Alex Seaton, Carla Huynh, Chris Bradley, Dave Kirkpatrick, Jack Hare, James Wilson, Jennifer Ryder, Joshua Newington, May Law, Nathaniel Oshunniyi, Peter Ganson, Rayson Ng, Rebecca Diss, Sam Yen Shuang, Tanguy Racine
First, the factual report. Read on for Tanguy's fantasy epic!
Lost Johns': Alex Seaton, Carla Huynh, Chris Bradley, Dave Kirkpatrick, Jack Hare, James Wilson, Jennifer Ryder, Joshua Newington, May Law, Nathaniel Oshunniyi, Peter Ganson, Rayson Ng, Rebecca Diss, Sam Yen Shuang, Tanguy Racine
We got up, brushing the ice from our moustaches. Those who hadn't previously had a moustache had grown one during the night as a defensive measure against the cold. Soon we were up, huddled round the oven for warmth. Outside was beautiful and crisp, and we piled into the minibus, nervous about the drive up to Leck Fell. Tanguy drove up the fell road, badly eroded by all the construction traffic for the house half way up. We made it to the cattlegrid with some difficulty, but we were spooked at the thought of going back down in the dark, with the weather predicted to get colder. Instead we spun the minibus around very, very gently and trundled down the hill. Tanguy knocked on the farmer's door and she said we could park in the yard.
It was a grade 1 change, made more amusing by all the city folk working out what the smell was and where all the 'mud' around the yard came from. Eventually, we were changed and we walked steadily up the hill, DKP bravely (suicidally) ferrying people up and down in waves. Checking we had all the rope bags, we split and entered the cave in waves. My team was Peter, Sam, May, Rayson and Diss and we were going down Centipede.
I initially missed the climb up into the roof traverse for centipede - it really is very close to the nasty free climb down into the stream that represents the beginning of Monastery to me. Soon we were up, and no one struggled with the traverses, despite how sketchy they are. Peter began to rig, and I supervised our novices descending. After some slight confusion and mis-information from me (I had assumed Centipede was one long pitch and forgot about Mud before it...) Peter managed to get to the bottom of the big pitch, and we followed close behind.
After all the faff getting to the cave, we'd elected not to take the Battleaxe and Valhalla ropes, and so we only rigged Candle and Shistol because we hadn't met the Dome team yet. It was a nice extra bit of SRT practice as the rebelays are slightly tricky, but we'd got all the way down and still no sign of Dome. We derigged and went to wait at the junction, where they soon arrived. Nothing was wrong, just everything had taken longer than expected. We called James back before he rigged down to Monastery - this was the right call as the Monastery team had respected the turn around time we'd set and we later found out they'd already left by this point.
Nothing left but a simple exchange, Dome out Centipede and Centipede out Dome. Progress was as expected - slightly slow with novices, but no one got hung up or too tired to prussik. We enjoyed the swing out from Dome at the rebelay, and Peter derigged swiftly behind us. On the surface, it was clear and cold, and DKP had waited to take two lucky folks (Diss and Peter) back. Sam, May and Rayson insisted on walking back - apparently some of them had never seen snow in person before, so along with the first caving trip it was certainly a day for new experiences. Shortly after we started walking a friendly forrester picked us up and gave us a lift down the hill in the back of his van.
Heron Pot: Carla Huynh, Dave Kirkpatrick, Jack Hare, James Wilson, Jennifer Ryder
With the cold weather continuing, we didn't want to risk any of the high fell roads. A Pennine member recommended Kingsdale as the road didn't go as high, so we flicked through the CNCC rigging guide and spotted Heron and Yordas, excellent caves which we'd never done. Heron looked a bit easy with only two pitches, but the high level route offered the opportunity for James to practice rigging, and DKP volunteered to join us in an unprecedented show of enthusiasm.
The drive was fine, the steep bits of road being gritted and my driving being very cautious. A nice change in the brisk wind and we were off, Tanguy's group cutting left at Yordas Wood and my group heading across the frozen valley to Kingsdale Beck. We crossed at the place where Gaze Gill enters, on the other side of the valley. We followed Gaze Gill up, through a dry stone wall and then higher, checking out a few possible entrances along the way until we found one with warm air blowing out.
