Matryoshka

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Day 1

It had been nearly two weeks since the brothers, Baldor and Veilmore, had attended the burial ceremony for their parents. It was such a tiny congregation from the village of Timber that had stood in the rain while Minister Gunther, man of the Cudgel, had performed the final rites. The congregation was not tiny because there weren’t enough Cuthbertians in the village. No, in fact, everyone in Timber was a follower of St. Cuthbert in some form or another. The congregation was tiny that day because there just weren’t enough villagers left to describe the gathering as anything more than that.

Fifteen villagers stood in the rain and watched as Gunther lit the two makeshift biers alight and gave the Benediction of the Cudgel. The biers were absent of any bodies, of course, for no bodies had been found. For when the Banshee of Suss Woods takes you, she leaves no trace of you. You are just gone. One moment you are tucked in, warm and safe in your bed, the next moment your bed is empty, blanket crumpled on the floor and nary a sound to be heard.

Virinella had taken her fair share of villagers in recent months, and not just from Timber. Villagers in nearby Quarry and Furrier had disappeared,too. There was even stories that city-folk from Safeton, drunkards in Newell and, even if the reports could be believed – she was even taking orcs and goblins from the city of Highport far to the south.

Virinella was most definitely an evil and vengeful spirit. Some rumors claimed she was a baroness from the Pomarj over one hundred years ago and she had caught the baron cheating on her with a local barmaid. The story speaks of murder followed by a suicidal leap from the clifftops, but these were just stories. No one really knew why Virinella did the vile things she did, the locals of the Suss just know that she strikes from time to time.

Sometimes the villagers say they can hear her wailing in misery in the dead of the night, far out in the woods. Other times they say you might be unlucky enough to actually bespy her floating, palid and wisplike amongst the trees. Those that see her are certain to lose a family member to the banshee before a fortnight is through. And still other times they say you feel her as she sneaks up behind you and throws an old wooden hair comb at you. The stories claim that if she hits you with her comb, you can be sure you won’t live to see the morning.

No one knew what she did with all the bodies she collected either. Some say she eats them. Others say she enslaves them in a cold dimension of her own design. No one had ever returned once the banshee nabbed them in the night so no one really knew for sure. And that “not knowing” is what gave the brothers such hope. For without any bodies for Gunther to actually declare good and dead, there wasn’t actually proof that anyone had died.

Not like the hundred or so red-rose marked graves that sat just north of the Timber cemetery. There was proof enough in those graves. The Red Death had returned this year and its toll had decimated the villages along the western shores of Wooley Bay and the Pomarj. Even before the banshee had showed up. Maybe Virinella had sensed a weakness in the tiny forest communities. Perhaps weakened by the devastating plague the villagers were ripe for the picking. Perhaps the plague had drawn the banshee out of hiding, for she had not been seen in the Suss Woods for decades before this fateful year.

“If you are to face her,” Spot said, “you’re going to need some Faerie magic of your own.”

The brothers, and Rowyn, their best friend in the village, stared into the coal-black wet eyes of the little dog and wondered if Spot were actually serious. Where were they to find Faerie magic?

In the two weeks since the funeral, the dwarven brothers had hatched a plan to rescue their parents. Now they sat in the dirty yard outside the hut where Rowyn and her parents lived discussing the details with Spot, Rowyn’s family dog and profferer of sage advice concerning all things parents didn’t know.

Baldor, the elder of the two dwarven brothers finally asked the burning question, “Moradin’s whiskers, Spot! Why do we need Faerie Magic?”

Spot had lived with Rowyn’s family for as long as her elven father, Kyrenwyn, had lived in Timber. Thirty years ago Timber was a bustling lumber yard just within the border of the Suss Wood where the Jewel dumped itself into Wooly Bay. There were around two hundred residents, mostly lumberjacks, back then, who felled the ancient oak and ash, mule-hauled the trunks to the yard and worked them into massive beams with broadaxe and adze. The massive worked boles were then rolled into Timber Lagoon, a man-made tiny quay along the coastline, where the timber was sold upriver to merchants bound for Safeton or even Greyhawk.

