Let's Get It Strahded

Excerpts from the Testamentary Epistles

A Letter of Nolmear Dannendal

[Ed: The following letter, HGC Ltr. 18, was written to a young student of the Rindiarwain Circle of the Forest of the Children. It goes on at length about matters pertaining to the craft of this circle of druids. The selections pertinent to our study of the Downfall of Strahd, rather than the bric-a-brac of Elvish druidic arts, picks up in this excerpt, beginning at manuscript line 234]

…Now my tale turns to strange things. Young Aristar, I would have you know that what small learning you may find in these letters is dependent on what follows, and all meager gifts I have given you prior to the present moment are dependent on the things that follow. What now seems an age ago, I met a young boy in an attic. The writing of this memoir is entirely to his credit; I was young and wild, and relatively unlettered when I met him. But I have pondered that meeting in the intervening years, and what those with wisdom or a desire to gain wisdom might learn from it.

He showed me that it was more important that I thought to sow in writing the seeds of renewal in spirit and heart, for he had been so badly served by a library full to bursting with knowledge but woefully bereft of wisdom. He is, in short, the reason why I strove to put in writing things that younger ones might find illustrative, unvarnished gems which they might polish to the brighter sheen of inner beauty.

As I wrote in my last missive, with hopes that you might maintain a clear head when emergency threatens, and at the same time stand for something more than personal gain, I was in the cells of a particularly difficult Burgomaster. It was not difficult to escape, I found – you have, I assume, mastered the arts of transforming into all manner of beasts by now, and in this case a simple spider was more than capable of slipping my mundane bonds. I needed to find my urn, though, and so while prudence might have dictated I move directly for a window, it was necessary to find those things which had been seized at the onset of my imprisonment.

I moved stealthily around the manor, details which need not concern this telling save for a single strange room, sparsely but carefully furnished, adorned with dolls of the lady Ireena which I have mentioned in previous entries in this epistolary series. Perhaps at a later date I will tell you what these dolls augured.

Eventually I found myself in a small attic above the master bedroom, where my precious urn and other gear had been stowed away for safekeeping. As I fastened the last straps of my leather, a bright flash of purple light emanated from around a nearby doorframe, as did a burst of arcane (if inept) mutterings.

My next act may seem impulsive to you, Aristar, and certainly in some sense it was, for I was myself Aristar at the time. But understand: the voice I heard was young. It came from a space adjoining what appeared to be a deserted attic room. My guess, proven false as you shall soon find, was that I had stumbled across some young servant dabbling in magic, and that any attempt of whoever was in the other room to turn me over to the Burgomaster could be countered with my own reminder that the Burgomaster might not like whatever thaumaturgic abhorrences were being conjured just above and slightly east of his marriage bed.

Though my assumption was sound, I was not prepared for what I saw. A boy in his pre-adolescence, holding a sorcerous volume in his hands, sigils scrawled about his feet, strange dolls near him like those I had seen of Ireena, though these not bearing her likeness.

But most strange were the cats.

If you are properly following your studies, you have cut into many a creature by now to observe its interior life, to gain knowledge both scientistical and spiritual about the motion of blood in vessels and the skeins of nerves that rest along the muscle. You no doubt have experienced bones as a hindrance to your scalpel as you seek to carve out and conquer the knowledge that the once-living body, laid bare in such a bloody nakedness, can provide. But bones are more than obstacles, dear Aristar.

Bones serve are a cage, and cage in two senses. Though the cage from which I had escaped was intended to contain me, so too do some cages, such as the kennels of hunting dogs, serve a protective function. The bones beneath our skin serve both these functions: they contain our vital organs and essences, preserving them so that the stomach does not rest in the legs, or the heart migrate to the bowel. Yet at the same time they provide protection, so that it takes more than a slight blow to disrupt the liver or set the lungs to gasping.

And on top of this cage, one builds the structure, like beams in a roof, like the latticework patterns that create the curves of a reed basket or the cross-stitched threads in a tapestry, upon bones is the musculature built, on bones are laid the tendons and cords that bind strength to movement and give meaning to the skin laid atop all the marvel that is the body. The bones are more at the heart of our life, lives of action, than heart, for a heart without bones is an affectless vessel unable to change or intend the world differently. One such muscle, one of the few which sees the starlight without a blade piercing the skin, is the tongue.

But we were speaking of cats. The cats in this room believed they were cats, and had the mannerisms of cats. Mannerisms such as the tongue. Observe your housecat. Observe how it grooms itself, using its rasping tongue to smooth and dislodge burrs and hindrances in the fur. The cats in this room did much the same, for to themselves they were but cats, and cleaning a matter of instinct more than a matter of strict cleanliness. Yet to my eyes these cats were not cats, but merely their own bony cages. And so lacking a tongue, their bony heads grasped at their sides, where fur might be, mindless instincts in their heads compelling them to clean what fur and flesh had been lost to them.

I speak in riddles perhaps, so I will be clear: yes, dear Aristar, these cats were alive, yet only their skeletons remained.

They fled from the opening of the door, like cats, but not so quickly that I did not see them for what they were, and record the memory forever. Looking at this boy with this volume in his hand, I did not see him then for what he was. But my reflection at the end of a long life tells me plain. He was the one who lacked the knowledge to take these cats from their dead state to a state of real life. He was the one who could only instill in them a half-life in which they were so mutely ignorant that they still did not know they were dead. In short, his knowledge of craft, speedily arrived at and approached without care of those around them, was much like these cats: ignorant, and mostly dead, but living enough to bite.

We spoke for a time. He was attempting to use what power he’d learned from the books in his father’s library – for his father was the Burgomaster, and had given endorsement to these arcane explorations of his son – to escape Barovia. I cannot blame him. I, too, sought escape from Barovia. It was a dreadful place. But as we spoke I realized that he had wounded servants in his quest, attempting to use them to power his dreadful, inexpert chalk circle, a circle far beyond the power wielded by wizards of advanced seniority let alone fledgling children. The cats had been raised as afterthoughts, likely after he sacrificed them to his lunatic quest.

The child attempted, in fact, to use me in the circle. He learned of some of the tricks I could do with flames and sparks and the weather, and thought my magic would power his device. I was able to hoodwink him somewhat with a small crystal orb I had obtained from the haunted manor, but when that failed he became irate and banished me from his sight. The full details of our encounter are not concerning here, save that I did escape the manor that night as a small spider, hid in a bush to recover my strength, and managed to guide the Burgomaster’s dogs away from my refuge with the faintest breath of wind and a single thrown Goodberry. But these are things of history, of knowledge. We search instead for wisdom.

Be wary, as you study, to grow in wisdom faster than you grow in strength. This child had intelligence, cunning. He had read of magic arts in books, and learned enough of the words to do damage. But he had no sense of what it meant to be alive. His power was skeletal, it lacked bones and it lacked blood and it lacked the muscles to effect more than a mewling tantrum. But it was enough to shatter a crystal globe laid in a magic circle, and it would have shattered me but for that useless bauble in my pack.

I have written long, Aristar, and you will have to wait for my next chronicle at another date. I shall send you the letter as quickly as I can compose it, which, as you know, can take some time. Suffice to say that the next story will begin with me at the camp of the Vistani, were I awaited word from the friends I had sought to contact by means of an animal messenger. And perhaps there is a lesson there too – a lesson of how to render aid to a people who have shown you hospitality, so as not to stretch their generosity too much. But again, another time. There are only so many lessons a heart can obtain in one letter.

I remain, as ever, your Tura,

Dannendal, Nolmear of Cuaryë

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