There's a lot more to Heron than the CNCC rigging guide shows - 500 m or so of lovely, classic Yorkshire streamway, followed by two lovely pitches on the low route, right next to the water, rigging y-hangs in the spray perched on a small ledge. Above me, James and DKP whooped and swung acrobatically, as there weren't many foot holds and the bolts were far apart. Soon we were down, and Jennifer and I set up to get some photos of James and DKP descending.
At the bottom we followed the streamway until it degenerated into a hands and knees crawl in the water. As we had to derig and we didn't know if the exit was sumped, we all headed out, swapping the derig to keep things interesting and then back down the hill in glorious sunshine. A real cracker of a trip and highly recommended - pairs well with Yordas.
The Silent Watchers
Chapter 1 - The Flight of the Ravens
The old maester’s fingers were trembling. A soft snowflake whirled down, a glimmer of light across the gloomy sky. It settled on the parchment and lost its fire, melting fast on the ink and blurring the words. Cold winds rising, dark and terrible things screaming their fury through the northern wilderness.
Maester Yarwys seldom made the ascent to the rookery these days, but he had to warn the rest of his order. The signs were unmistakeable. He bent down to work on an old wooden pulpit, penning the words furiously. They must know, they must be prepared he thought. Avoid the high passes, look for the path to Rexendäll, the ancient valley of Kings where one might still find a safe refuge from the gathering forces of darkness.
The first bird he caught bit his hand, but old age hadn’t robbed him of his strength, and the old maester sent it on its way. One raven may get lost in a storm, two, aye, that was not unheard of, but surely, of the ten he sent off, one might reach its destination, and bring with it the dire news. Or so he hoped.
Chapter 2 - A Call to Arms
Two captains lost with the best of their command. The Commander had decreed that an expedition would set off north, into Pännhein mountains, to meet the new threat. The orders had come in sealed in a strong hide pouch, writ in the unmistakable hand of his she-bear underling, Rebbek’hdis, not three days after the raven. How the bird had survived the autumn storms no one knew, but it had caused some muttering among the men. Some had taken a keen interest on who might join the expeditionary force.
It was common knowledge that only the bravest would be called upon to meet the new threat with steel and fire. ‘A swift bold stroke’, the greybeard Jacques Hayre, whom the men called Rabbit, had said, and the younger lads had cheered in agreement. He was a veteran of a hundred battles and had the scars to prove it, a maimed right hand - but he was equally deadly with the left now.
Other riders arrived on lathered horses, none other than the she-bear, who would assume joint command of the trip with a stern young knight, Jayme Dobbes, who had a fierce look about him. Rebbek’hdis called the stewards, clerks and rangers forwards: Petyr Fitzgan, master of supplies, Tenguy Roote, chief scout, Mey, Sam’me and Zhoe, Reyson who had only recently joined the garrison at Lune-dun, greybeard Jack whom the men called Rabbit, Joss and Nat happy-go-lucky men at arms, and finally the dangerous Génie-fleur, a quick-tempered Amazon.
The party assembled on the rectangular yard. From the bowels of the barracks, and under the supervision of the she-bear, they brought ample supplies of wheaten biscuits, hard black sausages, casks of salt beef and bags of shrivelled, but sweet apples. There had never been many oxen or draught horses in Lune-Dun, so they made do with some four old but faithful donkeys, Yunni, Yohn, Myni and Bos, which they loaded with yet more supplies: fire hardened spikes, chainmail, shields, leather bags full to bursting with hempen ropes, rolls of waxed overcoats to repel the cold black rain of the north.
Chapter 3 - The Journey
They passed underneath the iron portcullis, onto the crowded winter town streets. Jacques, whom the men called Rabbit led the way through wynds and alleys, often consulting a piece of sheepskin bearing strange markings only he could decipher. Eventually, they broke out of the metropolis, leaving its grey pennons of dust behind. The wind was down, and everywhere they passed, banners hung limp and desolate by the sides of the holdfasts. By night, the stars were out, offering only their cold, distant lights. Grey dusk followed grey dawn, with little warmth, with almost nothing to tell one day from the other.
