Content of the article: "The New Druid (Steelshod 433)"
I don’t post these daily anymore, so just in case you’re a newcomer and you’ve never seen a Steelshod post before… click here to start at the beginning
This is the latest chapter out of several hundred, and I don’t think it will make much sense without context. This isn’t an episodic story so much as one long narrative.
Hopefully, you’ll enjoy yourself, and I’ll see you back here in good time. If not, no big deal. But I think if you start here you’re going to be very, very lost.
Table of Contents – includes earlier installments, maps, character sheets, our discord server, and other documents.
First | Previous
Note for Binge-Readers: This is generally live-updated to reflect the current state of the game! Hopefully if you’re binging you can keep better track of who’s going where, because you just recently read about them going there.
Ronald’s Basin, in rural Victoria
Steelshod has been given an offer.
It’s been three days since they slew Partholon, the Druid an Fáinne of the Collar of Thorns
Those days have been an unpleasant example of the kind of reactive war Steelshod generally tries to avoid—lots of boring/uneventful scouting punctuated by occasional sudden violence.
But now, one of the Collar’s war leaders—called the “Laochra,” which means something like “hero” but also appears to be the closest thing to a lieutenant that they have—has come to their fortification at Ronald’s Basin
Osion, the Laochra, is a confident smart-ass with a sharp tongue. He’s been friendly aside from barbed jests, and seems to be the man the Collar’s warchief Dolan likes to send out to parley with Steelshod.
He has come calling on Steelshod, and invited them to a celebration that the Collar is throwing tonight.
Supposedly, a celebration of the return of Partholon himself.
Which is quite a trick, given the state Steelshod left him in.
Zelde reminds everyone that she said they ought to take Partholon’s head. She was afraid people wouldn’t believe them.
Felix flat out doesn’t believe Osion’s claim. Besides that, he gestures to the thick dark clouds overhead and the pouring rain
Says that this doesn’t really seem like the time for a party.
Osion shrugs, and he says that the storm won’t go until Steelshod does.
But they will celebrate regardless.
At this point they leave Osion sitting on his horse outside the walls, waiting, and Steelshod confers briefly about how to respond to this offer.
The obvious concern is that it’s a trap.
Yes, the Collar of Thorns is saying that it will be peaceful, and yes they do take their oaths seriously
But on the other hand, from their perspective Steelshod may not be worth treating with honor. Given that James murdered Partholon at a parley and all
So they can’t rule out a full-on betrayal, and open battle, if they go.
Cara’s gut says that’s not the Collar’s plan here—even if they consider Steelshod oathbreakers, honor is more a matter of oneself anyway. If they violate guest right, break an oath of peaceful meeting, then Dolan or this new Partholon will be undermining their own authority with their people.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some kind of trap. Maybe they’ll attack the Basin while some people go out. Maybe they’ll arrange an ambush to hit them after they leave the party. Maybe they have some egregious offense planned that will incite Steelshod to violate the peace themselves.
Lots of possibilities, lots of ways things could go wrong.
What’s the upside?
Cyril says that while he has no doubt that the Collar will only show them what they want to show, still… any intelligence on the enemy could be valuable
This is an opportunity to learn more about their enemy.
In fact, Cyril points out that they could use this meeting as an opportunity to quietly send out a secondary party, to scout the forest while the Collar of Thorns is busy and distracted.
Cara decides that the risk is worth the possible intel, so they will go.
There’s some question of whether or not they believe they’ll actually be running into Partholon himself, or if it is a title and they will now meet some (hopefully lesser) replacement druid.
Some, like Felix, are skeptical.
Agrippa points out that they’ve seen many strange things, and from the way Osion is talking he thinks they should assume it’s really Partholon.
Normal healing could not save a man from the injuries they inflicted upon Partholon, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t swapped into a new body or used some other strange magic to persist.
Felix smirks and jokes that maybe the Collar just have a better healer than Agrippa.
Which results in Agrippa, without any joking tone whatsoever, telling Felix to shut up.
But, hearing this exchange, Amos gets a thoughtful look. Maybe it’s true, he ponders aloud. He asks if Agrippa has ever actually tried to sew a man’s head back on.
Maybe once every hundred times, it works, and—
Agrippa smacks Amos, both to interrupt his idiotic musings and as punishment for questioning his abilities.
