animal companion

D&D Chronicles: Operation Skystone not going too well

Race for the skystone

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESBefore us lies a massive circular depression, rock and soil churned up in chunks, vegetation flattened for hundreds of paces all around.

The skystone. It’s so close, buried at the heart of this crater where it fell. We’ve travelled far to reach this place, crossed the treacherous dust plains with its unnatural creatures, entered the mountains, driven by our need to retrieve the skystone to fulfill our quest. When we came across the first felled trees marking the impact zone, my blood sang, the memory of the prophecy sharp in my ears.

The skystone is here. Right before us. But we’re in a race with a horde of dwarfish folk to unearth it.

Beneath our feet lie the caverns and tunnels of dwarven mines. Every so often, the ground shudders and a muffled boom rocks the air. The little folk endeavour to dig out the skystone from below, while we dig desperately from above.

Our worst fears are realised when another explosion racks the earth and a hole appears. Sunlight shines down onto a cart and dark shapes moving about it. They have taken the skystone. We cannot let them have it.

I leap into the hole with Blizzard. In the dark we’re at a disadvantage, but Squirrel’s light spell ensures we can at least see. The strange little men are gone, so we follow them through the tunnels until the poison arrows start flying and we are outnumbered.

We retreat, but they do not pursue, and after a time we creep back down the tunnel to find the cavern empty. We continue through the tunnel and emerge into daylight in time to see a familiar-looking fireball tear a great hole in the rising sphere of an airship. It crashes to the earth in flames.

SQUIRREL

So there’s this prophecy about how five must act in one accord to save the world, and I’m not sure it’s actually referring to us. The two god-touched northerners have their heads in the clouds, Blizzard is rather belligerent in his pragmatism, and Nightshade appears at best nonplussed, to say the least. Which leaves me trying to do what has to be done without fracturing the whole party. Unlike Blizzard, I know there’s a time to keep one’s hands in one’s pockets, and another to take them out … and cast that fireball. Sure, sometimes I get it wrong. No one said saving the world was easy.

Case in point. We stumble across these dwarves — what we think are dwarves. I’ve certainly never seen one before, but they match the general description (short, hairy, unhelpful). If they’d been orcs or goblins, no problems: Blizzard’s call to take out their scouts and send the rest of them packing would’ve been unanimously supported, I’m sure. But no. We try to negotiate. We need what you’ve got, we say. We’re trying to save the world, we say. But these little tunnel diggers, too caught up in their own greed to even bury their dead, aren’t having any of it. There we are, the ball of star metal within our each, and we’re still talking about the rights and wrongs of taking it. So: fireball time. Didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but hey, no one died. No one important, anyway.

Which leaves us here, cooking up a plan to get into the dwarven tunnel and retrieve the rock we need to save the world. We’ve shed their blood, blown up their weird airborne contraption, caused them grief. There’s no time now for hands in pockets. Let’s hope we are at least in accord about that.

Cavern of doom

ZILLAH

Having escaped with the precious skystone into another tunnel, the horde of enemies now awaits us in a vast, dark cavern, on the far side of a chasm spanned by a narrow bridge.

Or so we believe. Our sight cannot penetrate the darkness. Nor can the sight of our new companion, Fortenbrand, a pale dwarf who the dark ones imprisoned. After we liberated him, he agreed to help us retrieve the skystone from the ‘half-breed black fuckers’ he names ‘derros’. Since Fortenbrand’s priests have also foreseen the skystone is needed to forge the flail, he is now our ally.

We attempt to cross the bridge. The derros are great in number and their poisoned quarrels continue to fly. We reach a fortification in the centre of the bridge, dodging the strange arrows as best we can.

A terrible screech rips through the air and my heart almost stops.

Fleet. Fleet!

I spin to see my beloved Fleet plummeting downwards into the depth of the chasm. Her body twists and writhes for purchase that isn’t there. Her howl freezes my blood.

Oh no no no. Fuck fuck fuck.

I drop my weapons, heave my pack onto the stone at my feet. Pitch myself over the edge into nothing but endless air.

The drop is about fifty feet into cold, dark water. Gasping, I reach the surface and swim towards the motionless form of my beautiful cat. She’s a dead weight in my arms, fur sodden, green eyes closed. Sobbing now, I haul her out of the water, check her vital signs, refuse to believe what I already know. Desperately I paw at her, my hands shaking and useless.