After a while, a persistent mist rose from the sodden ground, and it became difficult to tell which way was north. Game became rarer and often, the men would go to sleep with an empty belly. Some tried the fen-water when the ale started to run low, but there were evil spirits lurking in the shallows who had, or so Petyr the master supplies said, poisoned the water.
It took three more days to emerge from this cursed land of quagmires, and the expedition reached a remote city, filled with strange sounds and exotic smells. Joss and Nat went ahead in the underground bazaar, a place where a man could buy meat and mead with the certainty of getting a fair price, while the rest explored the barren plaza in the centre of town. Soon they heard a tumult, and loud throng erupted from the bazaar. Ahead of them, Nat and Joss, running for their lives towards the centre of the place.
A slight misunderstanding, the dialect spoken in Lemyn Tun being hard to master, had degenerated in a full-blown riot. When it seemed like the expedition members were cornered by the angry mob, a loud voice echoed across the piazza.
Chapter 4 - Many meetings
‘Go back to your homes! Go back to your proceedings!’ Several men on horses, with gilded helms had appeared, lances held high, gleaming in the pale winter sun. They cantered across the square, scattering the crowd. Their leader dismounted and removed his helm. ‘I am Aleksi Tohne, leader of the Werryck garrison. Here are Dävke Pih, Karela Üin, and Kryzh Brëdli, my serjeants. Who commands here?’ ‘I do, by order of the Commander’ said the She-bear, taking a step towards him, and then Jayme Dobbes strode forwards too. ‘I do too. We also bring word from maester Yarwys of the Citadel.’
‘I can spare some supplies conceded Aleksi, poring over the map that Petyr had unfolded. We have grain, roots, beets and a bit of lard. With luck, this should last you long enough to reach Grynclaus, here.’ He moved a finger and tapped the faintly drawn place.’ When you get there, you will see three mountains. Rexendäll is between those two. You will be able to fortify your position by taking the high ground on Lychfäll to the west, and Engl Bru to the east. This place commands a view of the entire area. You will also find the garrison at Eng Tun well supplied with arms, ropes and fodder. I could even spare some scouts to lead you north. The roads are perilous now, we sent some scouts, but of late, none return, and when we find them, the wolves had been at them.
‘This weapon you seek, can it bring peace to the realm of Pennhein? Aleksi asked. The candle guttered out, leaving a pool of red wax spreading on the roughly hewn table.
‘It may, answered Génie-Fleur. Do you stand with us?’
‘I will find hands to carry spear and sword, and axe and torch. Meet us by the east gate on the morrow’.
Chapter 5 - Grynclaus
The horses had suffered from the cold, long march into the mountains. They had lost one two days past to a river crossing. The poor beast never stood a chance, faltering for want of fodder. The donkeys fared better, and less than half of the ale had gone by the time the old stone ring fort of Grynclaus appeared from the crepuscular mists.
Shrouded in white, old snow, the crumbling walls rose up, reaching to the sky with bare grey knuckles. Moonlight sent white beams through the pockmarked ceiling, and through the fissures in the wall seeped a bone chilling cold. The advance party led by Dävke had ousted the previous occupants and started fires in the ruined hearths.
Somewhere in a corner, a pot of spiced wine simmered gently. Grateful of the respite from the harsh winds, the rangers, clerks and stewards tethered horses and donkeys to the inner wall, and set about pitching their canvas tents.
Three roughly hewn long tables had survived the worst of the winter, and after a search, Sam’me and Mey returned with old benches. The woodlice had been at everything, and it was a wonder, when Nat sank on one of the chairs, wrapped in no less than five bearskins, that it groaned and creaked yet did not break.
The mugs of spiced wine were steaming, and the shadows of the fire danced merrily on old Jacques’s (whom the men called Rabbit) furrowed brow. Jayme and the she-bear Rebbekh’dis conversed with the Amazon Génie-Fleur, poring over the old sheepskin scrolls the rangers from Lemyn Tun had provided. Kryzh Brëdli had produced them from a leather-bound notebook he always carried.
‘Tomorrow we must leave at first light and make for the pass of Lychfäll, to scout the ground’ argued Jayme, a gloved hand curled up in a fist, the other holding the pommel of his short sword.