At this point, Cara handpicks a team to go with her and James to the party.
She also picks a small scouting team to search the woods for anything useful they might be able to find.
The scouting team is simple: she appoints Drengi as commander and tells him to take every ulfskennar they have with them, save one. He will take Dagur, Foyr, Knut, and Sigridur.
The final ulfskennar in the party, Gulbryn, will accompany Cara’s group.
That leaves them with no howlers at Ronald’s Basin, but everyone staying behind will be under strict orders to hold position and defend the Basin.
And they have one member that can, at least, interpet howls, if not howl himself… that being Vigi, the vartror bersark and member of Yorrin’s Shadowsteel team. He’s practiced enough to be able to understand most basic howled messages such as “enemy coming” “send help” etc.
For the team to actually go to the celebration (I dub them the “Partying Party” to contrast with the “Scouting Party”), Cara picks a decently sized group.
Her primary interest is in durable warriors to help fight their way out of a trap, with a few specialists for their respective skills.
Felix insists on going, of course, to protect his wife. Agrippa explicitly refuses to go, barring a direct order from Cara that she does not give.
Zelde will go, however. Along with most of the biggest tanks on the team: Bear, Snorri the bersark, and the Victorian axemen Tiny & Lioness
That’s five solid walls of muscle and metal
Levin and Evan will also go—less frontliners than the above, but still both of them are exceptionally brutal warriors on foot or in the saddle, and good scouts in case they flee through the forest at night.
They’ll also bring Cyril, because he could be useful for evaluating the enemy and negotiating. Cyril asks for Prudence to come to watch his back and, if needed, deploy alchemy or poison.
Cara also asks Borthul to go. The old wizard is decrepit, but he is their best bet to counteract Druidic magic or identify the method that Partholon has been reborn, if in fact he has been.
As mentioned, Gulbryn is also going.
Cara picked this ulskennar because Drengi says Gulbryn has been growing… stranger, recently, and some of his talents have manifested accordingly.
Ever since he stepped through the Thaumati Gate last year, he has (like everyone that went through the Gate) had strange dreams and occasionally sensed things beyond the scope of mortal understanding.
Even his howls have grown… eerie, in the way they echo and reverberate and set on edge any that hear them.
Finally, the two that were invited are Cara & James, and they’ll both go.
Agrippa clucks his tongue and sets about securing James’s mangled right arm into a more immobile splint than the current sling he has.
James will be useless if a fight breaks out, but he deserves to be there if he wants to take the risk.
And of course he does.
Cara specifically tells Zelde that she needs to stay close to James if things get dangerous, and protect him. She issues Snorri a similar command, to protect Borthul.
James is wounded, Borthul is old and weak, and she wants them both protected.
She does not assign a bodyguard for Cyril.
Cyril takes a few minor preparations before he leaves.
He asks Agrippa to give him a list of the names of all of the captured Collar warriors, in case he gets an opportunity to ransom their freedom in exchange for soom boon
Agrippa has been slowly but surely winning a modicum of trust from the captive Collars, so he gets their names easily and Cyril records them on a scrap of parchment.
He also passes a few specific poisons to Prudence, both lethal and nonlethal ones, in case she anticipates trouble and is in a position to deploy them.
Before they go, Cara asks for Osion’s oath
That the Collar of Thorns grants peace to Steelshod and their allies.
So long as Steelshod does not raise arms against the Collar, no harm will come to any Steelshod or their allies
Whether they are outside Ronald’s Basin, or within it.
Osion swears to the oath without hesitation, and says he speaks on behalf of Dolan, Partholon, and the Collar of Thorns.
The phrasing of the oath should also include Drengi’s clandestine scouting party, in theory.
By design, of course.
Now that this is settled, they depart.
Cara’s group is escorted across the darkening plains by Osion’s men
While Perrin and the others remain behind to hold the Basin in case of treachery
It’s a long journey out to the forests
Osion pokes a little fun at Zelde when he realizes how simple she is, enjoying how oblivious she is to his nettled words
He asks her if she has a man waiting for her, and she says no, she has Steelshod
To which Osion intentionally misunderstands, implying Zelde lets all of the men of Steelshod use her. He says he expects a strapping lass such as her can probably take quite a pounding.
