Meanwhile at Thistletoe

Morning came to Thistletoe and the three companions awoke. If their companions spent the night at the Falcon's Rest and left in the morning, they should arrive this evening. The day, therefore, yawned before them like a giant yawning thing.

Marri got up early and breakfasted at Thistletoe before bustling down the street to the glassblower's to see Patty again. She asked the innkeepers to let her companions know where she had gone when they wandered in for their own breakfasts. She had three reasons for going to see the priestess, and she ran over the list in her mind as she walked. One, she hoped that Patty might have thought of something else, something specific that Alistair might have said or done. Two, she was hoping perhaps she might learn something about either herbs or cooking from the priestess, and three, she was hoping for a few more of Patty's wonderful scones. "Of course the scones are probably not very important," she thought with a twinkle in her eye and a shrug, "but it does no harm, and it isn't as if I have any other ideas that may help us find Alistair and oh my, they were excellent! Almost as good as my own!"

With that, she found she had arrived at the door of the glassblower's shop.

Patty greeted her with a smile and invited her in. One of her wishes was gratified quickly with a helping of scones. The second seemed likely, too, as Patty traded cooking secrets with her. It was the third point that dissappointed her, Patty had not come up with anything new concerning Alistair's dissappearance, although she did say that the more she thought about it the odder it seemed. "He arrives, asks questions about things that happend years ago, then dissappears. It does almost seem sinister," she shook her head.

"Yes, yes it does. I'm extremely worried, but I'm not sure what else I can do at the moment."

And although Marri was disappointed, she smiled around a mouthful of scone, and turned her full attention to chatting about the fine points of cooking, as there seemed no reason not to. "You know, I just realized how much I miss being around other cooks! Do you really use a pinch of cinnamon in your tea? I don't know why I've never tried that! I did find *the* most beautiful bright blue herb beside the road not long ago. I always think that if they look good, they *must* taste good, and so I decided to try a bit of it in one of my teas, well..."

"I'm not sure that's always wise, dear," said Patty. "Some of the pretty ones are the most dangerous."

"Oh I always make certain they're not poisonous," Marri hurried to assure her. "But my companions have had to put up with some rather... interesting flavors!"

While Marri chatted with Patty and hoped that something would occur to interest her, Lothar laid low at Hayfoot's, waiting for the others to arrive. Tibbo, for his part, headed over to the Three Poles, where shortly after noon, a cry of "Dopey! It's about time!" Caught his attention. A somewhat leaner than usual halfing was coming through the door. "I couldn't stay away any longer, Wanda my darling. Set me up with something hot to eat and cold to drink."

Tibbiddo plastered a grin on his face and sauntered over to Dopey calling out "And put that on my tab!" before introducing himself.

"Tibbiddo Stoutwaddle here, and I have spent many an hour and spun many a yarn waiting for you, my good sir."

"Truly? And whyfore are you waiting for me?" said Dopey, not refraining from accepting the drink, of course.

"Heard tell that we have a mutual friend," Tibbiddo teased while taking a seat. "Folks here say, speak to Dopey if you want to learn of Alastair's whereabouts," he punctuated with a wink.

"I h'aint seen Alistair in some months now," said Dopey. "No idea where he's off to." A frown crossed his face. "He did leave suddenly, though."

"Aye," said Tibbiddo knowingly, "did he give any clue as to where he was going? I'm a bit worried." Tibbiddo blinked his big brown eyes hoping to play upon Dopey's concern.

"Nooooo," said Dopey. "In fact, it sounded to me like he was planning on staying for a while longer, and then he was gone. Took me a little by surprise."

"So it was," Tibbiddo shook his head. "That doesn't sound like Alastair to do that to a friend, did he seem preoccupied with something? Perhaps he fell upon trouble, 'tho he is not the kind to accrue gambling debts." Tibbiddo did not like the sound of danger, even less so when it struck close to where he was sitting.

