The logs on the fire cracked and sputtered. Their burnt shells lending a warm glow to the otherwise gloomy decor of the Naying Nave. Stirrups, bridles, and other horse themed attire hung on the walls in a shallow attempt to make the place “hip” for the local inhabitants. Owned by Debbie and Doddy Pimbleton the small shack like dwelling wasn’t much from the inside, and even less on the outside. Beyond the fire was a small semi-circle of stones the lead into the great room. It’s hardwood floors creaked and moaned as the patrons walked from the bar back to their tables, hands full with the local brew known as Doddy’s Drink.
Doddy’s Drink was odd, it had the normal notes of hops, honey, and malt. But it also carried an odd taste, something no one could quite put their nose on. When ever anyone would tell Doddy that, she would simply reply, “Oh don’t I know it, Debbie hasn’t put her nose on it in forever either.” It was at that point that the customer would typically decide it was time to turn in, conveniently forgetting their mug of Doddy’s Drink. No one ever seemed to see Debbie, and most liked it that way if Doddy was any indication. It might have been true that the Naying Nave was run but the only lesbians in probably the whole kingdom. But often times fantasy fails to reach reality, and Doddy was very much reality. She was short and portly with a hook nose and mustache that most men would have difficulty growing. Her skirt was always too short, hanging just above her hairy kankels, and she had a mole on her neck with no less than four hairs growing straight out of it.
A bell gave a cheerful “brinnngggggg” as the heavy wooden that lead into the Naying Nave opened. A hooded figure quietly making their way in. Outside a harsh, cold wind blew. The figures cloak bottom was caked with snow, no doubt from having trudged through the stuff all the way from Winterhill.
No one seemed to take much notice as the strange figure looked around.
“Can I help you dearie?” Doddy’s voice screeched from the bar. The figure walked over to her and in a low, grumbled voice said, “…Branch 18?”
Doddy’s expression grew plain as she raised a finger to a corner of the room just beyond the fireplace.
“Thank you” the voice again croaked out.
The figure approached the corner of the room that Doddy had pointed to. There were a number figures there, sitting and standing.
“…Branch 18?” the voice said once more with a slight upturn at the end, as if it was unsure.
“Who asks?” came a high-pitched voice from the corner. A thump could be heard, followed by the pitter patter or tiny feet. From the darkness came a small creature wearing a pink scarf entirely too big for it. Startled the figure stepped back and in a cracking voice,
“Uh, Ringbottom. Lionel Ringbottom, uh….sir?” the figures voice had gone from low and gruff to high pitched and startled. The figure pulled back the hood to reveal a young boy. Potmarked and redhaired, his teeth all screwed up he managed to clear his throat saying, “I mean….Lionel Ringbottom.” His voice reverting back to it’s low, garbled tone.
“Never heard of him!” the creature replied. “My name is Gibberw…”
“No names Gibberwidget, we wouldn’t want our good man here to be able to track us now would we.” A second figure came from the corner. He was tall, with blonde hair and a smile that showed pearl white teeth. “I know the Ringbottoms. Or, at least I think I do…or did. I’m sorry my good man what was your name again? Forgive me but I have…amnesia.”
“Ringbottom sir, Lionel Ringbottom. I, I was sent here to find hire Acquisitions Inc. you see my master, he…”
“…And just who, exactly is you master.” came a loud booming voice from behind Lionel Ringbottom. Lionel cringed as it the voice came over him, he was suddenly aware of a large presence behind him. He turned looking upward; he was standing in shadow now. The light from the fire had been blocked by a massive man. He couldn’t yet make out his face, but as his eyes fell he noticed that the man’s skin was more green that the typical pink tones he was used to. Instinctively he stepped backward, attempting to get a better view.
It was at that moment that a large, green hand darted out and grabbed Lionel by his cloak. It yanked him up and slammed him onto a nearby table, sending the plates and mugs of Doddy’s Drink clanging to the ground.
“WINTERHILL!” Lionel screamed, “MARGARET WINTERHILL!” he was holding onto the green fist so hard that his knuckles looked like they were trying to escape from his skin.
“Margaret? Oh, well why didn’t you say so?!” The large man’s voice all at once turning from menacing growl to jovial song. The large man pulled up a chair next to Lionel who was still laying on the table. “Please excuse my manners, ha! My name is Retchedford. This here is Gibberwidget,” he laid a large hand on the small creatures head, “and that pompous ass is Clarkington!”
“It is?” Clarkington said puzzled, “…it is!” he said relieved.
The large man looked at the corner as if he was trying to find something that wasn’t there, “There’s supposed to be four of us here.” He continued to look, unsuccessfully, “Oh well, he’ll turn up eventually.”
“Sir,” Lionel chirped from the table, “Would you mind terribly if I got down now?”
