The Ironroot Deception

by Robin D. Laws

Chapter One: The Snare

Gad feels the roughness of the burr-oak's bark as its branch constricts tighter around his ankles. Though he is upside down, blood rushing to his head, his face retains its symmetry. A roguish skiff of stubble softens his jutting jaw. Gray-peppered hair clings closely to his scalp. Blue eyes sear out at his elven captor.

The tree that dangles him stands at the edge of the Shudderwood. Its roots snake through a weed-choked pathway. A gang of firs bullies around it, swaying and trembling to spite the windless air. The dry earth writhes with insect life; biting ants and fat white grubs pulse to the demon harmonics of the nearby Worldwound.

The elf woman steps around him, squinting. From every angle, she assesses the tautness of his muscles and the straightness of his bones. The tree reverently moves its suspended prize, allowing her to circuit him easily. Her hair is an autumn tangle, recalling the sprigs and leaves of a grapevine after harvest has come and gone. The face is an arrangement of hardened planes: beautiful in theory, unyielding in practice. Her war-garb is worn in, well kept. Slung across her back are a long sword and an ornate, spiraled wand. A curved dagger accentuates a narrow hip.

"There are few situations that Gad can't talk himself out of. This appears to be one of them."

Behind thin, drawn lips, she clucks her tongue. "Among your fellow humans, you are reckoned handsome."

Gad smiles. "I look my best right side up."

She does not return the smile. "You will serve," she says.

"Will I now?"

With a curt turn of the head, she gestures to her retinue, gathered near a camouflaged ambush-screen on the treeline's edge. There are six of them: all elves, all strikingly equipped, all poised with martial confidence.

Gad's weapons—short sword, main dagger, hidden back dagger, visible right boot knife, concealed left boot knife—have all been plucked from him and lie in a mocking pile near a clump of dying milkweed.

"And who might I be serving?"

"My name is none of your affair."

"Maybe I like serving."

Elven features freeze. "Do libidinous undertones aid you with your fellows?"

Gad finds it hard to shrug. "A gentleman never tells."

"You do yourself no favors by provoking my disgust."

Again the urge to shrug. Gad resists. "You wouldn't be press-ganging me, would you?"

"Humans have forgotten their purpose on this world."

"Have we now?"

"You were born to brute labor. And you shall perform it."

"I don't work cheap."

She signals her men. The tallest, most sinewy specimen, glossy black hair trailing behind him as he strides, leads the pack. Wrist shackles clatter in his compact fist. He lowers his head as he approaches. "Lady Dualal."

"Good Ethundel," she says, "prepare the labor for transport."

Nothing about Ethundel looks good to Gad.

Dualal turns to the tree trunk and utters a command in archaic Elven. Its encircling branch loosens, releasing Gad's ankles. Two members of the retinue stand below. They catch him, saving him from a neck-breaking. Holding him tight, they wrestle him to his feet. Ethundel claps the shackles on him.

"I renew my objections to this wrongful treatment," Gad says.

Ethundel smacks the back of the head.

A faraway expression settles on Dualal. "If it is matters of justice that concern you, wanderer, your indenture furthers the most righteous of causes."

A white-blond elf grabs Gad by the right arm; an amber-blond elf by the left. They march him onto a deer trail leading into the woods.

"Care to specify?" Gad asks.

"Reclamation," Ethundel booms.

Gad ignores him, continuing to address the woman. "Oh, so you're one of those elves."

"Impertinence will be harshly dealt with." Dualal glides forward, to the middle of the marching order.

In the wood ahead, branches grow twisted and tangled. Keening cicadas assault the ears.

"Haven't you Reclaimers been plotting this for nine thousand years?" Gad braces for another hit but neither of his escorts seems interested in breaking stride. Ethundel, who struck him before, has moved up to take point. With no one to clout him, Gad continues: "Ridding Golarion of humankind—and dwarves and orcs and the rest—and taking it back? That's the dream, isn't it?"

"You are surprisingly versed in my race's lore," says Dualal.

"Isn't that a misleading way to put it?"

"What nonsense do you spout?"

"Don't most elves regard the idea of reclamation as lunacy?"

She whirls to face him. His escorts freeze, shying back from her. Gad stays cool.

