The next morning, before dawn had broken, a nervous young man pushed open the door to their room at the inn while knocking tentatively. The heavy door squealed on its hinges, doing more to rouse them than the gentle rapping of his knuckles had. Seeing the adventurers stirring, he quickly reported, “Sirs! Dar Gremath sent me to fetch you. Redthorn draws near! Gather your equipment and come quickly!” The door closes sharply behind him, and his hasty footsteps can be heard banging down the stairs outside.
From then on the air was charged with a mix of excitement and anticipation. Wordlessly they strapped on their gear, inspected their weapons, and soundlessly recited incantations and prayers.
The group stepped from the Inn and looked around. The sky was only just beginning to brighten; an ambiguous grey glow that intensified imperceptibly as they stood. The air was still, and the sounds seemed muffled. A morning mist hung low in the air, and a damp chill seemed to cling to everything. Runners darted to and fro, their shadowy forms scurrying like ants preparing for a storm. In the distance they could see Dar Gremath’s banner with several figures standing at its base.
Gremath nodded to them as they approached, relief visibly washing over him and reinforcing his voice with confidence. He gave a few quick orders, then turned to them. “Redthorn’s forces will be here momentarily, so I’ll keep this short. You’re the strongest fighters we have, and I would like to keep you in reserve; close to me so that you can strike down any enemies that break through the line. That being said, it was your decisions as well as your strength that brought our allies together and gave us a fighting chance, so I leave it to your discretion where you will place yourselves during the battle.”
After a quick deliberation, the Salt Merchants decided to go along with Gremath’s plan, and would stay near him, ready to plug any holes that might open up, and to defend the banner that they all rallied behind.
The Iron Circle attacked directly, confident in their superiority. As they approached, they softened the ranks with crossbow fire, but the elves and townsfolk quickly responded with arrows of their own, taking a bite out of the advancing forces and causing a moment of confusion and doubt. The advantage was lost, as the mostly inexperienced rebel forces lacked the confidence and decisive leadership to seize such an opportunity.
The fronts collided, and many of the villagers fell. But the Iron Circle numbers were also thinned, and seeing this rallied the rebels and cast a shadow of doubt over the Iron Circle soldiers. Scroopel smirked as he saw a few Iron Circle fall prey to some of the tricks he had taught the farmers. Not the most honorable tactics, but effective.
Just as the rebels seemed to be gaining an advantage, a group of Iron Circle soldiers led by a grizzled-looking warrior flanked by a pair of vicious reptiles tore through the rebel line and charged the Salt Merchants’ position within one of the abandoned farm steads.
The reptiles stayed back and spat jets of caustic spittle at them, while the group’s leader and a handful of warriors charged up the path. The rest of the warriors advanced slowly, firing their crossbows until they were within melee range.
Using the stone wall that surrounded the farmstead for cover, the salt merchants quickly whittled down the attacking force. The brunt of their counter-assault was focused on the leader, an Iron Circle Enforcer who quickly fell to a rain of deadly blows. With the enforcer and most of his minions dispatched, they quickly closed on the drakes and remaining rabble. Far less effective at close range, these enemies proved little challenge for the now seasoned veterans.
They had a few minutes to rest and pick through the corpses before a young rider on a lean horse appeared before them in a cloud of dust. “Dar Gremath needs your help by the Radden farmstead!” he shouted, pointing in the direction of the farmstead.
A small group of Iron Circle had slipped around Dar Gremath’s fighters, who were engaged in heated battle, and were making their way towards a barn where some of the non-combatant townsfolk were hidden. Along their way they mercilessly slew wounded and set fire to anything combustible. Gremath could be seen shouting over the sounds of ringing steel, but his words were lost to the distance.
Wasting no time, the enraged adventurers brandished their weapons and charged into battle. Their courage faltered slightly as they drew closer and saw that two of their adversaries were not human. For the most part, they bore human form, save the curved horns that sprouted from their heads. However, the most prominent (and disturbing) feature was the thick, tar-like substance that oozed from their skin and dripped down their bodies, leaving a spotted trail of the fuming liquid behind them.
The tar devils fought viciously, ensnaring their foes with nets and drawing them into range of their wicked, curved khopeshes. In such close proximity, the fumes from the liquid that steadily dripped from their bodies burned the throats of anyone unfortunate enough to be near, and the wracking cough hampered movement.
All the while, a dark adept threw spells at them, and Iron Circle cutthroats slipped in and out of the shadows, striking opportunistically.
The cutthroats fell first, followed by the adept and finally the tar devils. It was a difficult battle, but in the end the Salt Merchants had triumphed. After a quick rest to catch their breath and see to their wounds, they began mutilating and looting the corpses. In the midst of their gruesome task, they spotted another group of Iron Circle warriors approaching systematically, fanned out along the countryside.
Catching sight of them, a massive, muscled man with close shaved rust-colored hair and clad in black armor shouted out to them. “You! Salt Merchants!”, his raven-black eyes twinkled with a cunning beyond that of the common Iron Circle soldiers. “You have been a thorn in my side, and your troublesome interference ends here.”
“Why don’t you just leave? Your soldiers are falling – you’re losing. What do you want with these people, anyway?” Shorwyn called out to him while the rest readied themselves for battle.
“These people were indolent and ungrateful. They cried out for purpose, and for strong leadership.” He leveled his gaze at Shorwyn. “We have come to rectify their faults, and give them the guidance and direction they so desperately need.”
Shorwyn spat. “Look around. You’re not wanted here. I’m assuming you saw our ‘message’” he sneered, gesturing to the fallen Iron Circle soldiers who were similarly mutilated. “How’d you like to be next?”
The warrior flashed a malevolent grin as he swung his leg over the saddle and landed smoothly beside his horse, tossing the reins to a nearby soldier. “You and your girlfriends” he gestured to the rest of the adventurers, “may have gotten lucky against a few low-level patrols.” He paused to yank a broadsword from the scabbard on his back “But I am no lowly soldier!” The power of his voice increased as he approached. “I am Nazin Redthorn, Champion of the Iron Circle! And you will soon be a memory.”
He charged, bearing down with powerful blows while the tar devils hurled globs of sticky, burning tar and the soldiers closed ranks around them. However, Nazin had proven to be overconfident and was severely wounded in short order. Despite harrying injuries, he made a hasty retreat, vowing that this was not over and that they would be dealt with, whether by his hand or not.
The tar devils and remaining soldiers proved a difficult challenge, but nothing the Salt Merchants could not handle, even at less than their full strength.
With Redthorn routed, and the Iron Circle forces unable to break the rebellion, the rest fled the field and a great cheer erupted from the rebels.
Later that evening, after the wounded had been retrieved and cared for, and the dead buried, there was a great celebration held at the Mallard Inn. Songs were sung and libations were offered for those who gave their lives. Shorwyn proved that he was unable to out-drink the dwarven blacksmith woman, Kathrid. For all of his romantic efforts, he only received a good-natured slap on the backside after he had passed out across the table.