Another splash in the water behind me, and I sense someone else has fallen. And then another. I don’t care. Nothing matters anymore, but Fleet who is unresponsive and immune to all my entreaties. My mind spins with chaotic nothing.

Then I hear Alix’s faint cry. Alix. I need Alix!

Alix is in the water and I plunge in after her, grab hold of her arm and drag her to Fleet. Help her. Please help Fleet.

The action has cleared my mind. It is Squirrel flailing in the water, weighed down by his pack, his struggles growing weaker. Nightshade is descending on a rope to help him and, although my chest feels as though it must split in two, I go to her aid. But my limbs feel like lead and I can barely breathe. By the time we retrieve Squirrel, he has been underwater too long.

Licking wounds

ZILLAH

As I hunch over Fleet, whose body is already losing warmth in my clutching arms, I’m barely aware of Alix using her airwalking boots to transport all of us and our gear upwards and away to safety. Somehow I put one foot before the other, stumbling back the way we came until we reach a safe chamber.

I lay my cat down gently, stroke her fur, gaze pleadingly at Alix.

She comes over. Says Blizzard has cast a spell over Squirrel to preserve him until the next day. This means she is able to bring Fleet back right now, and Squirrel tomorrow. I throw my arms around her until she fends me off and settles at Fleet’s side to work her magic. I stroke my cat’s fur, lay my hand over her heart. Life returns — a flicker of pulse, a faint inhale of breath. I gather Fleet to me and bury my face in her neck.

SQUIRREL

Back on Mycross, running with Ribald’s crew, we had a saying: it’s not the fall that kills you, but the landing.

How true it is. There was the plummet from the bridge into the chasm, then the save of the feather fall spell that lowered me ever so gently … into the river. Where the burden of pack and clothes bore me down. For someone raised on an island, I’m a useless swimmer — the ocean was a widowmaker where I lived. Besides, I couldn’t slip the pack, not when it had my spell books in it. I had to hope I could somehow make it.

You’d think I’d learnt better than to hope by now.

I remember drowning. The panic of it, the water and the darkness. Then waking, choking on that memory. I reached for my pack, as weak as I was, newly brought back from the great nothingness. (I know it too well.) My books and scrolls were thankfully secure inside their watertight bindings, the best gold I’ve ever spent — what is a magic user without this magic?

And my companions, abashed from the disaster of our defeat by the derro at the bridge, urged me to take up arms despite my power being spent, as though to die was no big thing, as though Alix had done no more than heal me of a scratch and set me back on my feet again.

I DIED, and only Blizzard seemed to care. Though his delight in telling me that they’d resurrected the damned cat before me was perhaps out of order. He needs an ally, that one, and it seems, as the only other pragmatist in the party, I may be it. Certainly not Nightshade, who seems to care not one whit for man nor mission.

There is a lesson here, one I should have learnt long ago on the island. Yeah, it’s not the fall, but the landing that counts.


Well, that was eventful. Actually it was farcical. We (the players) were mostly in hysterics as our characters floundered about in the water at the bottom of the chasm, while the DM shook his head in bemused disbelief.

Retrieving the skystone was not supposed to be this hard. We were not supposed to destroy the hot air balloon (that was our ticket home, says the DM). We were supposed to make quick work of the derro and return with the skystone in time for tea. Hmm.

More Operation Skystone soon!

Thanks to Jason Nahrung for Squirrel contributions.

More D&D Chronicles on the page!

D&D Chronicles: Getting our butts kicked in and around Issimbaal

ZILLAH

Dealing with Elliana (not)

D&D CHRONICLESWe argue long into the night about how to get the Left Eye of Varrien from Elliana.

The clerics of Phanator refuse to help us, not wanting to start a conflict with the Church of Elloran. I think we all know Elliana and her protector are far too strong for us, but the thought of simply letting the woman leave is intolerable.

Gritting our teeth, we resolve to confront her. Our plan is to waylay them at dawn, try to take them unawares, use Alix’s magic as protection.

None of it goes to plan. Elliana and her henchman take a different route than expected, so we have to chase them. They stop and frown, as though we’re merely annoying insects (and not the giant kind).

Then they kick our arses.

One attempt to engage Tob is all I need to realise I don’t have a chance against him, and then a magical blade is whirling around him in all directions, seriously wounding Blizzard. Nightshade and I manage to get out of the way, but…

In under a minute our entire party is fleeing in the opposite direction. Elliana sends a friendly fireball after us as a final ‘fuck you’.

That was fun.

Elliana leaves with the Left Eye and the taste of failure is bitter.