"Well, he was looking for something in the woods, but he wouldn't tell me what, exactly. Wanted to know if I'd found any strange holes or pits. Even ones that had been grown over for a while. You know, he was asking the same kinds of things a few years ago, if I recall aright," said Dopey.

Tibbiddo frantically tried to clear his mind, the mention of holes had him thinking of buried treasure. "Holes, you say he said. Had you found any to report? mayhaps he lost something in one, or worse fell in!"

"I found a kind of bowl, shallow, and with only a little bit of growth in it. He thought that was interesting. It was up north of here aways. Maybe twenty five miles, north and a little west," he said.

"Shallow, you say. That doesn't sound like it could hold much treasure, er I mean cause Alastair to become trapped. And he didn't say anything about why he was looking for these holes? The curious thing about holes are you can always make more, strange that he found them fascinating. Was the one you saw dug by tool or by nature itself, and did he head off into that direction?"

"It looked natural, sort of. Not tool dug, but pretty round and shallow, like a plate or a bowl. Alistair thought it was interesting when I showed it to him, that was a day or two before he dissappeared," said Dopey.

Tibbiddo leaned back and steepled his fingers together, "Hmm, a bit too coincidental for me. Perhaps you could be persuaded to show me and my colleagues where this shallow hole is?" Tibbiddo said with a gleam in his eye.

"Sure." He leaned in, "You don't think something has happened to Alistair, do you?"

"I hope not," Tibbiddo said leaning in. Pleased with his extraction of valuable information, Tibbiddo sat back and patted his rounded belly. "So my new friend, how long will you be in town? My friends ought to arrive shortly and we would love to explore these ground to help find Alastair."

"I can wait a few days, at least," said Dopey. "It's nice to come back to the big city after the time in the wilderness."

Lothar, Marri and Tibbo met for dinner at the Hayfoot's and Tibbo told them what he had learned. They were a little surprised that their friends had not arrived, being unaware of the activities at the Falcon's Rest the previous evening.

They had just decided to retire for the evening, when screams split the night. Sounds of fear and terror were coming from the North end of town. Looking out the door, they saw halfings fleeing in their direction in horror and a fire in the distance at the north edge of town. To add to the confused picture, Tibbo noticed that at least one boat seemed to have come loose from its moorings and was drifting into the middle of the river.

Tibbiddo reached for his clothes and quickly got dressed. It was not bravery that drove him, at least he did not think so, but something intrigued him about the fire and the boats. He exited his room and looked about for Lothar and Marri.

By the time the three had come out of the inn, it was clear that the village was under attack. Slow moving shambling creatures were coming down the main street. They were halfling sized in height, but unnaturally thin. Skeletal one might say.

Tibbiddo squinted into the blaze and as soon as he recognized the shambling form he let out a scream that curdled milk and stepped behind Marri. "Th-they've found me!"

Marri wasted no time on Tibbi's ego... or his fear.. Taking a deep breathe, she bellowed out, hoping there was someone calm enough to listen, "Set them on fire! That will stop them! SET THEM ON FIRE!" Then she hurried back into the Inn to try to find a flaming brand so that she could follow her own advice.

Still weary from sleep, Lothar wished that he knew some spell or incantation that would burn these skeletons where they stood. He followed Marri, helping her look for flammable materials.

Tibbiddo, now standing alone, screamed even louder and trotted in place before his feet gained some traction and he set off after his friends.

Tibbo joined his friends inside, since the option was to remain outside with the skeletons. A few moments later they again ventured out into the street, now armed with flaming brands from the Hayfoot hearth.

A group of five skeletons had cornered Lanky and Shorty Fishbarrel in a corner of their boat and the terrified halfling child was teetering on the edge of the boat as his father urged him to jump. Several other groups were milling about the intersection of the main street with the north heading road, and sounds of a fight were coming from the glassblower's home, the home of Patty and Bingo Mossbelly.

Most of the halflings had fled the rest of the village and were milling about in terror at the Three Poles or Hayfoots, but still and wet shapes on the road indicated that not all had made a successful flight and in the back of her mind, Marri realized that more had probably been slaughtered in their beds in the northern reaches of the village.

