[WiC] Iron Keep of the Barrow King

Defeat the Barrow King and free his child slaves in this adventure from guest blogger Kevin Reid-Rice.

Throughout the lands children everywhere know that if you are good that on the morn after Mid-Winter that the Green Man will bring you presents in celebration of his rebirth and the coming of spring.  They also know that bad children and naughty children are brought coal by the Barrow King, a reminder to be good Or Else! But they have forgotten what the or else is. They leave offerings of sweets and liquor to placate the Barrow King, but it is all in good fun, and everyone knows that father eats the sweets and drinks the liquor, the threat they seek to ward long forgotten.  In the far North, the children (and their parents) have not forgotten. In fact they practice sacrifices to keep the Barrow King at bay. The closer one gets to the Ice Wall Mountains, beyond which the Barrow King’s Iron Keep is said to reside, the more grim those sacrifices become.

In the towns and villages closest to the mountains there are frozen iron cages set at the northern edge of the steading.  They tell outsiders that they are for criminals, but their use is much darker.  On Mid-Winter’s Eve when the night is darkest, a child chosen by lots is placed in the cage.  The living child is well bundled against the cold and given rations for a long journey.  When the villagers return in the morning that child is gone, replaced with the frozen corpse of a young man or woman dead of hard labor in poor conditions, coal stained and reeking of smoke.  Rarely, a living child is returned raving mad and gaunt. This is almost worse than the corpses.

No one knows exactly how the children are gathered in a single night. Those who try to spy on the sacrifice are found dead the next morning, usually riddled with icicles. However there are always tracks from a great sledge with rusty iron runners and pulled by, and the Rangers swear by these tracks, eight human skeletons. The Rangers also claim that the child is carried to the sledge by two of the skeletons.
Should a steading fail to make a sacrifice, their neighbors will find them in the spring, all the adults killed and the children taken. A lump of coal is left in the mouth of each of the dead, a reminder of the grim dominion of the Barrow King. 

The Barrow King
In ancient days the Kings of the North ruled with an iron fist and had all the greatest treasures brought to them.  One of these Kings had an armorer of surpassing skill, whose arms and armor were unassailable. This smith was a Dwarf, his name lost to history, who had become the King’s property through the fortunes of war. One day, after presenting the King with a fine set of armor and weapons, the Dwarf asked for his freedom.  The king told him that if he made a suit of armor for his son that would grow with him and guard him forever that then, and only then, would he be welcome to leave. The Dwarf accepted the challenge and made an amazing suit of fully articulated plate mail that would grow in every dimension as the wearer grew. It fit the prince perfectly and turned every weapon set against it. The Dwarf claimed his prize, but the King refused him, saying he was too valuable to let loose.

That night the Dwarf summoned the prince for a ‘fitting’ of his new armor. At the fitting the Dwarf inserted a brass key that was used to expand the armor, but turned it several turns counter clockwise. The prince’s screams echoed in the castle for hours as the armor slowly, oh so slowly, crushed him to death. The King commanded that the Dwarf be given a traitor’s death and had him hung in a cage outside the city to die of exposure. He was placed in the cage in a howling blizzard and the next morning he was gone.  The Dwarf escaped to the mountains, but was shunned by his fellow Dwarves for his dishonorable actions. Enraged at the humans for costing him so much he constructed his Iron Fortress in the Ice Wall Mountains. He still crafts the most wondrous of magical artifacts, one of the most amazing forms the heart of his fortress. Legend has it that it was a simple iron box, filigreed with the form of a mighty tower.  When the Dwarf spoke a word of power the box transformed into an iron tower, a tower whose walls feature filigree depicting a simple iron box. Once his tower was in place he used his smithing skills to build himself servants. With their help he erected a fortress of ice and snow around the tower. The simple fortress has grown over the centuries into a fairytale palace of delicate filigree, flying buttresses, sculptures and walkways that all lean on the central Iron Tower for support.  At the base of the tower he tunneled down to find iron, coal and other precious things.

The mines were cramped and dangerous, the Dwarf did not want to lose his creations to dangerous work, so he set them to kidnapping children to mine coal for his furnaces, because the children were small enough for the tunnels and their loss grieved the humans the most. After centuries the villages discovered that volunteering children for the mines meant fewer were taken. After the Barrow King died the sacrifices continued and he became a Small God, kept alive by dread and sacrifice.

The prophecies of the North claim that one day a chosen child will rise up and slay the Barrow King, freeing the North from his predation forever.

