webs. My misinterpretation of the poisoning rules almost resulted in an insta-death for Grimwine, until I went back through the rules and realized that a player needs to roll an Eye to trigger a called shot (I had the called shot trigger off of the monster's Eye roll). The stalwart Beorning was still on the ground dying, even if he wasn't dead-dead, and Ori did get poisoned. Again this group demonstrated its reluctance to back down from a fight, so after both great spiders were killed (even despite Holding Spells on Grimwine, which was moot now, and Lowthesis) I had the remaining attercops flee. By the end of the fight 11 attercops and the 2 great spiders were dead, so I just had one of the survivors hiss "dinner isn't worth this!" Aside from opening volleys Ranulf didn't really get a single attack in, spending all of his actions to either cut allies loose from the webbing with his spiffy new dagger, or singing his battle chants to restore their endurance. The company quickly rescued Balin (and Ori, who had been dragged up the wall after succumbing to the poison's paralysis), constructed a quick stretcher for Grimwine, and then booked it out of there.
Two days after this a torrential thunderstorm appeared out of nowhere, and Ranulf after heading out to find shelter encountered a hollowed-out tree with a plume of smoke coming from it. He called everyone else there, and after squeezing inside it became obvious that someone was living in here. Grimwine took some pheasant meat (he'd bagged them the previous day) and started cooking it on the fire, and soon they heard a scratching outside and a head poked in. The hermit was extremely surprised, and couldn't be quelled by Ranulf's botched attempt to courteously calm him down (too bad the Tolerance was only 1 here). Refusing to listen to reason and shouting about how he wouldn't be taken back he started stabbing his spear at Grimwine. Grimwine was starting to grow extremely angry, but a lucky hit (coupled with Grimwine's extremely low Endurance) knocked him out. Lowthesis was the next target of the Hermit's ire, having previously tried to wrench the spear from his grasp, but it was ultimately Ranulf who was able to restrain him. The hermit flung insults at Lowthesis, betraying his contempt for Dwarves by comparing them with orcs (though my personal favorite improvised insult was "may your beard become infested with insects!"). Lowthesis tried to offer him some treasure in exchange for letting them stay here, but he shouted about how the Shadow lives in things and would consume them all. Finally the hermit was placated by a promise to leave his "house" if he didn't attack them when they untied him. Grimwine's player admitted that if he'd been conscious he would have killed the hermit, Shadow be damned.
The rain continued on for several days, and soon the company came upon a roaring stream, flooded by the recent downpours. Ranulf constructed a boat (Boating and Woodright), but as he came close to the water he began to feel drowsy as the spray hit his skin. The Dwarves warned the company to avoid the water, because they didn't want to carry anyone around like they had to for Bombur! After plans to swing Tarzan-style across with rope didn't pan out (partially due to the extreme reluctance of Lowthesis to attempt such an insane maneuver), Grimwine concentrated on felling trees to make a bridge across. He got some high enough to avoid the spray, but when Ranulf attempt the crossing he failed (despite help from a rope handrail), falling into the stream (as well as a deep, deep sleep). Ultimately Grimwine conceded to go along with the plan that Lowthesis had advocated all along; to simply wait until the water levels went down. After 4 days (2D6) they were able to boat across, and Ranulf woke up shortly afterwards.
The next few days were some of the worst of their entire journey. I didn't go into specific detail, instead simply reading this short description:
It's a dark section of the wood surrounded by knife-edged rocky ridges. The talus from these cliffs has carpeted the ground in razor-edged shards and gravel, and a slight thinning of the tree canopy has encouraged the growth of stiff shrubs covered in 3-inch thorns. The howling of wargs has become a regular occurrence, and the occasional giant spiderweb or troll track across the path has you on edge. Though you see no signs of orcs, their refuse is everywhere. Everything from grotesque stone carvings, to vast burnings and garbage piles, to the skeletons that betray their propensity for conflict. From the rare trickle of a stream you detect a faint tang of oil in the air. If the Forest Road is ever to be re-claimed, it will take a great cleansing to restore this section.
Nobody triggered any hazards so I simply left it at that, except for the 2 Fatigue tests at TN 20 and the 6 Corruption tests (only Ranulf passed some of these, and only 2). So now everyone is good and miserable (as they should be after trekking across the Mountains of Mirkwood). The players objected strongly to this many corruption tests, so I revealed that I was going easy on them, and that by the original (un-clarified) version of RAW (rules as written), a journey across Mirkwood would take 40 or 50 something corruption tests. The Shadow's been banished (for now), so while there are still some strongly blighted places in the forest I figured the Road is as safe as it'll ever be until after the end of the War of the Ring.
And this is where we left off for now. The company has made it through the worst of what Mirkwood has to offer, but the northeastern edge of the Heart of Mirkwood still remains, as well as the Long Marshes (where they're scheduled to meet Oin's nephew, Gimli).