Overcome with something that could be thought of as courage, Tibbiddo found a group of concerned citizens and followed them toward the docks swinging his brand to fend off whatever creatures threatened his kinsmen.

"Blast!" Marri thought. She noted that Tibbi seemed to off in the direction of the child in danger on the boat. Making a quick decision that she would try to help those who were down, but still might be living later, Marri ran, flaming brand at the ready, toward Patty Mossbelly's, yelling as loudly as she could on the way "SET THEM ON FIRE! BURN THEM! BURN THEM IF YOU CAN!"

Marri burst through the door of the glassblowers to find five skeletons setting on Patty and Bingo. Bingo, although he had armed himself with a stout but hollow iron pipe used for glassblowing was paralyzed by fright in one corner. Patty was holding her staff of office in front of her defensively but firmly.

For a moment, Marri froze in fear seeing five skeletal halflings threatening her new friend. Bingo took heart at the arrival of help and stepped up next to his wife. The couple swung at the skeletons, and Patty cried, "I recognize this one! He is from our village, buried at the hall!" Then she cried in pain as the skeleton in question clubbed her with a jagged piece of wood. That was enough to jar Marri from her shock and she joined the fray. For a moment all was chaos, and then Bingo went down under a flurry of blows.

Their success seemed to confuse the undead and for a moment they stopped and stood or shifted about aimlessly above the ruined body of the glassblower.

Saying a swift prayer that Bingo would find his way swiftly to Esmeralda's Cauldron, Marri grabbed Patty's arm, and tried to drag her away from the skeletons and out of the shop - and, she hoped, harm's way.

Barto Hayfoot, carrying a small shovel as a club, joined Tibbo in rushing toward the boat. They reached it just as Shorty Fishbarrel, with a cry of fear, leapt into the river and began swimming upstream. His father Lanky stood his ground determinedly with a gaff held in his hands. For a moment, both Barto and Tibbo were brought up short by the horror of the scene. Lanky was swinging wildly against the two skeletons who could reach him, but was being overpowered. "Swim son, swim!" he cried.

Tibbo and Barto found their legs and leapt to his aid. The fight swirled around the three for a moment and Tibbo and Barto knocked one down in a jumble of bones, but Lanky was knocked overboard and Barto received a nasty knock in the ribs.

"Are you OK?" asked Tibbiddo swinging so hard he spun completely around. The little halfling tried to back into Barto to offer some protection and reached for something to throw.

Barto coughed, "I'll live." He eyed the four remaining skeletons who were beginning to look about them for new victims since Lanky was in the water, apparently alive and swimming weakly after his son. "I'm ready to leave though."

Tibbiddo tipped a barrel over, realizing that it would not halt the skeleton's progress for long. "Should we swim for it?" he asked reaching for a rock and hurling it at a boney foe.

"I don't like leaving me family," said Barto backing toward Hayfoots where a cluster of braver halflings was being organized by his father and Lothar.

Whatever malign force animate the skeletal halflings seemed to be weakening. A group of five skeletons which were moving erratically near the smithy suddenly stood still, shivered and collapsed. Out of the glassblower's house, Marri and Patty appeared followed a moment later by a skeleton who faltered and collapsed even as it came towards them.

Within minutes, the power animating the remaining skeletons had fled and a horrible silence descended on the village, broken here and there by the cry of the wounded and the wails of the mourners.

Tibbiddo helped Barto back to his family and turned to look for Marri. He called out and soon heard her echo, rushing to her side. "Great fortune smiled upon us, the evil has fled!" he said optimistically amongst the carnage.

Marri had to admire Tibbi's optimism, if not is assessment of the situation. "Many are hurt, some have died" she said, looking around her. "Let's see if there are any who need help! Look about for the living," she said to Tibbi. "And Lothar," she continued as she began her own search, "it might be well to burn anything of those .. things.. that remains."