Zelde is still oblivious, and she enthusiastically agrees.
Osion is having a grand time, his men snickering along with him as he taunts her.
Until finally Cara steps in, and suggests that since Osion sounds so interested they could stop somewhere and Osion can take a shot at “pounding” Zelde right here if he likes.
Osion blinks, and tries to politely decline. Zelde offers cheerfully maybe they can do it at the party, and Osion awkwardly deflects
He’s had his fun, but he’s no fool—he can tell that if he tries to spar with Zelde it is only going to end one very unpleasant way.
So he deflates and leaves Zelde alone for the rest of the ride.
After that, Cyril rides alongside Osion and strikes up a chat
He tries to finagle a bit of information out of him, directing the conversation to his own purposes, hoping to elicit useful info from Osion without giving too much away
It’s a careful dance, the precise opposite of the blunt mockery with Zelde
Osion is in his element again chatting with Cyril, deflecting questions with jokes, poking fun at Cyril’s pot belly, and avoiding giving too much information to Cyril’s questions.
Cyril confirms that the Collar’s goal is to cover the entirety of Victoria’s lands, as well as much of Kirkworth, in their “One Forest”
Osion says that the Silver Woods and the Deer Woods, east and south of Victoria, were once part of the One Forest. He likens these cultivated forests to Middish dogs with their balls cut off, compared to wild wolves.
Osion shows some genuine passion here, obviously despite his fondness for japes he is a true believer of the Collar and a true foe.
Cyril also gets a read on how Osion feels about the Collar’s leadership.
He obviously has immense respect for Dolan… more interesting to Cryil is that he actually begins to suspect that the feeling is mutual. It seems Osion is deep in Dolan’s confidence, and they have worked together for years.
It seems Osion has been sent as the Collar’s emissary each time, not just because he is good at insulting them, but because Dolan trusts him.
By contrast, Cyril gleans that Osion does not have that same level of loyalty and affection for Partholon
He speaks of Partholon the same way he speaks of the Forest itself—a force of nature, an inherent element, something deep and core to the Collar, but not someone Osion personally likes or trusts as a man.
Osion never breaks from his apparent attitude that this really is Partholon though, not a new druid sharing the same name.
It takes a few hours to cross the plains, and more time to navigate the North Forest
Osion says they picked this spot special for Steelshod, as the closest meeting place to where they were camped.
Even so, it is well past sunset by the time they arrive.
They see firelight through the trees ahead, and they hear voices, music, and laughter—the normal sounds of a party, which is at least a little promising.
They are told to dismount, and they tie up their horses. Osion guides them in on foot.
And they enter what seems to be not just one clearing, but a series of them.
Many interconnected groves forming a circle around a central grove.
Each grove has a high canopy providing some cover from rain, coupled with some smaller simple leather coverings.
The clearings at the center of each grove are furnished simply, with long wooden tables and benches made of carved and polished logs. They are lit by large cookfires.
Each grove is open to the nearest groves, almost as if they are a series of rooms—and all of them open to the central clearing
The central grove is the most open to the sky, and consequently has the most man-made structures. Each table in the central grove has a leather or cloth awning mounted over it, and the central grove is lit not just be cookfires but by torches and lamps
In the center of this grove is an enormous, gnarled tree. The trunk is partially hollowed out and blackened, as if it was struck by a bolt of lightning long ago.
They also notice that the high boughs of the tree are covered with a huge flock of ravens. Or a “conspiracy” of ravens, if you want to use the silly term for it.
There is also a small wooden platform constructed some distance up the gnarled, blackened tree, but below the ravens.
The platform is carved with intricate Wncari scrollwork, lit by firelights, and visible from all around. Simple carved steps wind up the tree to it.
Dolan is sitting up on the platform, sipping from a horn.
Across all the groves there are at least a few hundred people here, feasting and drinking and laughing.
They appear to be almost entirely fighting men—this is clearly a meeting place, not a settlement.
The partiers don’t seem too disrupted by Steelshod’s arrival, regardles.
Some of them stare, but otherwise they continue their feasting.
Notably, nobody asks any of Steelshod to surrender their weapons. The Collar are all armed, and it seems they aren’t concerned about it.
Osion directs them to head for the central clearing.
Cyril draws a bottle of wine out of his saddlebags as he approaches.