Are we ever getting out of Issimbaal?

We need to regroup.

Even were I not sworn to retrieve the Right Eye, it seems more important than ever, in case it’s Elliana’s ambition to bring the two Eyes together to raise the goddess of destruction. If only she’d talked to me when I attempted to discover her goal, instead of bespelling me into being her slave. At least that curse has been broken by my recent death and resurrection.

We know Elliana is looking for magic portals, perhaps to reach Tel Marrenor and the Right Eye, lost deep in the broken forest. We considered offering to accompany her on her long journey, but with Nightshade stricken with the zombie disease, she needs the priests here to find the cure.

I’m already half-regretting our decision to confront Elliana. I don’t know whether we could have trusted her and Tob enough to travel with them, but that option must surely now be lost to us, along with the Left Eye.

I don’t know what to do.

The next few days pass slowly for me as we remain in Issimbaal. Squirrel is busy learning new spells, the others are poring over books from the libraries; meanwhile I’m at a total loose end, my mind turning everything over and over and over until I want to scream. I hang out with Fleet, and try to calm down by teaching her a new trick.

Zillah and Fleet

Zillah and Fleet

Those hitting the books find out stuff about the flail and the Eyes, and acquire a couple of maps that could be useful. They don’t discover much about the zombie disease, other than the knowledge it was cast by mages in conjunction with priests of Bahaal. It’s possible the spell creation took place in the Temple of Death, which is about 200 miles down the road.

Zombie hunting

Helping the priests find a cure for this zombie disease has become a bit of a fixation. Nightshade needs it. Not only has she become a friend in the weeks we’ve known her, but her knowledge of the forest, and her passion for saving it, will help us in our quest to retrieve the Right Eye. No doubt she’ll be just as pleased to avenge the Dark Tree too, as we promised the tree ent.

For as long as we’re in this abandoned and now charred city, every night we search for zombies. But they too seem to have abandoned the city, and our hunt is fruitless.

After several days we take the hunt into the broken and deserted lands outside Issimbaal. It’s morning, sunny, and I easily find the tracks of six humanoids, some of which are larger than humans.

(Interestingly, I also find two sets of separate human tracks, likely to be Elliana and Tob, heading in the direction of the Temple of Bahaal — which is decidedly not the direction we expected. It also happens to coincide with our proposed next destination…)

But it’s the zombies I’m interested in for now. Maybe one of these holds the key to the disease.

We’ve been going for about two hours, and I know we’re really close to the band I’m tracking, when my peripheral vision picks up shapes looming to either side and — no warning — we’re under attack.

Fuck. We’re surrounded. Fleet! Fleet is getting ripped into. No!

My brave, bleeding cat falls to the ground.

The world shrinks to her sand-coloured fur, tufts torn out, rivers of red. I’m on my knees at her side, fumbling with a cure light wounds spell. She’s still warm. But my hands tremble too much for me to tell if she’s alive.

My limbs are wooden, my heart empty, as I lurch to my feet. I stand over Fleet, and take in the battle that is all my fault. I led us into an ambush. All. My. Fault.

But Blizzard has a zombie under his control already. One explodes nearby at Alix’s hands. I take out my fear and grief on the remaining zombies within my reach. They do not last long.

As soon as it’s over, I gather Fleet into my arms. Thanks to blessed Emrys, she’s alive. Alix heals her some more and my heart is full again. But I can’t bear to let her go. Her fur is soft against my face. She puts up with my fussing for a while, but then she licks my face and twists out of my arms. I take a deep breath and get to my feet.

We return to Issimbaal by midday with two zombies under Blizzard’s command. Hopefully the clerics can do something with them.

I just want to curl up in a corner with Fleet and feel her warmth against my side, her rhythmic purr vibrating through my bones.


Fleet (a desert cat) is Zillah’s second animal companion. Her first was Ash, a dog, who was killed in the broken forest. All our D&D adventures are listed in order with links on the D&D Chronicles page.

D&D Chronicles: Fleet and flame

ZILLAH

[17 Feb] After the drama of last night, it’s a relief to be back at the Temple of Emrys. My head is clear, here on the edge of the city. I can think. I pray to the god of the forests, searching for guidance, but I still can’t decide what to do.

I leave a gold piece for Ash’s soul and resolve to return again tomorrow.

Nightshade and Alix have accompanied me, and I make sure the route back to our new lodgings (Tippa found us a room in a very dodgy house, near the Spill) takes us past the Kelsen markets again. The captive animals continue to call me.