The skeletons were all halflings, and from the clothing some identifications could be made; it appeared that all had been buried in the cemetary behind Thistletoe Hall, northeast of the village. There were thirty in total, now piled at the crossroads with a fire being built around them under the guidance of Patty Mossbelly who was praying fiercely as she did so.

"What could caused such a thing?" asked Tibbiddo aloud to no one in particular. He scuffed around surveying the horror. As if he was drawn by an invisible wisp of delicious stew he looked off to the northwest. "There," he thrust forth a pudgy digit, "the cemetary, perhaps answers lie there."

Marri looked up and gazed in the direction Tibbi pointed. "Perhaps," she said tiredly, "but our first duty is to the living! We must attend all who need it... You could help a bit more!" she said a bit sharply. "Then, as soon as its light, we would indeed to do well to survey the cemetery! And I would think we'll need to set guards until then," she finished turning back to the wounded halfling she was working on.

The vision of dancing coins and other family heirlooms unearthed in the skeleton's rising quickly disappeared at the halfling's harsh words. Struck silent Tibbiddo looked at Marri and looked down ashamed, muttering "What can I do to help?"

Marri immediately felt sorry for her sharp tone. She knew her companion was easily distracted by dreams of treasure. So her tone was gentle when she replied "The first thing is to make certain we have found all those who need our help. Please check anyone laying on the ground for signs of life. And if they do live, if they seem very seriously wounded -- gushing blood, large wounds -- call me at once! Otherwise, just separate the living from the dead." She paused for a moment and stared at the dejected looking little halfling. "Are you all right Tibbi? Are you hurt?" she asked.

"No, I am fine," the little halfling said looking up and meeting Marri's eyes. "I will start over there," he said pointing off down the street. Tibbiddo ran off in the direction he indicated and began to check on anyone he saw calling out for assistance to be on hand should he find any survivors.

Slowly, the grim business of sorting the living from the dead was accomplished. As dawn began to break, Marri and Patty felt that they had done what could be done. The worst of the injured were in makeshift hospitals near the river, and the dead decently laid out in a few homes of families that would not need them ever again. Fortunately halfling architecture emphasized underground dwellings and so the fire had not spread far and a bucket brigade had extinguished it a few hours after the massacre.

The carnage was awful. The village of Thistletoe, Hayfoot told them, had had a population of two-hundred ("Two-hundred and one," corrected his daughter Goosie, "Millie's baby came last week."). Fifty-two had been killed, most of them in their sleep and from the North end of town. Another thirty-three, including Marri, Patty, Barto, Dopey and Lanky, were wounded. Twenty-two were missing, presumably fled into the woods.

Among the dead were Bingo Mossbelly the glassblower, Dinky Pottlenose the gaffer and Wanda Plumpfanny from the Three Poles who had been visting with young Millie Thickankle whose whole family, husband Bucky, mother-in-law Cheesey and new baby Louella (no nickname yet) had all been massacred.

In the first trickles of the morning light, Marri, Tibbo, Lothar, Patty and Dopey gazed across at each other. Before they could speak, Barto bustled up with a huge tray laden with hot fresh bread, butter and pitchers of small beer. "Dad thought you could use some breakfast." He set down the tray and began to serve, joining them after handing out slices buttered bread to the company.

"I don't think anything has ever tasted this good!" Marri said. "We'll do well to refresh ourselves before following Tibbi's suggestion and examining the graveyard. I think this may be a very long day."

Tibbiddo licked his fingers and drained the last of his beer. "Ahh, so it is!" he said satisfied. The rotund halfling rolled to his left and staggered to his feet, "I do hope our friends are safe, they ought to arrive soon, right Lothar?" he asked optimistically.

Lothar glanced up only briefly from the leather-bound tome he was reading. "Let's hope so, Tibbiddo."

With grace that only a full-bellied halfling could pull off, Tibbiddo bounded over to Lothar and looked over his shoulder. "What are you reading?" he asked squinting at the pages. "Did I ever tell you about the time I assailed the wizard's tower and freed Likar's sword and magical tomes? Marri was there."

