Thieves & Kings
“If you do not become part of Echo Wood and live with it, Echo Wood will destroy you and everything you hold dear.”
Thornkeep lies on the eastern edge of the Echo Wood, an ancient and mysterious forest that is located near the eastern boundary of the Principality of Shem. This large woodland divides the sinister lands of the Barony of Waterthorn from the farmlands and river valleys of the Grandwood. The forest is relatively unexplored, and there is no community that is more than a long day’s march from the Echo Wood’s western edge. Yet over the centuries countless travellers, explorers, work parties, and the occasional newly-founded settlement have vanished into the Echo Wood’s silent green depths, whether their intent was to uncover long-forgotten treasure, explore perilous ruins, or bring back trophies from deadly monsters, or win their own personal glory from within this eldritch forest.
The terrain of Echo Wood is rugged and broken. The gentle Justice Hills along the eastern edge of the Ambarin River valley grow increasingly steeper and less forgiving as one travels deeper and deeper towards the higher plateaus of the deeper Grandwood to the north in the Hinterlands. The Echo Wood, one of the higher elevations of the Grandwood, isn’t boggy like the forests that follow along the meandering Ambarin River valley. At its center lies Silvershadow Lake, a site that is the source of most of the forest’s brooks and streams. Many small streams trickle through deep, narrow ravines, winding their way south to the Aglothani or north-east through the Brass Woods and on into the Iber Bight. In fact, most foresters familiar with the woodlands know the surest way to reorient yourself is to find a stream, see which way it flows and follow it.
The Echo Wood takes its name from the unusual clarity and confusing behavior of sounds beneath the heavy canopy. Most assume it has something to do with the hilly terrain or the types of trees and the ground cover, but the answer is far more fantastic; some small fey magics remain within the trees of the forest themselves, and while not as strong as when the Sindarin held sway under its bows, it’s a reminder to intruders that this is not their realm.
The ancient magic lingering in the Echo Wood disorients and confuses those unused to the forest’s ways. Travellers and inexperienced loggers often report hazy mirages, strange thrumming noises, and winding paths that change from one visit to the next. Those familiar with the secrets of Echo Wood soon become used to the oddly warped fey weave across the woods, however popular folklore hints that those who stay in its depths for too long might become a part of the haunted woods themselves.
Characters and creatures new to the Echo Wood take a -2 penalty on Wisdom (Survival) checks to avoid becoming lost, and a -2 penalty to Perception checks. After a month of acclimation, creatures become used to the forest’s treacherous influence, and these penalties no longer apply.
The Echo Wood is a temperate mixed forest. Most of its trees are deciduous hardwoods of various types, including ash, beech, black oak, cherry, holly, maple, poplar, red oak, and yew. A number of conifers, such as firs, red pines, and white pines, can be found there as well, especially on the north-facing slopes and in the drier, higher ridges.
Groves of mighty, silver-barked Paueliel trees can be found scattered throughout the eastern fringes of the Echo Wood, which are wilder and less traveled than the western eaves of the forest. Pauelials are silver-barked softwoods that grow enormously tall. Despite this height, they remain remarkably thin, never more than a few feet in diameter. They are known as the “first trees” by most loremasters of the world, and are almost religiously avoided by lumberjacks and hunters alike. There are many examples of dryads living in pauelial trees, and reports of forest drakes, also known as tatzlwyrms, nesting high among the upper branches. On the rare occasions of a pauelial being harvested and brought to market, it is known to be harder than darkwood, and has a market value of 150% the price of oak.
Furry-Oak is a benign and valuable tree. Related to white oak, the furry oak with its round-lobed leaves, deep red throughout the summer, have a quarter-inch of soft fur on the underside. Beds of furry-oak leaves are warm and comforting, and their acorns are round and large, as big as plums, their caps growing fur as well. They ripen in late autumn, with squirrels and woodsmen all scrambling to gather their harvest each year. Wolfmanes, normally quiet and reclusive, frequently send sorties out to gather these nuts, which are sweet enough to eat raw, but are often baked into breads and dumplings, where their flavour becomes rich and creamy. Gathered and stored dry, they have excellent food value and can last indefinitely.
The Chap-Beech, though at first glance a beautiful plant, is considered by most to be a haunted tree. Its bark gleams an unearthly white, particularly under the phases of a new moon. Its papery leaves grow so close together, that the slightest breeze causes a chain reaction of endless hissing, produced by leaves rubbing against nearby leaves. Mid-summer, chap-beechnuts tumble to the ground. Numerous and nutritious, they mature in spiky seedpods, and when touched by bare skin exude a stinging venom which can cause rashes and mild paralysis. To counter this defense, the nuts are shoveled into buckets and then roasted over flames in iron kettles, where the stinging husks break open, and the nuts can be easily extracted.
The most abundant of the broadleaf evergreens growing in Echo Wood is the Grape-Leaf Magnolia. Its bark is soft and pitted, its growing shape slender but not as tall as the oak or the beech. It does not compete with these other trees, rather forming groves within unclaimed pockets of the forest. Its leaves grow dark green and leathery, almost like holly leaves, only five times the size. Its flowers open in summer with great blood-red petals, blooms hanging down. At the peak of their blooming – throughout Flamos – the groves are almost unapproachable, so swarming with wild bees of the forest. Honey made from these trees is colored deep-red, and is not only sweet and nutritious, but can be made into a honey-mead that the tribes of the forest drink at their most solemn of ceremonies.