‘The road does not go that high, and even if it did, it would be impassable, no more than a turnpike lane, with deep ruts on either side’ Génie-Fleur shifted her stance, hands spread on the table. ‘It would be wise to send a scouting party first, Dävke, Petyr and I can take the remaining horses.’
At that moment, a bird fluttered to the table, a Tawney with big, inquisitive golden eyes and a small, wrinkled scroll attached to its talons.
‘Little Jon lost in the storms, send help by land. Dead things moving in the night. Reports confused - eyes gleaming in the darkness... Will wait for help three days out of Engl Tun on the north road. By the hand of Big Jon’
Chapter 6 – An old Byrnie
Tenguy Roote went through the camp with steaming bowls of stew in the early hours of the next morning, leather boots crunching over the old, dead snow. The sky was leaden and overcast as the company broke fast, bringing little comfort. Soon, the scouting party left, grey black figures vanishing in the pre-dawn gloom.
Mey and Reyson, loaded the mules in the absence of Petyr, and in single file, they left Grynclaus for Engl Tun, a little stone holdfast half a day’s ride to the west, nestled in a shadowy ravine at the foot of the mountain.
Engl Tun was a dreary village by any account. The dark mass of the Engl Bru brooded over the house tops, obscuring the winter sun and clouds clung to its summits like a rag flapping in the wind. The streets were old, the people, older still, but the heart of the town still harboured a market place, oldest of all, and there, if one knew whom to ask - old Jacques Rabbit knew - one could find items of all kind, dark artefacts of the forgotten old civilisations and whatnot.
Dävke's company had already left by the time the main expeditionary force entered the town, guiding the broad, heavy carts toward the old market, and the crowds had dispersed, deserting the streets. Led by Aleksi, they entered the old 'Byrnie', an inn fallen in disrepute and disrepair. With horses and mules tethered outside, Mey and Rey keeping a look out, the rest filed in the main hall.
Whispers echoed along the soot black rafters, and a thick fog of steam, tobacco smoke and ethylic vapours blurred the surrounding shape. Tenguy went over to the counter, where the barrel-chested inn keep stood, marshalling his legions of barmaids. They spoke in low voices for a while, the chief scout took out an official parchment and the inn keep’s face darkened.
‘That ain't no tender we'll take, young prancing cock. What good are paper promises to me. Aye, show me your gold, if ye have any with your band of fools. And you can shove your parchment in your lieutenant's pimply arse for all I care. Show me your gold I say.'
The murmurs had stopped, like a wasp’s nest, ready for a sudden outburst. But it was Jacques who broke the silence, spitting his black sourleaf.'You'll take gold you say. Fine, have your gold.' He slid a dagger from his belt, and pried open one of the leather pouches of his boots. Flicking the blade up, he sent a shiny coin spinning up and caught it in a gloved hand. 'Maybe that'll do, but for this price, we'll take all your rope, pick axes and ale casks, and don't you come barking for more. A dog knows his place.’
Chapter 7 - Big Jon’s Tale
They set out again as the afternoon wore on, leaving by the western gates under a light snow flurry. The sky had turned milky white and the ruts of the small road filled with a brown slurry. Higher and higher they climbed, leaving the Engl Bru behind them.
They had another raven from maester Yarwys that day, warning of unrest in the capital, anarchist rounded up next to the Citadel, who had claimed to burn down the precinct, and with it the record of all civilisation. Brooding, Jayme Dobbes examined the maps by campfire light. ‘By now, we should have had information concerning this Little Jon who went missing.’
He frowned ‘Here, that river is passing odd’. ‘What do you mean?’ replied Sam’me. Rebbek’hdis had also shuffled up to have a better look.
‘Here’ Jayme said again. ‘It takes its source in the foothills of the Gruguroth, but then it disappears further down. Here in the Lychfäll area. That’s also where Little Jon and his garrison went missing. And no news from Big Jon either.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the… oh! another one. The cause of the startling was a raven, black as coal with dark red eyes. This time, the scroll it carried was much larger, and mottled with dark brown spots. Dried, crusted blood.
‘Beware the silent watchers. Eyes in the dark. Gold, green and red. They attack in groups, or else alone, it depends. Laid waste to entire forests, their hunger knows no bound. Find their queen, and kill her. Twelve men left, last raven. Heading for the Swallows. In dire need of help. By the hand of Big Jon’
‘That settles it then’ said the she-bear, ‘we should join forces with Dävke, strike east and make for the Swallows.