Marri simply rolled her eyes and continued to eat steadily. She did perk up her ears however, as she too was a bit curious about what Lothar was reading.

Lothar smiled the smile of one whose peace has been interrupted by a friend. "It's called 'Properties and Elements of the Arts Thaumaturgical' by Aquino." He made a show of displaying the cover to the Halflings. "It's required reading for anyone who wishes to study at any of the Colleges in Altdorf." He paused, looking expectantly at them - evidently he wished to get any other questions out of the way before he resumed his study.

"Colleges in Altdorf?" Marri asked as soon as she'd swallowed the mouthful of food she'd been working on. "You study in Altdorf?" she continued, sounding impressed.

He nods. "I hope to, yes. My uncle is a very important man there, and I hope to gain a place at his college." He smiles, tapping his volume. "Hence the book, you see. Adventuring doesn't leave you much time for studying."

"Aye," piped up Tibbiddo trying to sound knowledgeable. "Although, if you really want to learn it takes a lifetime of discovery outside the towers!" he added with a sniff of arrogance while pulling up his trousers.

"May I inquire who your Uncle might be?" Marri asked.

Lothar nods. "Not at all. My uncle Henrik lectures at the Grey College. Hopefully they accept my application and I can begin studying when the new academic year begins." He turns to Tibbiddo. "And I think you're right. It's all well and good learning from books, but there's something to be said from experience."

"Indeed." Marri responded. Her look of contentment at a stomach newly filled turned into a small frown as she rose from where she was sitting and turned in the direction of the graveyard. "I suppose we must be getting on with it," she said to the rest of the party, nodding toward the graveyard. "Any suggestions as to the best way to proceed? Or simply onward... and see what happens?"

No one having any suggestions, the small party made their way toward Thistletoe Hall. They approached by way of the little used path that connected with the "main" road to the Falcon's Rest. They saw nothing untoward until they came around the hillock and the closed door to the hall and saw the graveyard.

The little cemetary was in dissarray, many of the graves looked as if they had almost exploded open from the inside as their occupants, animated by malign magic, had burst forth. Not all the graves yawned open, but a cluster of about thirty centered about a single point had given up their dead. That number corresponded fairly well with the number of skeletons that had attacked the village, which was at least a little reassuring.

Seeing that things looked pretty quiet, Tibbiddo uneasily inched forward to look at the markers which remained upright. "Does anyone know of these departed souls? anything about why they might have been chosen to attack us?" The halfling crept forward with a keen eye for anything which could be salvaged...for the family, of course.

Marri was saddened to see that these last resting places had been anything but restful. She too looked around keenly... trying to make sure that all was as quiet as it appeared and searching for anything that might show either what had happened, or whether they would continue their apparent safety once the sun set again.

Patty spoke, "Most of these graves are older ones. They are the closest to the Hall. The newer graves are towards that end." A further search of the cemetary area revealed nothing of interest.

Thistletoe Hall seemed the next logical place to look so the little company moved on to it. Although it was closed, it was not locked and upon entering their nostrils were assaulted by a charnel house smell.

Moving carefully, with Tibbo heroically taking up a rear guard, they investigated further. The Hall was empty but there were signs that it had been occupied recently, and from the size of one of the rough beds, one of the occupants had been man sized.

Tibbiddo slid quietly along the surroundings looking for any item that could have been left in haste by this mystery man. Perhaps this was the one responsible for the attack, and perhaps he left behind some identifier (or coin). A few rinds of fruit, a few crumbs of bread and a pervasive stench of death and decay were all that remained.

Marri also looked around carefully, while trying not to breathe in too deeply. Shaking her head, she commented "It is rather a bother that the... person who was staying here," and she pointed to the man sized "bed", "didn't see fit to leave us a note saying 'I am evil, I work for someone or other, and I can be found here.' It certainly would have made this a good deal easier to figure out. We seem to have run out of things to explore, unless someone else has another suggestion?"

No one did, and the companions returned to the village to rest, heal and await the arrival of their friends.

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