“No no, go on. Again I apologize for my manners, I’m not usually so quick to action.” Retchedford explained. “What does old Margaret need from the likes of us?”
Lionel sat up slowly, gather himself from the shock of nearly becoming a table cloth. “Well Sir….Retched..ford, her most gracious Lady Margaret Winterhill would like to see Branch 18 of the Acquisitions Incorporated at once.” he seemed to have regained some of his regal tone, “The Lady did not entrust the details of any further requests, although she ask me to give you this.” He reached back into his cloak, as he pulled one side back it was clear that he was wearing blue and yellow pantaloons, the colors of the Winterhill family.
A moment later he produced a small piece of paper with a yellow wax seal on it. Retchedford took it and cracked the seal. He began to unroll it in front of the fire when Lionel’s hand shot out crumpled the paper between Retchedford’s hands.
“Sir…Lady Margaret was quite clear this was for your eyes only.” Lionel let out with anxiety. “My apologize sir,” he said taking his hand away, “…it’s just that my Lady was very clear on her instructions. If it please you I will get a room here and you may let me know when you and your companions are ready to leave.”
“Oh, I don’t see why we should wait much. Boys!” Retchedford yelled as he stood up, “Pack your sacks! It’s off to Winterhill!”
Retchedford could feel something tugging on his pantleg just then. He looked down to see Gibberwidget holding it and pulling to get his attention.
“I think if you look outside you’ll see that the snow if far too deep for us boss.” Gibberwidget explained. Retchedford looked out the nearest window, the snow was in-fact piling up very fast.
“Gibberwidget,” Clarkington’s voice came from behind him,“don’t you have that hose thing. You know, the portable coal carrying one?”
Gibberwidget looked over, then his eyes rolled up, “Oh yeah! I totally forgot about Wintersdeth! that should do the trick. Wait…how did you remember that?”
“Oh, wow yeah. I’m not sure you see I have…amnesia.” Clarkington explained before he reached down and took a swig of Doddy’s Drink, spitting it out for the third time that night.
Gibberwidget came back moments later with a large black cylindrical container on his back. It had a large red valve on top, two straps that connected to it he had put his arms through, and a long black hose that he held with his hand. "I call this “Wintersdeth!”" he exclaimed with delight. “It takes the heat from the coal in this backpack here, and channels it through the hose and out the end!” He giggled with glee at his invention.
The bell above the door rang and Branch 18 exited the Naying Nave. Outside it was horribly cold, the wind was biting and the snow stuck to anything it touched. Gibberwidget reached back turned the large red valve on top of Wintersdeth. A sudden “woosh” rang out as the black cylinder on his back light up orange. A highpitched whistle could be heard getting louder and louder, Gibberwidget reached down to the hose and flipped a switch. “FWWWWWOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHHHHH”, a burst of heat came pouring out of the hose, instantly melting the snow in front of them. “This way gents!” he squeed with delight.
The group traveled through the night and into the morning, the snow kept at bay by Wintersdeth. At last, as the sun climbed over the mountains the gates of Winterhill came over the horizon.
Hours later the group finally arrived at the gates. Wintersdeth sputtered and putzzed from it heavy load. Gibberwidget flipped the switch and and turned the valve again, a small hiss could be heard followed by a series of tinks and tonks from the black cylinder. Then all at once a loud “PPPSSSSSHHHHHHHH” as the cylinder expelled the remains of it’s contents. “Sorry” Gibberwidget said, the ground around him now covered in a fine black soot.
Lionel spoke to the guard and the huge gates opened. “Gentlemen, welcome to Winterhill!”
All around them people were already bustling to get the day started. Shop keepers were setting up their wears, a group of women of the night were headed in doors after a long days work spent on their backs. Carriages swept through the main thorough fair carrying important people to important places. As the members of Branch 18 took it all in, Retchedford looked up. A brilliant marble castle with blue and yellow shingles shot skyward from the center of the city.
“Ah yes,” Lionel said standing next to Retchedford, “Castle Winter. It still fills my heart with awe to this very day.”
Retchedford looked down at the boy, “You’re what, 14?”
“15 and a half sir.” Lionel corrected him.
“Such a long time to be filled with "Awe"" Retchedford chuckled.
“Yes yes, which way to the party dear?” Clarkington could be heard asking the Lionel.
“Ah, yes..sir. This way to Lady Margaret.” Lionel explained briskly making his way to the center of the city.
Sometime later the group arrived at the castle. It’s large wooden doors adorned with two marble wolf heads, the sigal of House Winterhill. The doors slowly opened, pulling against their own weight. Inside a small man with yellow and blue pantaloons welcomed them.
“Ah, Lionel. Glad to see you back safe. I trust your…friends, here are the Acquisitions Inc. that her Lady spoke of.” the small man said.
Lionel replied in kind, the two exchanged a handshake of some sort and Lionel motioned for Branch 18 to follow.