The next morning was bathed in golden sunlight although the grounds remained icy, and it took the best part of an hour to break the carts free from the ruts. Further on, the path rose and wound its way over the bare brow of a line of hills, beyond the wild lands of Lychfäll awaited.
Chapter 8 - The Lost River
The gateway was impressive. A high, drystone wall barred the way across the narrow ravine at the foot of which the advanced party had set up their camp. The only way through, was under a short, but broad tunnel which could easily be barricaded. Runes had been engraved on the archway, that spoke of terrible evil.
‘Some will tell you that no Silent Watcher can go through that arch. I’m not sure I believe it myself’ remarked Jacques Rabbit. ‘The Watchers don’t exist, they’re part of a children’s tale. If they did, would that old wall stop them? Har! And those disappearing rivers… well, the water must go somewhere’.
But even then, they felt a knot in their stomach as they passed under the archway. The horses couldn’t fit, which was a shame, but they took the mules and the cart and followed the winding mountain path, as tall spires of craggy rock rose above them. There was a faint mist rising from the valley floor shrouding them in swirling silver banners, giving the place an ethereal look.
This part of the Pennhein was strangely silent. There was very little wind, and only shrubs grew on the old black rocks, rising from the otherwise ubiquitous spongy moss. This slowed down the progress to a crawl: picking one’s way around fallen boulders where the path disappeared momentarily. Following Jayme’s lead, they passed a narrow ravine and broke into a hidden valley, with the low rumble of stream rising from its depths.
It was a long way down to the river. Some stones rattled above, rock on rock, which startled Génie Fleur. Turning her head, she shouted ‘Cover! COVER! TAKE COVER!’. There was a soft thump, as a boulder the size of a helmet zoomed past the carts, then a sickening crunch as another hit Rey in midriff. Everyone else took cover. Confusion, screams, blood. One of the mules reared, the cart overturned and started down the slope, dragging Jayme with it. Another boulder hit Sam’me square in the face, which exploded in a cloud of bone and flesh.
From the corner of his eye, Dävke thought he could spot a pair of golden lights, and a flash of white fur vanish from the hill side. Silent Watchers.
Jayme had disappeared down the ravine, in a tangle of wood and leather tethers and they did not expect to find him now. Nat and Joss also were nowhere to be found, although Mey spotted one sword buckle hanging from a horny bush. Rey sat in pain for a while, unable to feel his legs, until the She-Bear made an end to his misery. They buried him next to Sam’me under a cairn of stones.
‘To the river’ said Rebekk’hdis. ‘We’re not turning back.’ So, they did, darting quick looks to the sides of the valleys, but they continued unhindered for a while. Then Tenguy stopped and raised an arm, pointing ahead where a wall of rock had appeared, blocking off the entire valley.
‘This is where the river vanishes. And look, the remains of a camp…’. It was as he said, the stream flowed over boulders, seemingly into the ground itself, and on one of the banks, a circle of stones. ‘There’s a message’ he picked up a rolled-up parchment from under one of the rough-hewn seats. ‘From Big Jon, they followed the water’.
Chapter 9 - A Journey in Darkness
Someone had been there already. It was obvious from the sharp metal spikes driven into the rock, the rotten walkways, the old ropes dangling down the passage. Tenguy and Génie Fleur had gone with Dävke, Kryzh and Karela inside the mouth of the cavern, with the intention of finding Big Jon, and if possible Little Jon.
It was drippy and dark, but they’d brought everything they could need. Torches, food, ropes. Each with a tough leather bag strapped to their back, they picked their way along the boulder strewn passage. They soon came to a junction, where steps had been carved, and subsequently worn down, which led high up into the roof of the cavern. Further ahead, the river plunged with a roar ever deeper underground. They stood there for a while, for they did not know which way to go.
Then Khryz hit his face with the meat of his palm. Oh, but we found a map, and some instructions back at Grynclaus. Here I have it.’ He reached for his leather-bound book and took out a leaf. The writings were faint, but from the light of the torch, they managed to make sense of the map. ‘See the path continues alongside the water. We’ll know for sure when we get to the mons.. monn… mon.. ery.