Today I spend time with a desert cat. She’s the colour of dust and sand, with rippled markings in darker shades of brown. Her eyes are amber and they see right into my soul. Her condition is not good — underfed, dull coat, and terrible fear — but her spirit is strong. I long to free her from her cage and see her run.

Laying plans

[18 Feb] This morning I’m still furious with Abra for his foolish behaviour yesterday. The idiot went out on his own and got himself arrested. Now Blizzard is left explaining to his church why his friend revealed himself as a mage, after being expressly commanded not to. Worse, Alix and I are out of pocket again from bailing him out. I think it may be the first time Blizzard and I have agreed on anything.

Almost as annoying, Tippa is constantly nagging us to do something about Liak, the man who killed her father. We have told her over and over that we need to lay plans if we don’t want to die. Of course, we have our own agenda, and that is to retrieve the gold stolen from us by the thieves guild. She’s an impatient kid, and I get that, but… She’s probably going to run the thieves guild one day.

Fortunately for me, Squirrel seems to have things in hand. He spent yesterday learning some spells, and today he’s staking out Liak’s house. We have a rough plan. Of sorts. Hell.

Introducing Fleet

I take myself off to the temple again, with only Nightshade for company. When I’m done, I inhale deeply and head back to the market. I think I’m ready.

I go right up to the cage where my desert cat is confined. She growls first, low and deep, and then hisses when I put out my hand. I think I had better stock up on linens for bandages.

It takes all my skill to get her to come with me, but she does. Perhaps she is lured by the sack of rabbits I’m also carrying. I am glad of Nightshade’s assistance. We take her to the edge of the city, where it borders the forest, and release a live rabbit for her to chase and kill and eat.

Even in her poor physical condition, she is fast. My heart sings a little as I watch her tear into the rabbit. And it hitches when she comes back to me. She’s still wary and full of fear, but she follows.

I name her Fleet.

A desert cat Felis silvestris kitten looks curiously out of the safety of its den in Greater Rann of Kutch, Gujarat.

A desert cat Felis silvestris kitten looks curiously out of the safety of its den in Greater Rann of Kutch, Gujarat — kalyanvarma, licensed under Creative Commons.

Taking action

[19 Feb] Fleet is settling in well. I took her once more to hunt this morning, and she returned willingly with me to our lodging. She has spent the rest of the day curled up in the corner asleep, for in truth she is naturally a night creature. Already her condition and temperament improve, although she is still very thin.

Tonight we have business to deal with. After staking out Liak all day to pacify Tippa, Squirrel went out last night to use one of his new spells. Our plan was to try to locate the stash of the thieves guild by locating the amulet they stole from us. It took a while, but he managed to locate it in one of the market stalls. This means, of course, that the object has most likely been sold on, but perhaps we can get at least it back. Or a lead.

It’s dark and pouring with rain, but not all that late, as we head to the market. There are guards around. A man with two children crosses the square and enters the building behind our target stall. My stomach clenches. I hadn’t counted on there being children.

Half an hour or so later, Squirrel picks the lock and sneaks inside, returns quickly. He reports the children are sleeping within. There are two adjoining rooms and a forge, with several items of gold jewellery. Our amulet is there.

Three of us enter, intending only to ask questions, but three of them approach us with drawn weapons. Some of my companions are not good at restraint; before I know it, a woman and a man are on the floor. We stablise their injuries, but the third is persuaded to talk. He gives us a name. Soma. We take our amulet and a couple of other items and leave.

We make a deal

It isn’t all that difficult to persuade Soma to talk. We’re ‘visiting’ her at home, where she was all alone. We tell her we don’t really want trouble, we just want our stuff back — or the equivalent in gold.

The only reason we came here was to trade gear for coin, resupply and leave. So far, Kelsen has cost us dearly.

Without consulting any of us, Blizzard* hatches a plan to get Soma onside. I’m numb as I listen to them negotiate, and within ten minutes we’re agreeing to take out five of the guild’s highest ranked members to pave the way for Soma’s rise to power.

The deal is for the money they owe us. But two things are occurring to me:

  1. We should get paid a hell of a lot more than that if we succeed. Taking out five top guild members is surely worth substantial coin on top of what we’ve had stolen.
  2. I still do not trust Blizzard. He’s been having secret meetings with his church all week. What is his agenda?