They found themselves standing outside a room. It was very large with no less than five couches, alternating yellow and blue velvet, each one with a wolf’s head on each armrest. The walls were lined with books, some large, some small, and a giant chandelier hung from the ceiling.
A door opened, and then shut off to one side. Footsteps could be heard getting louder but no one could be seen. Finally a figure appeared from behind one of the book cases.
Margaret Winterhill was a tall woman. She had long flowing blonde hair and tiny pencil thin black eyebrows. She wore a large fur collar, and a dress that had a large flat piece in the front. It make her chest look like two cantaloupes trying to escape into the sky. No doubt the dress was a way to make up for what would otherwise be a less than impressive bosom, which simple would not do with the other royal types in Ferlin. She had sharp features, high cheekbones, and dis-proportioned lips, the top being thin, and the bottom full.
“Gentelman.” Her voice came out cold, demanding. “Please, sit.” She motioned to the couches. The members of Branch 18 sat, and gave Margaret their full attention. “I have a task for you.” she said, her eyes darting from one member to the other. They lingered for a moment longer on Retchedford, “…ehem.” She cleared her throat as Retchedford let go a small smile that Gibberwidget swore the Lady returned. “Yes, as you know my family has ruled over Ferlin for many many years. We’ve given the good people a place to feel safe, secure. Ferlin’s founder, and my great, great, great…” this went on for some time, “…great grandfater George Winterhill once ruled this land and all of it’s people were happy. It has come to my attention though that despite my best efforts this is no longer true. In what should be our joyus time of year my people are suffering.” Margaret explained as her voice grew heavier.
“As you know, just before the Folly, my family hangs the traditional Holly from the Castle Gate. Signifying the start of our winter festivities. Our people kiss and make merry below the Holly. In three days time said Holly must be hung. That’s where you come in, last night someone snuck into the castle and stole the Folly Holly. My guards woke up this morning to realize that it was missing. I need the big…muscly, shaggy, powerful…” she stopped. She was staring directly at Retchedford, and he shocked, directly back at her.
“You need us to retrieve it.” A low, soft voice came from behind Margaret.
“My lord!” Margaret jumped, “Guards!”
Three guards descended on the figure, but stopped just short. Impossibly each one of them had an arrow tip just barley pressing into their necks. The arrows each attached to a bow that floated in mid air, save for the middle one which the figure was holding. Retchedford stood up, “Rolfus, where the hell have you been?” he said in a slightly uneasy tone.
“You know this man Retch?” Lady Margaret asked Retchedford.
“Ah, yes. LADY Margaret.” Retchedford replied, making extra sure to use her title.
“It’s ok, stand down.” She ordered the guards.
As they backed away the figure called Rolfus lowered the center bow, as he did the other two also lowered, and disappeared. He slung the bow over his shoulder and pulled back his hood. He had long brown hair, shaved off on one side where four large scars ran down the length of his head and onto his face. He wore an eye patch over his left eye, whatever had done this must have taken the eye with it. He had a long thin nose and a strong jaw, he was unshaven and smelled like the forest. “If you’ve lost the Folly Holly, I know a man that might be able to help us.” Rolfus said.
“I see…” Margaret said, clearly repulsed by the mans visage. She turned back to Retchedford, “If you man here knows….a, man….then I suppose that means you’re up for the job?”
Excitedly Retchedford replied, “You bet your sweet ass! I mean…” his face turning red with embarrassment. The guards gave each other an awkward look. Lady Margaret let slip a smile on her face that she quickly wiped away.
“No need Retchedford, that’s quite alright. Just, be sure you retrieve the Holly.” Lady Margaret said, recovering her icy demeanor. She turned to address Rolfus, but he was gone again.
The members of Branch 18 made their way back out of the city. Gibberwidget turned the valve on Wintersdeth, but this time it just sputtered and popped, and then let out a long drawn out hiss. “Sorry boys, looks like we’ll have to brave it this time.” the gnome explained.
“We should get moving.” Rolfus was suddenly with them again. “We need to make our way to the Wildfire Forest. That means we have to get by Sire’s Crossing and Old Man Miltbalm.”
The group set off toward Sire Crossing. Before long darkness began to envelop the land, and the cold began to set in on the adventurers, so they stopped and made camp. Rolfus went off to scout the area, while Clarkington and Gibberwidget went off to find fire wood.
As they searched they began to hear low growls from beyond the woods. Then a pair of eyes lit up, then another. They dashed through the wood, coming to a small clearing the stopped, eyes. All around them eyes. Another low growl, and then a small footstep. A big, shaggy paw came into the pale moonlight, followed by a snout. Teeth rowed in lines like a shark, a nose wet, steam rising from it. The creature took one more step, Clarkington and Gibberwidget still holding their fire wood.