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Winnower (The Beast Blade)by Geoff Gander
(special thanks to Jeff Sparks for use of Greenlee in this article)
"Ne'er a Man so foul
Hath a Blade so ill-omened bore,
As the Man who was named the Red Duke,
Praises be that his Realm
Endures no more."
--taken from the Lay of Almarand (c. AC 810)
Winnower is a large two-handed battleaxe, its head adorned with dwarven runes of power. It is very bulky (the wielder must have a Strength of at least 14), with an iron handle and plain leather grip. The axe is always cold to the touch, even if held for prolonged periods.
The great axe known as Winnower (but more commonly called the Beast Blade) was forged for Duke Rudgard of Irum. Ever an ambitious man, he experienced strangely vivid dreams concerning his rulership of the entire Streel Plain and the Five Shires not long after his ascension as duke. Although a reasonably bountiful realm, Irum could not satisfy Rudgard's increasingly lofty dreams, and he began to turn his considerable resources to finding a way to turn his small, but skilled, army into an unstoppable fighting force, which he could then use to conquer the plains.
He consulted the histories of the greatest generals and rulers known to him, but could find nothing to aid him. Rudgard then sought out sages and other learned men, in the hopes that in their own scholastic delvings they might have found the answer he was seeking - but again, no one could help him. The duke even consorted with less savoury persons, seeking aid from dark sources, but to no avail. Finally, there came into his court at Orbandas a dwarf, who did not give his name, but told the duke that he knew of those who could provide the means whereby Irum's armies, and their leader, could be made unstoppable. Fascinated, Rudgard demanded to know where such people could be found, and he was directed to seek out the dwarves of the Hardanger Range.
Losing no time, Rudgard ventured to those grim peaks, accompanied by no one save his son. After many weeks of arduous trekking, the pair located the entrance to a dwarven stronghold. After gaining entry, Rudgard, already half-mad with desire, made his case, imploring the dwarves to aid him, offering them anything that was within his power to give. The dwarves offered him aid in exchange for two things - one of which would be required after the aid was given, the other which would be rendered unto them in due time. Rudgard assented, and the dwarves forged for him a great battleaxe, and enchanted it with great and mysterious ceremonies. Finally, it was presented to the duke, who, upon wielding it for the first time, was overcome with bestial rage and slew his son. As Rudgard gazed in horror at what he had done, the dwarven smiths intoned:
"The first payment has been rendered unto us. A great enchantment has been woven into your Blade, such that it shall gather all men before it, and winnow them as the farmer separates the wheat from the chaff. Verily shall all but the strongest and worthiest be cast aside. As the Blade drinketh deep of the lifeblood of your foemen, so shall you acquire the spirit and strength of the beast."
Maddened with fright, anger, and sadness, Rudgard fled the dwarven hold, and made his long way back to Irum, bearing the axe with him. Upon his return, he proceeded to increase the size of his army, in preparation for his campaign. It soon became apparent that Rudgard was a changed man - for the worse. Whereas beforehand he was seen as rather cold, if fair, he was now cruel. He began arresting anyone whom he suspected of harbouring ill sentiments towards his rule, and having them impaled on his tower - thus earning him the name "the Red Duke". While the peasantry was tied to the land, those with means began fleeing to saner lands, spreading news of what was happening in Irum. Thereafter, rulers in neighbouring realms began to cast anxious eyes towards the duchy, and strengthened their own armies.
Finally, Rudgard decided that he had prepared enough; his armies went on the march in AC 756, towards the end of the Elstrich Wars, to aid the Duchy of Malpheggi in its bid to win the vacant throne of Darokin. Until AC 764, when both Malpheggi and the Duchy of Darokin quit the field due to exhaustion and debt, the Red Duke led his armies through many vicious battles, during which his soldiers were said to fight with incredible bravery and strength, fighting on even after receiving blows that should have killed them. By war's end, Rudgard won some territory, and not a small amount of loot, but his appetite for glory and conquest had only been whetted.
His first conquest was the Duchy of Rondeth, to the north, in AC 765. Rondeth had been weakened by orcish incursions in AC 763, and was still rebuilding its shattered armies. Irum's only potential rival, the Kingdom of Akorros, was still consolidating its gains in Akesoli and Sashenta (due to a bitter campaign waged by rebels on the south shore of Lake Amsorak after the end of the Amsorak War), and so there seemed to be little that would stand in Rudgard's way. Within days, Rudgard's armies had overrun Rondeth, decimating any organised resistance.
The people of Rondeth, who had been independent for almost 100 years, were not so easily defeated. Whenever Irum troops left an area, rebel bands sprung up and attacked supply lines and forts. Furious, and (according to records left by one of his officers) increasingly irrational with rage, Rudgard personally led the destruction of areas in open revolt. Dozens of villages suspected of harbouring rebels were burned, their entire populations slaughtered. Often, Rudgard himself would execute his victims, beheading them with Winnower and placing their heads on stakes. Accounts of that time state that, with each execution, Rudgard became more violent and extreme in his methods, until he slaughtered the livestock and burned the fields owned by those he considered disloyal.
Other realms soon fought Irum, fearing that a similar fate might await them. The Kingdoms of Almarand and Daelbar massed a force to liberate Rondeth, and regain for themselves a buffer state between them and Irum. Bloody battles raged across the breadth of an already ravaged land, until, by AC 780, Rondeth was an empty, desolate land, save for those areas freed by Almarand (and later annexed to it). Battered but unbroken, Rudgard and his armies withdrew, after annexing and fortifying a strip of Rondeth that bordered Irum. An uneasy peace reigned until AC 789, when Irum's armies, seemingly restored to their former strength, marched against the Barony of Nethlinn, which bordered the duchy to the south.