‘Monastery?’ proposed Karela.
‘That’s probably right’ acquiesced Génie Fleur.
They found a hidden staircase, which took them by the side of the waterfall, spiralling down to a deep, dark pool. Karela drew several silver whistles which she gave to each. In case we are separated…
They did not have to follow the water long, and soon, they climbed in a dry gallery, draped in white crystals which glittered in the torch light. Then they reached a pit, and it was apparent that the gallery had collapsed recently, as there was no possible way down.
Tenguy then reached for his bag, uncoiling the rope and feeding it around a rock bollard, he secured it tightly. Génie Fleur then produced a strange, spherical object which she held at arm’s length, with a gloved hand over the torch. It burst into silvery flames and she threw it down the pitch. For a moment, it shone bright as day, and Tenguy shouted back that the rope was long enough.
Then he disappeared, followed by Karela. Génie Fleur, Kryzh Brëdli and Dävke were not far behind. Somehow, they had found the water again, but the map indicated that the way on was again in a high gallery above. Tenguy went scouting ahead, climbing where the carved steps had been worn down. Finally, his voice rang through the cavernous space ‘stay high, crack in the floor, take care’.
When they reached him, they saw that he had another rope out, this time secured around a metal spike that protruded from the wall. In fact, it was the first of many, and at the end, they were faced with an even deeper pitch.
‘I can see the continuation of a gallery over on the far side’ Tenguy said, I’ll try to reach it and help you across:’ he did so, and secured another rope around a wooden beam that spanned the passage. The abyss they had just crossed they could not fathom, but when Karela swung across, she brushed rocks from the walls which fell without meeting any obstacle for a long time.
Before they could continue however shouts echoed from the way they had come. It was Aleksi who appeared on the balcony they had just left, blood trickling on his forehead. ‘We’ve been under attack! The watchers. Jacques, the she-bear, both dead. The rest fighting a brave retreat. I, oh!’ he winced and flinched ‘Yarwys sent another bird too, the citadel in flames, burned down. Rh’zz and his fanatics in charge… cold. I feel… my hands are numb.’
And they watched in horror as his leg twitched, he lost his footing and fell down the abyss, but his sword caught on the rope they’d drawn across the chasm. It snapped and tangling with the fallen man’s limb tensioned again. The subsequent crash of flesh against rock, of bones pulled out of their sockets told them more about the manner of Aleksi’s death than they wished to hear.
Chapter 10 – The Fall
‘They’re all dead’ said Kryzh Brëdli. ‘we’re all dead. We can’t go back across.’
‘We’ll find another way… We have food for days, we’ll share one torch between five and follow the water for now’ said Tenguy.
He took out the last rope and searched for a secure anchor. The darkness seemed to grow more tangible by the minute. At last, he fastened the hempen rope around a rock, and wrapping it above his waist started down.
The walls of the cavern started shaking. Rocks loosened from the walls, falling everywhere, whistling past their ears. Then one hit true and Tenguy was also swallowed by the darkness…
Silent watchers, he thought. Golden eyes gleaming through the darkness. The horned enemy. And then a thousand shrieks that turned into one… ‘BAAAAAHHHHHH’ ‘BAAAAAOOOOH’ ‘BOOOOOOOY!’
He woke up startled. ‘See, I told you that you were not asleep’ said Peter. ‘Breakfast is ready by the way, you’ll need it for today’s cave. We’re all downstairs’.
‘I just had a very strange dream’ said Tanguy. ‘Yes, well better hurry up or we’ll leave without you’. Peter’s frame disappeared from the half-open door, which then closed shut.
The dormitory of the NPC was empty, so Tanguy paddled barefoot to his pile of clothes and put them on, before going downstairs to the common room, which was unreasonably tidy, and yet bustling with activity. Ropes being coiled, maillons greased, while novices piled piping hot food platters on the tray tables.
‘Want some coffee?’ Jennifer stood in the kitchen doorway, mug in hand. ‘It’s the real stuff.’
He was about to accept when it hit him. ‘the real stuff? breakfast already served? Am I still dreaming?
To be continued.