Dualal sees this. She calms herself. A false, chill smile comes reluctantly to her lips. When she speaks, it is more to her men than to Gad. "It has never been the time to reassert our ownership of this profaned and polluted world."

"Until now?"

She gives him her back, resuming her regal mien.

"Have you considered, Dualal," he says, "that it's quite the coincidence?"

"What is?"

"That after all the other Reclaimers have failed and been proven wrong, century after century, that the great turning happens to dawn during your particular lifetime?"

"But it will!" blurts his amber-haired captor. "The gem!"

The elf's pallid skin turns whiter still, as he realizes he's stuck his foot in it. He flinches.

"Put a gag in that idiot's mouth," Dualal commands.

Gad protests and resists as blond elf and amber elf stuff a mildewy rag between his teeth. Inside, he is smiling. When an adversary thinks him an idiot, half of his work is already done.

∗ ∗ ∗

The Reclaimers drag him deeper into the forest. Gad is easier in a city than a wilderness, and this one is worse than most. Clouds of bloodthirsty bugs roll in like morning fog. A caustic oil drips from the leaves of certain trees. Unearthly murmurs, mimicking the groans of the tortured souls, rise from rills and meadows. Life is too strong in the Shudderwood. So strong that it is also death, a rancid cycle of birth and devouring.

A day and a night pass. They camp briefly, giving Gad four hours of sleep at best. The elves, rotating watches, get less. They feed him dry acorn-flower biscuits and a handful of crab apples. His head swims. When he slows, they prod him with scabbarded swords.

The biting bugs are worse the second day. With wrists in irons, he can barely swat them. His skin becomes a landscape of reddened, scabby bumps. Paying little heed to the elves' legendary harmony with nature, the insects feast on them, too. They spare only Dualal and Ethundel, who must benefit from some salve or charm. If he weren't gagged, Gad might work the lackeys, making hay of the gap in privilege between leader and led. With his mouth tied shut it's all moot.

He thinks they've edged back to the border of the haunted woodlands again, but can no longer be sure. When they're stopped for a short break by the side of a glassy stream, the conversation of another party drifts by. With silent efficiency, the Reclaimers grab Gad, fading behind a low ridge of mossy stone. The musicality of the overheard words is unmistakably elven. Clearly, the Reclaimers expect the local sharp-ears to treat them as interlopers. Gad waits for a chance to make the move he's been planning, but the opening never comes. His captors wait until the voices recede, then continue on.

A few hours later they hunker down again. Blond and amber stay by his side; the rest slip off through the firs. Gad mimes a request to get the gag off. They refuse him. He listens in with his barely passable Elven as they ponder which regions of the world they'll claim when Dualal rules the world.

They're arguing over the island of Absalom when the rest of the group tramps into view, dragging a new prisoner. The fresh unfortunate is male, human, young, and scrawny. A wiggle of drying blood runs from his scalp into a matted sideburn.

Gad seizes the moment of distraction. He bolts up, clouting the amber elf's temple with the edge of his shackles. Dodging slippery rocks, he bursts into the forest depths. Elven curses ring through gnarled pines. Uneven terrain adds effort to his flight. Gad's heart hammers; he gasps for breath. He stops to ease the gag from his mouth.

From nowhere, Ethundel is upon him. A fist catches Gad in the throat.

"Thought these woods would protect you, against an elf?"

Gad whirls back. He crashes into a tree. Pain throbs through his shoulder and down his side. He tries a double-handed swipe. The black-haired elf leaps gracefully back. With Gad off balance, he barrels in and kicks Gad's feet out from under him. Gad goes down, falling onto a rotting log. Ethundel aims a series of savage kicks at his legs. Gad holds up his bound hands. Sadism spasms across the elf's face. He grabs Gad by the back of the skull and crushes his face into the log.

"I give!" Gad cries.

"Now you supplicate? After mocking and profaning our mistress?" Ethundel punches Gad in the neck and steps back to draw his sword. "I don't care how well you haul a rock. It is unfortunate that in my attempt to subdue you, I was forced to draw steel, and underestimated the strength of my blow." He raises the blade.

"Ethundel! Stay your sword!"