The armies of Nethlinn had watched the destruction of Rondeth, and knew that Rudgard and his armies were utterly ruthless in combat. They had bolstered their own strength as much as they could, and managed to resist for over a year. Duke Rudgard, by now a raving madman in battle (and often outside of it, according to records from those times), ordered the annihilation of everything in his army's path. Thus, Irum's soldiers advanced steadily across Nethlinn, leaving nothing in their wake but burned-out homes and blackened fields. By AC 791, Nethlinn had been utterly destroyed, its capital city of Tethrun razed, with streams of refugees fleeing for the safety of neighbouring realms. Adding to the horror of that time were the accounts of Rudgard's activities; although he was a man of more than 70 years by that time, he continued to fight with unearthly vigour and savagery - in many cases cutting his opponents to pieces with his fearsome battleaxe. It was said in those times that the duke did not only act like a beast; he had truly become one, for his appearance had become brutish, and hideous to behold.
With the Despoiling of Nethlinn, the realms of the Streel Plain knew at last that the Duke of Irum had surpassed mere ambition to become a truly evil force. So long as he lived, Rudgard would threaten the entire region with destruction. So it was that the Duchy of Darokin sought to invade Irum in AC 793, and put an end to Duke Rudgard. The Darokinian Duke, Arundel Marendon, led his armies against Irum, and he fought Rudgard personally at Callenaal. The battle was fierce, but the Darokinians lost many of their strategic positions, and they were forced to retreat to Darokin City with their grievously wounded ruler, pursued closely by Rudgard and his army. Thereafter ensured a brutal siege, during which the armies of Irum overran and sacked the portion of the city west of the Streel. Secure in the eastern half (having destroyed all the bridges), Duke Arundel called upon Almarand and Akorros for aid, offering them peace, and a formal renunciation of territorial ambitions against them. The two kings agreed, and invaded Irum, which was lightly defended.
The Grand Alliance, as it was later named, succeeded in forcing Rudgard to turn his attention back to his own realm. His armies abandoned the siege, burning what was left of western Darokin City in their wake. With enough soldiers massed against Irum, the tide turned slowly against the Red Duke, until the entire duchy was conquered except for the town of Greenlee, in which Rudgard had built a stronghold. During the siege of Greenlee, in AC 795, the fortress was pounded into rubble and then stormed. The victorious alliance founded only a handful of defenders; of Duke Rudgard and Winnower, there was no sign.
Thereafter, the Kingdom of Akorros annexed northwestern Irum and the remnants of Rondeth that it held, while Almarand took some portions of the northeast, and Darokin expanded into some of Irum's eastern hinterlands. The rest of the duchy, seeming to have acquired the taint of its former ruler, remained unclaimed land - along with the desolation that was Nethlinn. The capital, Orbandas, was also abandoned, and still stands today as a sinister, dead city. Today, people know Irum as a fallen, evil land ruled by a man named the Red Duke, who was rumoured to be a demon. Those few who have delved into the history can find references to a fearsome battleaxe wielded by Rudgard, but they will find no clue as to where it might be.
Winnower is a battleaxe +3, with the added nasty feature that it decapitates a struck opponent if the wielder rolls a natural 20. This can be avoided if the victim makes a successful save versus Death Ray, in which case he or she takes double damage. Aside from being an extremely deadly weapon, Winnower also increases the wielder's Strength to 18 (if it is not already that high) as long as it is in their possession, and provides a bonus of +7 to the morale of all NPC followers of the wielder. This latter element explains the tales surrounding the armies of Irum, who seemed to fight on regardless of their injuries - they had become so fanatically loyal to their duke that nothing short of death would have prevented them from behaving like berserkers.
As with many weapons crafted by the reclusive Modrigswerg dwarves, Winnower exacts a heavy price from its wielder. When first handling the weapon, the wielder must wage a battle of wills against the axe (rolling against an EGO of 25), or strike out in a frenzied rage at the nearest person - friend or foe. Even if the wielder wins the initial contest, he or she is inevitably twisted by Winnower's magic: The longer the blade is used, the more bestial the wielder becomes. He or she will become more brutish in appearance (losing 7 points of Charisma, but the NPC morale bonus remains) and outlook (Intelligence and Wisdom drop by 6 points), and take more pleasure in revelling in his or her strength (alignment shifts to Chaotic). This transformation was the "second payment" mentioned by the Modrigswerg to Rudgard.
The evil deeds of Duke Rudgard have provided ample fodder for cautionary tales concerning the perils of greed and excessive ambition - many Darokinian children can recite the story of how the "heroic" Duke Arundel purged the land of the foul Red Duke of Irum. Although many details concerning Rudgard's life have been forgotten, or otherwise glossed over, one of the few constants is that his axe was a truly powerful weapon. Despite the numerous stories concerning the fate of the Red Duke, some determined souls have, over the years, sought out Winnower - to be the person to find and master it. None have succeeded thus far.
If they spend any reasonable amount of time in Darokin, the PCs have a good chance of hearing about the Red Duke and his powerful battleaxe - either from a great ballad sung by a bard, or perhaps heard on the street from common folk. Tales of Winnower may inspire PC fighters to seek it out, if only for an excuse to visit the ruins of Orbandas, or to wander the still largely empty countryside that was once Irum, in search of other treasures. It is also possible that another person - perhaps someone of evil intent or excessive ambition - is seeking Winnower, and is on the verge of finding it. The PCs' patron might know about this development, and instruct them to seek out the weapon and its erstwhile owner.