He heads for Dolan, who climbs down from the platform to meet at the base of the tree.
Cyril introduces himself, and offers the wine.
Dolan stares at him blankly for a moment, then says that he doesn’t expect anyone to speak the tongue of the Daoine, but he at least expects them to speak Middish
Cyril sighs, slows down his speech a little to lighten the heaviest Loranette inflections, and reiterates his introduction.
Dolan sort of shrugs, accepts the wine, and takes a sip. He then passes the bottle to one of his men.
Steelshod take note of the warriors seated around them, at the long tables in the central grove
They are especially grizzled and hardened looking men—battle scarred, tattooed, their weapons and armor showing signs of extensive use.
Each man is also adorned with coils of briar vines… cords of vegetation marked by long, sharp thorns.
They aren’t necessarily all literal collars, though some are. Many are coiled around arms or torsos.
It looks impractical, but the men seem unconcerned.
Still, Felix in particular continues eyeing these men warily, not paying much attention to Dolan or any of the diplomacy to come.
Steelshod take their seats at the table Osion points to, and he sits near them.
The men working the cookfire lay out a good spread for them… roasted meats and vegetables, stews, simple breads, and more. It’s not high cuisine, but it’s a decent spread given the environment.
Cyril complains about the spices, the drink pairings, and anything else he can think of. Osion is close enough to hear, and he argues with Cyril good-naturedly.
They eat for a little while, talking amongst themselves and Osion.
Finally, after some time, Dolan speaks.
He’s back up on the platform.
He calls out to Steelshod.
Says that the Collar got Steelshod’s message… and from the look of James, it seems Afric found them with his own message.
James nods. Dolan eyes him, as if sizing him up, and asks James if he won.
James swallows nervously, and then admits that no, he did not win.
Dolan feigns surprise in an obviously toneless way… he points out that James is alive, and he’s guessing Afric isn’t.
Cara interjects to confirm that Afric is dead.
Dolan nods. He’s not surprised. They killed him after the duel… because they have no honor.
“No no,” she says. “The duel went on fair and square, and Afric won. Then he started eating James, and… well… he was eating James. So we stepped in.”
Cara’s deadpan delivery gets some chuckles from the nearby warriors
Though Cyril also notices that at some of the tables further out, there is less laughter and more uneasy silence.
Cyril doesn’t think the folks out there are doubting Cara’s story, but rather they are just discomfited by it.
Dolan does not laugh, but neither does he look uncomfortable
He comments that the note they left him demanded that he step down as part of the surrender Steelshod requests, else they will go to war against the Daoine.
But he can’t help but notice that they only brought some thirty men with which to wage this supposed war.
Cyril says they brought a bit more than that.
Which leads Dolan to comment on the hired Victorians. Do they really think that some flimsy distinction between “hired” Victorians and Victorian soldiers matters to the Collar?
Cyril says it should, since otherwise Dolan would have several thousand more Victorian troops to deal with.
Dolan shrugs. It’s a silly bit of sophistry, but he isn’t bothered by it. If the rest of Victoria is staying out of the fighting for now, that’s all the better.
He’s happy to face a few hundred farmers with spears first. He’s happy to let Steelshod divide the Victorians up for him, so that his Collar can slaughter them all in turns.
He doesn’t really understand what Steelshod gets out of any of this, though.
Why come here and die for Victoria?
The topic of the dead monks comes up, the ones turned to trees. Dolan scoffs at this… they told the monks they weren’t welcome here, and they didn’t listen.
What followed then was their fault.
This casual dismissal is too much for James, who speaks up.
He hotly denounces Dolan and his people’s treatment of the monks, and Dolan takes this totally in stride.
He comments that he would’ve hoped Afric could have at least knocked a little bit of sense into James, if nothing else.
Out of nowhere, Bear speaks up. He says Dolan must not know James at all, if he thinks this thing.
Nothing can knock sense into James!
Bear, bless him, says this so proudly.
Cyril says that, while James may be hotheaded, he’s not really wrong.
In point of fact, from what he saw of Steelshod’s commanders, the reason they decided to intervene was entirely because of what Partholon did to the monks.
Cyril says this with the air of someone who doesn’t totally understand why Yorrin and Aleksandr care so much, but he’ll deign to explain it to Dolan anyway.