The black-maned elf is not the only one who can move through a woods at a preternatural pace. Dualal stands a dozen yards off. She looks down on the scene from a leaf-strewn slope.

"Milady," Ethundel stammers.

Fir needles crunch underfoot as she draws nearer. "Your ardor is understandable. Humans are insufferable. This one more than most. They are also, in these woods, a scarce commodity. He who kills his thrall destroys his own property."

Ethundel visibly swallows. "Yes milady."

"We have two now. These will replace those we exhausted. Let us go now to the Ironroot, and resume the dig. When he has served his purpose, he is yours, to treat as whim decrees."

Ethundel dips his head and sheathes his sword.

At Gad's side now, she reaches down to grab the gag, still around his neck, and pull it up into his mouth. "And you. Do not count on a second reprieve."

Ethundel hauls him back to the others. The amber-haired elf greets him with a sullen stare. Before long, they are back on the trail. The new prisoner hasn't been gagged, but is too frightened to attempt a conversation.

Scrapes and contusions from Ethundel's beating gnaw at Gad as the elves push him on. He mimes his need for water. They let him linger for a while before slaking his thirst. They slog on past dusk.

The party is in a clearing when a thunder of breaking branches rises from a dense throng of pines. Tree trunks crack and topple. A throaty roar reverberates.

A creature leaps into the clearing, a wake of shattered wood fragments billowing behind it. Gad has never seen its like. It is a ball of quills and claws and fangs, ten feet high and as many wide. Its legs are pillars of muscle. As much as it seems like some unknown animal, it is also like a plant, festooned with vines and sprouting leaves.

It bounds, snarling and frothing, toward the elves and their prisoners.

Coming Next Week: Hard labor and quick thinking in Chapter Two of "The Ironroot Deception"!

Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Worldwound Gambit—also starring Gad—and six other novels, as well as various short stories, web serials, and comic books, plus a long list of roleplaying game products. His novels include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and the Angelika Fleischer series for the Black Library. Robin created the classic RPG Feng Shui and such recent titles as Mutant City Blues, Skulduggery, and the newly redesigned HeroQuest 2. His previous fiction for the Pathfinder campaign setting includes “Plague of Light” in the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.

Art by Eric Belisle.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Eric Belisle The Ironroot Deception Pathfinder Tales Robin D. Laws Web Fiction


More, please.
Whaddya mean, 'Next week'- ?
Oh, pooh.


Dark Archive

Get out, you wrote Feng Shui? Didn't make the connection at first. Kudos, my good man, kudos. Not my favorite game, but definitely the most memorable. Love it.

Not the hugest fan of the present tense perspective in ID and WG, but I have to admit it's done pretty well. Another applause to you, good sir.

Scarab Sages

Matthew Winn wrote:

Get out, you wrote Feng Shui? Didn't make the connection at first. Kudos, my good man, kudos. Not my favorite game, but definitely the most memorable. Love it.

Not the hugest fan of the present tense perspective in ID and WG, but I have to admit it's done pretty well. Another applause to you, good sir.

Robin Laws has done a lot more than Feng Shui over the years. He's easily one of the most innovative designers in the RPG field. If you haven't checked out his larger body of work, trying Googling him sometime. He has a real treasure trove of work published over the last couple decades.

On a side note, Gad's picture is not as 'Clooney-esque' as I would've imagined.

Shadow Lodge Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8

I'm kind of sad we didn't get a Design blog today. :(

PFS Monday got pushed to Tuesday thanks to the holiday, so I was hoping they'd push the whole week back a day and do a Design Tuesday blog today (Fiction tomorrow, Golarion Friday), but instead they seem to have skipped the Tuesday blog altogether.

Maybe, if they have the time, they could replace Wallpaper Friday with a Design blog? (Or combine the two, giving us a Wallpaper that fits the them of whatever the Design blog is about?)

Of course, no disrespect meant toward Robin Laws or the new fiction.

Shadow Lodge

Is this supposed to be on the blog? Fiction tab makes tab, not as much.

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
weirmonken wrote:
On a side note, Gad's picture is not as 'Clooney-esque' as I would've imagined.

I reckon he looks a lot like Kevin Sorbo...

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