* [ed 21/12/15: Apparently I remembered this wrongly and it was in fact Squirrel doing the deal-making. Figures…]

The warehouse

Still raining. Soma has given us directions to a warehouse, where three of our targets are hanging out. We fight our way in through a hidden entrance, and creep into an elevated storage area to take stock. Unch proves handy for some invisible reconnaissance. He informs us we’re on a mezzanine, with our targets in the room next door, and a bunch of lackies drinking and gambling on the lower floor.

Well, this is what we’re here for. With a prayer to Emrys, I enter the room and attack.

warehouse1The battle is fierce. I try to take stock as I fight. Six in total, one of who is up the back muttering a spell. That would be the cleric (target 1). Guntar No Nose (target 2) is big and obvious, as Soma warned. One of the others must be the muscle guy, Rastas (target 3) but I have no idea which one he is.

We do all right. Abra and Squirrel do their mage thing, while Alix, Nightshade and I fight hand-to-hand. My sword and dagger flash and I allow my rage at the guild to stream through me. At one point, Nightshade is fighting atop the table, then she’s down, then Alix leans over and she’s up again. We win.

Except Guntar escapes. All of a sudden, he drinks something and just disappears. Fuck.

And there’s smoke everywhere. Great thick billows of it, clogging up the room. We’re trying to regain our breaths, coughing and spluttering.

And I can still hear fighting.

Outside the room, we find Blizzard under attack from the lackies downstairs. Once we get there, it doesn’t take too long to dispatch them, but the warehouse is seriously on fire and the smoke is worse out here.

We need to leave. Now.

Out on the street, it’s still raining, so hopefully this means the adjacent buildings (and the town) are not too endangered from the fire. The warehouse itself is doomed, and I savagely hope the thieves guild is losing a fortune in stuff.

But overall this is bad. Really bad. We only got two of our targets, and Guntar escaped. There will be retribution. Can we hide out the rest of the night? I fear we will need all our strength to face whatever is about to hit us next.

The D&D Chronicles page.

D&D Chronicles: Death of an animal companion

ZILLAH — The Broken Forest

D&D CHRONICLESI’m on watch with Squirrel in the dead of night when the tree moves.

It’s a massive tree in a loop of the stream. We’ve camped here because it seemed safer to have the water on three sides. We’ve been attacked so many times at night. But now it sounds like something is being uprooted and the whole canopy is shaking.

Oh, hell. Alix and Blizzard are pinned to the ground by massive roots. As a deep voice demands to know why we’re here, I realise my error and curse myself for a fool. It’s not a tree. Idiot!

It’s a tree ent. A very pissed off tree ent. And it’s not happy about the influence of this dark tree we keep hearing about.

We try to placate the ent, tell it we’re trying to bring balance and peace back to the forest, but it makes us promise to go beyond the dark tree to find and defeat those who created it. He says its creators came with the army of someone called Gom. The corruption extends from the tormented forest south of here.

Ironically, I think we were already heading there. I think that’s where the other Eye of Varrien is rumoured to be. Hell.

But first we must find that troll and get Climber her axe back. We’ve been following the stream for a few days now, and all we’ve encountered have been giant spiders and giant bugs and giant spider-eaters… all attacking us. This is not a nice place.

Hunting is not straightforward

We’re running out of food. We didn’t get time to re-supply before getting chased out of Lhangessa about a week ago, and now things are getting desperate.

Ash and I went hunting the other day while Squirrel sat beneath the tree ent and learnt a new spell (he’s a little excited); but we failed. The forest did not provide. We’re trying again today and I can only hope to make a better account of myself. This time Squirrel has accompanied us.

Well, here’s a surprise; we’re under attack. Three more enormous forest bugs. Bigger than any we’ve seen yet. Ten feet long at least.

Oh god. It’s not going well.

First a howl of pain and then a thud. Ash is down, a crumpled heap visible out of the corner of my eye.

My heart jolts with shock and I can barely stand. I’ve been bitten twice and I can feel the venom flooding my body. My head is swimming and it’s all I can do to swing my swords. I’m not hitting much.

ash_02 blog

Ash – valiant wolf-dog

Vale Ash

Fuck! Ash is being dragged away by one of the bugs. No no no! Blessed Emrys protect him. I just need to kill this fucking thing, and…

I’m stumbling into the forest. The tracks are easy to follow, but I can hardly put one foot in front of the other. They lead me to a tree and I stare up its tall, smooth trunk. There’s a slimy trail and streaks of bright red blood staining the bark.

He’s up in the tree. My Ash has been dragged up into the tree and I know it’s too late. High up in the canopy I can see his poor broken body, wrapped in some type of web.