Kyrenwyn had been a Celenese elf, newly appointed ambassador to the minor fiefdom known during its amazingly short existence as The Barony of Weld. No sooner had Kyrenwyn arrived at the underly-impressive moat-house that comprised the Barony, than it was attacked and subsequently sacked by a wandering troop of trolls. Kyrenwyn, and his faithful companion Morglestoup, were the only survivors. The pair spent the next few days wandering throughout the Suss until finally stumbling into the remote village of Timber where they were nursed back to health by the young human widow Mary Tourtbridge. While Mary and Kyrenwyn soon fell in love and eventually were married, the townsfolk were not so accepting of Morglestoup. It wasn’t Morglestoup’s short and furry stature that caused alarm, nor was it his muzzled face and deep, black watery eyes. More so it was the fact that this cute and cuddly dog was seen actually speaking and conversing with its elven master and had the uncomfortable habit of walking around on its hind legs.

Kyrenwyn didn’t want anything to interfere with the whirlwind romance he found himself in with his nurse, nor did he feel right about disturbing the gentle balance of the good-natured and simple-minded villagers of Timber by trying to explain Morglestoup’s existence, so he eventually convinced his furry companion to walk around on all fours and bark when around the villagers. Things really settled down and the whole “this is a most unusual dog you have here” thing finally faded after Kyrenwyn began calling his friend “Spot”.

But Rowyn always knew Spot was more than just a dog, and Morglestoup’s secret was soon lost upon her good friends, the dwarven brothers Baldor and Veilmore who lived just a few hut’s down the lane.

“Listen here, Chin-Shaver,” which was Spot’s nickname for either one of the dwarven brothers when they had gotten on his nerves, “When you become an expert on Faerie matters you can actually question my authority on the subject, but until that time, you need to listen to me. And when I say you need Faerie magic to stand any chance of facing a banshee and rescuing your parents then that’s exactly what you need!”

Baldor stood slackjawed, looking down at the tiny brown man and couldn’t come up with a reply. Veilmore took that opportune moment to chuck his older brother in the shoulder “Yeah, smarty-breeches, just because you think you study the birds and the trees don’t mean you know nuthin about stupid pixies and such.”

Spot frowned.

“Morglestoup,” Rowyn said softly as she gently put her hand on the little man’s fuzzy head, “I’m sure Baldor meant no offense at the asking, but what I think he was trying to understand is why the magic of the Fey would be any more effective against the banshee than, say, regular magic. Isn’t that right Baldor?”

Baldor rubbed his shoulder and nodded glumly. His younger brother was always bigger and rougher than him and always liked to accentuate his words with solid punches from his fists. And ever since Baldor had introduced himself to the Stalker who visited the village last year, he had been obsessed with studying the local flora and fauna. This, of course, had only added to the torment foisted upon him by his brother Veilmore. But Baldor didn’t care what Veilmore and the others thought about his current obsession. The Stalker had told him he belonged to an order of woodsmen called the Rangers of the Gnarly and that if Baldor were to work at understanding the local plants, animals and weather patterns that the Stalker would take him north to visit the Grove of Nyr Dyv on the following year where he could apply to the Circle to become an Aspirant of the Old Ones. This peaked his interest, but on the day he met Jordam, Baldor was convinced becoming One with Nature was his Destiny.

Spot knew that when Rowyn called him by his real name that she was simply buttering him up for something. It usually had something to do with the fact that he had caught her stealing something from the bakery up the lane and she didn’t want him to tell her parents, but he didn’t care. He loved Rowyn and would do anything for her, regardless of which name she chose to use.

“Well,” the old brownie said with a toothless smile, “you sees, the human-folk round here always be thinking that Virinella is one o’ them. You know, a human. But I knows it differently. You sees, a banshee is always Unseelie, and Unseelie is always Fae. And the best way to fight a Fae is to use their magics against them!”

Rowyn smiled sweetly again, “So the tales are all wrong about how she was a baroness or the daughter of a tavernkeep or a lumberjack’s old gram?”

“Oh yes,” said Spot as he waggled his stubby black finger in the faces of the three young friends, “it shouldn’t surprise you one bit that these humans get these things so wrong! They live such short lives they can’t keep history straight at all. They only remembers what they wants to remembers and whats they don’t remembers they just makes up. Take my word for it, that banshee is Faerie and you need that kind of magic to stop her!”