Perhaps the rarest of trees is known as Thrumwood, which appears to be a type of ash, oak or yew tree to the common forester, they have the ability to absorb sounds and release them again after a short period of time. Careful planting of these trees allowed for rapid transmission of messages and sounds over long distances without any actual travel. These ancient “message paths” have long since been forgotten by most, but exist among the oldest (often immortal) denizens of the fey woodlands. These trees make things just a little bit harder to find your way through, and a little more confusing trying to track, and are the reason for the forest’s name, Echo Wood. Thrumwood is rumored to provide good material for making musical instruments.
Because of the hilly landscape, the forest understory is quite thick in places. Dense thickets of laurel, rhododendron, witch hazel, and numerous briars and berries choke the steeper hillsides and ravines. Patches of nettleweed are common, as are the infamous briars known as “goblin-brambles”. Goblin Brambles grow tall and dense like a hedge of lilacs, with blossoms of rose, burgundy, and pure white clustering together over almost every inch of these trees as they bloom, from early Larane through late Savor. As beautiful as they are, the blooming flowers hide sharp needle-like thorns, easily puncturing any unprotected flesh that tries to part them. Growing swiftly and malevolently strangling larger plants of greater age, they are often viewed as one more of the eldritch spells left by the elves to protect their homes and their secrets.
Many rocks and forest slopes seem carpeted in a thick and seemingly restful moss called the Lichen Gloriosa, also known in elvish as Loth-nu-Fuin (Elvish : “Flowers-Under-the Night”). Growing out of rocks and stumps, these large beds of moss have clusters of coral-like sponges of orange and green that literally glow with life. In moonlight, they glow and sway, but are becoming more and more rare, as human woodsmen have discovered their rare and salty taste. The sponges are known, when fresh, to provide a wonderful edge to blades, capable of cutting through stone. Gloriosa must be used immediately upon discovery, however, since the magical abilities of the plant do not survive more than a few minutes once gathered.
The forest’s wildlife is quite diverse as well. Ordinary animals such as deer, beavers, charcoal-grey squirrels, hares, sables, otters, foxes, gray wolves, and black bears are quite common; boars, elk and panthers are somewhat rarer. Large birds such as owls, hawks, ravens, and woodpeckers are also found throughout the forest, but smaller songbirds tend to be scarce, lending an eerie, haunting silence to the whole place, interrupted by the chatter of some small creature, or the sudden takeoff of a murder of ravens.
The more monstrous denizens of the forest include dire boars, dire wolves, owlbears, and of course, giant spiders. Travellers sometimes encounter an occasional forest drake or medusa in the darker recesses of the forest, or even the dread green dragon, Thelsterex “Jaderazor”, but such monsters remain thankfully rare. Nevertheless, Echo Wood is a very dangerous place for the unprepared to visit.
The Echo Wood has a notorious reputation for having a large population of spiders, ranging from the tiny Bramble Spiders (named for their thorny carapaces) to the massive Moon Spiders, which are pallid, round-bellied horrors that can capture prey as large as an elk – and sometimes the occasional woodsman – in their sticky tree-to-tree ground-lying webs. They live in “clutches” of spiders, and can quickly overwhelm unwary prey. The moon spiders have slowly begun migrating from their former home among the south-eastern marshlands, and can be found all throughout the southern and eastern eaves of the forest.
The other monstrous spider, mostly dwelling in the northern parts of the woods, is a true hunter, spinning no webs to catch prey, but rather making dens underground and hunting prey through the forests like a wolf. Suitably called the Wolf Spider, they have always dwelt in the forests, but are thankfully usually solo hunters, and don’t expand as quickly as the moon spiders, who produce clutches of eggs every month or so. The sudden leap of a horse-sized wolf spider from a hidden den beneath a comfortable-looking tree, however, is just as deadly.
In recent years, the old legends of cruel dragons coming from the depths of the forests have been proven partially true. Forest Wyrms, with their whip-like tails and poisonous maw have been sighted in the depths by wood-cutters and rangers alike. These reports have root in the more southerly portions of the forest, and their appearance combined with the increase in spiders, is seen by many as a sign of great doom rising from the region.
Wolfmane Clan Barbarians
Anciently, the Noraldai clan held sway in the region, but most of this clan has since moved to join their kin west in the distant elven haven of Imladris. Today, abandoned outposts of this clan lie scattered in remote eastern portions of the woods, known as Marta’Tauri, and the elves themselves are rarely, if ever, seen.
In addition to potentially dangerous game, the Echo Wood is home to numerous monsters, bandits, marauding barbarian tribes, and tribes of evil humanoids. Kobolds, ogres, and even a few trolls make their lairs in the caves and ruins of the forest, and several prominent goblin tribes have attempted to restore the lost Kingdom of Zog in the scattered towers and forts and caves throughout the woods. Typically ruled by a force of more powerful bugbears, they invariably gain the attention of mercenaries before falling to their blades.
Known goblin tribes include the Brambleclaws, the Bonedancers, and the Ripping Chains. The Skull-Bashers are a particularly aggressive band of ogres who dwell somewhere north-west of Thornkeep, that have recently begun a spree of raids against isolated farms near that town, and west into the Ambarin Vale.
The Wolfmane tribes take steps to protect their villages and sacred grounds, driving off dangerous monsters or aggressive raiders who venture too close. Likewise, the local Ranger’s Guild and the Baron of Thornkeep’s guards make an effort to watch the forest within a mile or two of town. However, the great majority of the Echo Wood is neither patrolled nor actively protected. Travellers and explorers heading into the forest talk their own lives into their own hands.