I want to climb up and get him, save him, but I can’t. I can barely stand. My limbs are like water.

And I know he’s already gone. My Ash is gone. My heart is breaking and I think I want to die.

But there’s this cursed mission. I’ve sworn oaths. And my friends are depending on me. I have to keep going.

But just now I want to curl up at the base of this tree and die.


There is a lot more to come from our most recent session, but I wanted to give Ash’s passing the respect and gravitas it deserves.

I knew there was a reason I wasn’t deploying him in battle! But I had to face the fact Zillah’s animal companion was not really engaged in activities, maybe occasionally providing assistance with tracking and on watch, so I judged it worth the risk just to have him DO something.

It was wonderful while it lasted (a whole 1.5 sessions), with Ash giving an excellent account of himself in melee. If he hadn’t been dragged away by those giant bugs, I think Zillah would have been able to save him; but being removed from the field of battle really nailed it for him.

I got in trouble with the DM for my character not responding appropriately to the demise of her animal companion… and I’ve replayed the scenario endlessly in my mind. Should Zillah have tried a healing spell in the middle of melee? (Zillah has just made it to level 8 where she can have a “cure light wounds” spell!)

Maybe she should have chased after the bug dragging Ash immediately. Probably this is what she should have done, but sometimes you just make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment.

She was very weak herself. Those bugs had drained her strength to 4 (from 17), so she could literally barely lift her sword.

Possibly she should have tried to climb the tree, despite her impairment. But in my mind, she knew it was too late. She would have felt the severance of the animal companion bond. Had she been at full strength, though, nothing would have stopped her from trying to climb that tree.

Anyway, Ash is dead and I am very sad. So is Zillah.

There will be another installment in a week or two.

D&D Chronicles archive page

Book review: A companion to wolves

The main book I read during February was A companion to wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear — a fantasy novel published in around 2008 (first of a trilogy). I found it a fascinating book, certainly memorable, in some ways familiar and in other ways not.

wolvesIt’s about a youth (Isolfr) who is tithed to a community of men and wolves, one of several such communities responsible for protecting their people from trolls who live in the frozen north. Each wolf bonds to a man (never a woman, it seems) in a brother-brother or brother-sister relationship, and the novel largely focuses on the relationships that form in this unusual communal living environment.

On a broad scale the plot deals with the desperate battle for survival as the various villages and wolf halls (they’re actually named something scandinavian-sounding) are threatened by the trolls moving south. There’s enough action to keep things moving, but at heart the novel is really all about Isolfr’s journey as he gives up his role as heir to his father (a local thane) and bonds with a young female wolf, destined to become queen of her own pack.

A key aspect of this novel is that the relationships between the men are largely (although not wholly) determined by the relationships between their wolves. This means that the human brother of the queen wolf (konigenwolf) occupies a high position among the men — as does the brother of the konigenwolf’s chosen mate. What is interesting is that Isolfr, being bound to a young konigenwolf, finds himself literally courted by the human companions of wolves who have aspirations to be the mate of his wolf.

I was initially taken aback that two women would write a book with so few female characters in it, especially set within such a patriarchal society where women are not highly valued; but I actually think they are exploring feminist themes from a unique angle.

Isolfr, because of his relationship to his konigenwolf, is essentially manoeuvred into taking on the traditional female role of nurturer within the community. Even though he has been brought up a warrior and is handy enough with his axe, he is sometimes viewed as someone who needs to be protected. It enables the reader to view the whole ‘traditional female role’ paradigm through a different filter — and one that men may particularly respond to.

Isolfr is also forced to take on the so-called female role on the occasions when his wolf goes into heat — because one of the effects of the man-wolf bond is that the men ‘mate’ with each other when their wolves do… I will say this is handled really well. It’s not always consensual, and the couple of open rut scenes are not especially nice, but somehow it works. Once again, I found this reflective of how young women in some cultures have traditionally been forced into marriages not of their choosing…

So it’s rather a unique take on the human-animal companion genre, with a beautifully developed weave of complex relationships among all the men and wolves.

Yet A companion to wolves is also heavily redolent of the familiar — it’s grounded in Scandinavian history and mythology, and uses many Norse-infused words (to the point it can get a little confusing at times). The setting is drawn in broad brush strokes, just enough to create a vivid backdrop without injecting too much presence, while the troll antagonists are so broadly drawn as to be almost mystical.