In a rare attempt at Diplomacy, Felix points out that Steelshod’s interest in defending innocent monks is a big part of why they were so invested in the Svardic war, too. This sort of thing matters to them, so of course they’re gonna harp on it.
Dolan seems to just shrug at that. The Svardic war did not touch them here.
Maybe he thought that was a clever rebuttal, but it really pisses Cara off.
She says the Svardic war touched her people plenty.
“It’s funny, you lot are so concerned with the Daoine. Well, the folk from my hills are Daoine too.” Cara calls out, her own Wncari accent unmistakeable.
“And you’re so caught up about defendin’ the forests from invaders, from foreigners,” she goes on. “Yet you’re more worried about ‘foreign invaders’ tha’ve been here for, what, five hundred years? Compared to ones that had just sailed in.”
She glares at Dolan, and then the other Collar.
“You’re more concerned with fightin’ Victorians than you were with helpin’ my folk, your own kin, from true invaders.”
Lots of people at Steelshod’s table seem pleased with Cara’s tirade.
They think she really showed them.
Maybe a few of the Collar at the distant tables look a little abashed, but none of the nearby warriors do.
Dolan just stares at her.
“But you’re not of the Daoine, lass. Are you?” Dolan responds calmly.
Her clan does not keep to the Old Ways, Dolan says. Half the people in the Caedian hills don’t even speak the old Tongue, and instead speak Middish in their own families.
Only one clan there, the Cuig Dorn, even pretend to keep to any sort of Old Ways.
No, Dolan dismisses Cara entirely. Her and her people were not—are not—kin worth defending.
They’ve forgotten their path. They are beyond help.
So yes, the Daoine care much more about Victoria than they did the Svards.
Victoria has raped the One Forest and slaughtered the Daoine for generations.
Victoria broke the Collar of Thorns
He states it matter-of-factly, because it is a fact.
Recall that when James and Oliver first arrived here the Victorians were still calling their local Wncari “the Broken Collar”—as that’s what they called themselves.
It was quite recently that they renamed themselves to the Collar of Thorns
Or more accurately, reclaimed their old name.
Cyril recalls all of this, so he interrupts Dolan to ask about it.
If Victoria did all that—broke their spirit, leveled countless acres of forest, and so on—what on earth makes them think they can win this time?
Victoria's city grows larger each day.
They are as strong as ever.
Won’t the Collar just get broken again?
And he calls out to his men, repeating the question.
Asking them what makes them think they can win this time.
The response is immediate.
The feasting men begin pounding on their table, raising a huge thumping beat
And they chant three syllables in the cadence of their drumming.
When they chant the last syllable, there is a new sound that adds to the cacophony
The multitude of ravens roosting in the boughs of the tree above Dolan suddenly take to the air
The flapping of a thousand wings drowns out the men’s pounding on the table, and the dark night sky grows a shade darker for a moment as the ravens scatter.
Once they’re gone, the Collar have stopped beating the table
And for a moment an eerie silence falls upon the clearing
The only sounds are the crackling of the cookfires and the sounds of a few of Steelshod—Zelde, Bear, Snorri—still noisily munching their food.
In that moment, there is movement on the platform behind Dolan
A figure steps out of the shadows, out of the hollowed-out heart of the tree.
They did not see anyone ascend the tree, and it doesn’t really look like there’s enough room in there for someone to comfortably wait
But nevertheless, a sturdy looking old man steps out of that shadow and stands beside Dolan on the raised platform.
Partholon, of course.
And he sure fucking looks like the man they decapitated.
Hey all! This post took me a little longer than I intended, not just because it’s pretty long… but because it was even longer than this.
It was about 50% longer than the post you just read when I realized that I wanted to just break it into a couple posts instead. So I went ahead and found the best place to stop it, and sliced it in half.
You can expect another post pretty soon. Not necessarily tomorrow, but definitely sooner than the 2 week pauses of the last few posts.
Also, if you missed it, a fan has begun doing audio readings of the greentexts on his YouTube channel. You can find his announcement here. Looks like he’s posting them 3 times a week right now, M-W-F, so he’s churning through them at a nice clip.
I have minor quibbles with a few of his pronunciations, but overall it seems like a really awesome and polished product! Very flattering, so if you’re into audiobooks you should totally go show him some love.
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