Veilmore cleared his throat and then rubbed at his thin whiskers. The fact that he only HAD whiskers made the young dwarf mad as a sunburnt badger, which made him rub his chin even harder. A lot of things made Veilmore mad these days, but probably the thing that made him the maddest was the fact that his silly brother, Baldor, was now actually BRAIDING his beard, while he only had some soft, fuzzy stubble sprouting upon his face. Veilmore didn’t like to think much about things like this. He only knew that some things made him quite cross and usually a good fist-pounding made things generally better. It didn’t matter who he pounded when he got mad, it was just the pounding part that set things right in the world.

“So,” Veilmore said in his most thoughtful and calm tone, "where are we gonna GET this magic

Spot turned to the younger dwarf and grinned toothlessly again. “You gets Fairie magic from the Faerie Court, of course!”

“A Faerie Court? Never heard of anything like that,” Veilmore said gruffly. “What is it?”

Spot suddenly leapt backwards in the air doing a full somersault and landed nimbly on both feet. Without stopping he twirled around once, then twice and on the third twirl he bounced upward to land neatly upon a wooden fencepost, hands spread wide. Then, he shouted quite loudly, “What is a Faerie Court?! Well, my beardless-friend, let me tell you!”

Veilmore suddenly turned very red in the face and clenched his fists and he lunged toward the little sprite. Baldor grabbed his brother with both arms and strained heavily to pull him back away from the fence. Rowyn stood between the two and then admonished Morglestoup soundly.

“Hush, Spot! The neighbors will hear you talking again and we’ll have to make up another lame excuse. Pop’s not around right now so the ’We’re just practicing ventriloquism, again,’ line probably won’t work.”

It took some coaxing, but Baldor finally got Veilmore calmed down enough to listen to what Spot had to tell them.

“A Faerie Court, of the Seelie Court as we like to call it back home in Celeste, is the royal abode of a Faerie Queen,” the brown man began, his wet eyes gleaming like shining obsidian in the bright morning sun.

“Centuries ago this land was not ruled by men. Oh, humans lived here, sure enough. But so did orcs and goblin and deer and bear and mice and fish and insects. Men lived here, they just did not rule here. For a most powerful and dreadful Queen of Faerie bent all to her will. Her name was Matryoshka and her loyal subjects numbered in the millions. There were winged ferriers aplenty, nymphs, dryads and kelpies galore. Satyrs, redcaps, hags and leprechauns amassed in masses, while boggarts, pixies, sylphs and fauns ran amok. There were…” Spot looked up from his cataloging in time to notice the confused looks on the faces of the three youngsters and sighed.

“Ah well, you gets the picture. The Fey were everywhere and paid homage to their terrible queen. A yearly tithing they would give to her in exchange for the safety and protection she gave to her folk. For humans were just as wild and dangerous as orc and troll in those days, but they learned to fear the Fey, for to harm one of the Seelie Court was to earn the wrath of the Queen herself!

“Over the centuries the Fey brought their Queen tribute. It was sometimes fancy gems or stones and others would bring nuts and berries. Some brought the north wind or the raven’s cawl whilst others brought the babes of the lesser beasts and laid them down upon her feet. And still others brought magic. And the Queen she hoarded her treasures and tribute much like a dragon hoards within its lair. But the Queen she lived inside an immense Mound of earth which she named her Court. Much of her Court was used for the merriment of the Fey for singing and dancing and feasting and other pleasures were practiced here both day and night and she filled its halls with treasure.

“But one day it all just came to an end,” Spot said with sadness clearly etched upon his face.

“What happened, Spot?” Rowyn asked in a pleading voice. “What happened to Queen Matryoshka and her Court and the faeries?”

“And the treasure?” the dwarven brothers said in unison.

Spot looked up at them forlornly. “No one knows for sure. Some say the old Queen finally died. Others said she simply moved away to another mound. But one thing is for certain. She left her halls and all of her treasure and was never seen from again. The Fey of her Seelie Court eventually faded away. Men and beasts have looted her halls for centuries until there was nothing left but a mound of earth and rotting tunnels. But I’ve been there. I’ve seen the Halls of Queen Matryoshka and there’s still magic in them. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and smelled it with my own nose. It’s there. And that’s what you need to face the banshee.”

“Whoa!” the dwarves and elven lass said at once.

“Yes, sir!” said the brownie. “And I can tell you where it is, too.”

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