As a character-driven fantasy, A companion to wolves is exactly the kind of book I seek out, and I enjoyed it a lot. However, I think much of my enjoyment was down to intellectual and critical appreciation of the themes and writing, rather than a deep emotional connection. I’m not entirely sure what was missing for me, because it has all the makings of a book I might adore, but it didn’t quite get me to that point.

Nonetheless, I would certainly recommend it to others who enjoy fantasy of this style. For a review from someone who did love it, see Siri Paulson’s post here.

***

The other fantasy novel I finished in February — as an audiobook in the car — was Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. Now this (along with the entire series) is a book I absolutely adore and love. I will write a post on the first three books when I’ve finished Kushiel’s Avatar, now playing in the car. Suffice to say, for now, that Phedre and Joscelin are among my favourite heroes ever.

I also spent a couple of weeks early in the month re-reading several dreadful and daggy books from my youth, rediscovered on kindle. They are not worth naming, and I have no idea why I took it upon myself to relive them, but I confess that one thing I LOVE about ebooks is this ability for out of print books to be republished.

What did you read in February?

D&D Chronicles: In which Ash loses part of her soul and gains a wolf

ASH

D&D CHRONICLESMy eyes feel as though they are clamped shut, but I force them open. At first the light is dazzling, but gradually the puckered faces of my companions resolve themselves. They are leaning over me, all four of them. Above is a dappled canopy of trees.

The forest. Yes. I remember.

The pressure in my chest eases and I try to sit up. Can’t. Something restrains me. Tree tendrils, green and supple, shoots sprouting every which way to cover me in a blanket of foliage. But it is a healing bind and I am not afraid. I close my eyes again and allow the soft song of the forest to lull me once more to sleep.

The next time I wake, an unfamiliar woman peers down at me. A cloud of white hair frames a face of a thousand creases. The vines have vanished and she helps me sit. Long shadows carve up a grassy clearing beside a well-tended hut. Birds hop along the ground and flitter among the tree tops. A couple of blue wrens perch on the woman’s narrow shoulders. There must be hundreds of birds in many varieties.

Alix notices I am awake and comes over first, followed closely by Intan. Both look hollow-eyed and brittle. They try to explain what’s going on, but they talk over each other and I have trouble understanding. Calwyn and Saffir arrive next and somehow I piece it together from the four of them.

I have been dead. This I do not remember.

As they talk it gradually comes back to me. Our abandonment by the bugbears and then the injured ogre. The surprise attack in the night by the owlbear. But I have no memory of the two giant beetles that attacked us the following afternoon… My stomach queases as they describe my death and then the merciful arrival on a giant eagle of Mahendra, the druid who has given my life back.

I give a silent prayer to Nievor, goddess of the vine, who has watched over me all my life. And another to Emrys, god of the forest, who has proved so benevolent. May he continue to watch over this new life I have been granted.

***

We loiter at Mahendra’s hut for another day while I recuperate, but I feel dull and listless, not sure what to do with myself. Saffir and I hunt, but this does not bring me peace as I mourn the doe we kill. It is not until Mahendra returns with a young white wolf that my spirits start to lift.

The wolf is beautiful. She has silky white hair and eyes blue as the sky. I desperately hope she will be my friend.

***

At Mahendra’s request we battle and defeat a hydra. It is the least we can do, and I relish the opportunity to repay even a tiny portion of the debt I owe to her — and also my companions for the cost of the spell. Despite its six heads, the hydra doesn’t stand a chance and I cut out its heart to take back to the lady.

My wolf — I have already started to think of her as mine, but I mustn’t hope too hard — has accompanied us on this mission. My heart rejoices when we wade out of the swamp and she is waiting.

***

We bid the lady Mahendra farewell and head back to the monastry with the intention of killing Dulgahar.

When we arrive, the others ignore my suggestion of watching carefully for a day or so to see the extent of the three-fang forces. Even though it has been several days since our departure. We head immediately for the secret door, intending to sneak down into the basement to tackle the necromancer, without the three-fangs being any the wiser.

Alas, the way is blocked and we are seen. We sneak around the rear of the monastry, creeping along the outside of the broken wall, but they know we are here. We are hailed by a hill giant on the wall. He doesn’t sound threatening and, bearing in mind our previous alliance with the three-fangs, we venture closer.

A mistake. They spring the trap and we are forced to battle a force of orcs and kobolds who try to sneak up on us. Saffir, Calwyn and I make relatively short work of them. But, in the meantime, Intan and Alix have been confronting the hill giant, whose friendly guise has vanished entirely.

My gut wrenches as Alix drops unconscious to the ground. Yet Intan is still standing.

But then the hill giant picks up Intan — our fearsome paladin — as though he were a rag doll and throttles him.

We can do nothing but watch in horror.

The hill giant warns us to leave and dumps the inert body of our friend to the ground. Intan crumples in a heap, his armour clinking, beside Alix.

I can hardly breathe as we steal closer. Calwyn summons a floating disk to carry Alix, but I am forced to carry Intan, who — oh, the horror! — is dead, his neck clearly broken.

The others take my gear and his armour, but still he is a large man for me to carry. When I can go on no longer, we stop for the night.

My wolf is still with us and she sleeps at my side. I have decided to name her Ylva.

***

It is an eventful night, with Calwyn almost carried off into the trees by a giant spider. Alix is still unconscious. We are not in good shape.

In the morning we are approached by another giant beetle. Heeding something Mahendra said to me, we do not attack but instead offer it food and it wanders off. I give thanks again to the god Emrys and vow not to be so quick with my sword against the natural creatures of this forest.

Although I do wish the creatures would leave us alone.

Alix wakes, but we are still debating what to do with Intan’s corpse when Mahendra arrives on the back of her majestic eagle. A glorious sight! We pool our resources — already much depleted after my own resurrection — but manage to raise the funds for Intan’s resurrection by staking his newly won armour, which accounts for half of it. It is a shame to lose the fine chain mail and Intan will rue its loss, but it is the only way.

We bide our time in the forest while Mahendra performs the resurrection and Intan recuperates.

But we have decided to return to Hyden’s Ford. This expedition has not yielded us the treasure we anticipated and now we have spent nearly all we gained on two resurrections. We will cut our losses and depart.

At least I have gained one treasure. My wolf. My beautiful Ylva. She will come with me.

***

Hyden’s Ford is much changed. There are soldiers everywhere, plainsfolk — my people — skewered on stakes, and I am afraid. The townspeople eye Alix and me askance and mutter about plainsfolk in league with goblins in the north.

The woman known as Fat Swethin has agreed to equip us for our next expedition, even though we have no money. We will owe her, of course. 

And while we decide what that expedition is to be, we bide our time in Hyden’s Ford’s only inn, where the proprietor knows us and still seems well enough disposed towards Calwyn at least.

Ylva must remain hidden from these southern invaders and I count the hours until we may leave this cursed town.

***

Another very eventful session, during which I started rolling up a new character… very stressful. But Ash survives to fight another day, with an animal companion to boot!

Also, please note the new D&D Chronicles sidebar image. One click and all the past D&D Chronicles posts will be yours to read and enjoy…

D&D Chronicles: Playing both sides

ASH

We have arrived at the mysterious monastery. It’s surrounded by a dilapidated stone wall covered in vines. We’re crouched behind the wall, staring at the large building on the far side of the enclosure.

It’s terrifying. Even in broad daylight.

This might be because our party isn’t in very good shape. We managed to survive a skirmish with a minotaur, but then a swarm of blood-sucking stirges attacked us in a forest clearing. Intan nearly died again (technically he was dead) and none of my four companions have fully recovered. I managed to evade the stirges’ sting, but a couple of hours ago we were attacked by snakes, and I am still suffering from their poison…

But here we are at the monastery nonetheless, getting ready to go in. We have yet to decide our strategy, but whatever we do it’s going to be big.

And our objective has changed. First we struck a dodgy bargain with “the people of the eye”, a clan of humanoids who may or may not be trying to find the Eye of Varrien.

But then, not long after we’d left their domain and crossed the river, we encountered a rival company of humanoids who called themselves the “three-fanged clan”. They were instantly suspicious of us, since we’d come through the lands of the people of the eye.

We killed several hobgoblins before their leader — a northern plainswoman, no less — called a truce and threatened to return with a vast force if we didn’t switch sides and retrieve two objects from the monastery for them.

I fear we are playing both sides at present. Promises have been made to both the people of the eye and the three-fanged clan. I have no idea which humanoids can be trusted, which clan is less evil… It will surely end in disaster.

***

Yes, it’s a dangerous game Ash and her companions are playing…

There is some good news for Ash, though. She has survived to be a level four ranger and is now eligible for an animal companion and a daily spell. Oooh, fun. Ash now needs to decide what kind of animal she’s going to seek.

So long as she doesn’t get killed in the next session…

What animal companion would you choose — wolf or hawk or something else — and why?