Adventure Hook
Here enter our intrepid adventurers, engaged by the grieving headman of the steading of Frostmire, Jormund Gotmund. Herr Gotmund’s son Reynuld plucked the black stone from the basket at the harvest festival, marking him for the cage. Enraged and frightened for his son and heir, Herr Gotmund has tried everything to have his son spared from the sacrifice, to no avail. Now he has convince the neighboring headmen of (up to 7) other steadings that the time of the prophecy is here and the sacrifices must come to an end. Strangely, it seems that all their children were chosen as well. The seven closest villages and their leaders are:
  • Firehaven, Herr Gustav Jarlstane, his son Snurri drew the lot.
  • Circle of Sisters (named for their standing stones), Herr Torvald Ulfjaeger, his daughter Maeve drew the short straw from the sheaf.
  • Erik’s Landing, Herr Hans Ferryman, his son Hanz was also chosen by lot.
  • North Gate (the town closest to the mountains, the only town that will trade with the mountain tribes), Herr Vandal Skyrimsen, his daughter Freyja, bethrothed to the mountain lord Garth Elkskinner, should she be sent the town risks raids from the tribes.
  • Dragon’s Den (built into an old cave, the other steadings hold these folks as odd), Herr Dalin Stoneskald, his son Balin was prophecied to go, but also to stay.  This puzzled the wyrding sister greatly.
  • Wolf Lake (a town at the north end of the lake by the same name) Herr Ulford Aeling, his son Ulric by his first wife.  Vicious rumor is that his new wife rigged the selection. Further rumor suggests there may be a third wife in the offing.
  • Jotun’s Watch (the second most northerly and furthest west, this steading was originally just a watch tower charged with observing the giants in the nearby heights), Herr Franz Torstun, his daughter Skylar.

They have assembled a meager treasure trove, every penny and farthing they have to their names, but also have stories of the great wealth held by the Barrow King.  All of it is the Adventurers’ if they can recover the children and end the Barrow King’s black reign.

There are many ways that the adventurers can infiltrate the Barrow King’s castle.  The easiest is to take the place of the sacrificed children.  Halflings can pass as bundled children as can Gnomes and other small races.  Others will need a disguise of some sort.  I recommend a Hat of Disguise type single use item which actually transforms the character and their gear into the likeness of the child. The transformation will be undone when the character says a particular deactivation phrase. This allows the characters to appear in their true form with all their gear at a moment’s notice.

The Iron Keep
Here begins our adventure as the party comes by crowded iron sledge to the fabled Iron Keep of the Barrow King, pulled by eight frost coated skeletons at a speed no horse could imagine. It is a fairytale palace of spun ice and sculpted snow. It has taken centuries of craftsmanship to create this fantastic palace that can only exist here where the frost never melts. The sledges unload their young packages in the courtyard, where animated skeletons coated in permafrost chivvy them past the central iron tower that gives the Keep its name and down into the mines below.  Past several thick iron doors they leave the cold behind and enter a furnace-like heat.  Here the children mine iron and coal, work the smelters and stoke the smithy fires.  The skeletons in these levels have no frost coating and can been seen for their true nature: iron and brass automatons shaped like skeletons.

I leave it to the GM and the players from here, but it is easy to envision an India Jones and the Temple of Doom ™ scenario where the PCs lead the children in a revolt.  But that is as it may be, here are a few facts to help finish off this adventure.

This adventure can be ANY level, simply scale the creatures appropriately.  The automatons can be (stat wise) simple skeletons, or for higher level groups, any type of appropriate golem. The Barrow King himself is some type of Undead, ranging from a simple Wight all the way to a Lich or Demi-Lich. Again, scale his stats to the party.

The Iron Tower is a variation of Daern’s Instant Fortress. Rather than shrinking, the Iron Tower switches places dimensionally with a simple iron box. The GM should determine which plane the switching occurs with. Anything left in the tower after the switch is unharmed until it comes back to the real world again. The characters can discover the power word to trigger the swap in the tower’s library after several hours of reading through books. Using the power word to switch the Iron Tower to box form will cause the while citadel to collapse. Can the party and the newly freed slaves escape in time? There are treasures within the Iron Tower, ancient weapons crafted for the kings and queens of every race, uncarved diamonds the size of robin’s eggs, etc. What they are is up to you, but they should be epic. Remember everything comes with a price. The weapons are linked to other races and should rightly be returned to their proper owners.  Each treasure is an adventure hook in itself.

The mines of the Barrow King are a horrible place.  The labor is back breaking and dangerous, the food scant and poor and the children know they are doomed. Add to this that some of them are used by the Barrow King for terrible magical rites, or their blood used to quench magical weapons. This is all enough to crush the spirit. Worst of all is that the Barrow King often hosts visitors. These can be other Small Gods such as Pumpkin Jack the killing spirit of Samhain who feeds off the fear of his victims. He stops by to sup often in the spring. Other guests include Drow Elves and Illithid who have their own diabolical uses for human children.  Guestings are luckily rare, because if they were frequent the worker population would be decimated.

The PCs need to provide some proof of the death of the Barrow King to the steadings or he will simply rise again the next year on sheer belief alone.  I suggest that the villain monologue something along these lines so the characters realize they have to defeat the idea, too, not just the monster. Bringing back the children is powerful proof, especially bringing them back in one of the iron sledges.  But the true proof of the pudding would be to bring back the king’s traditional raiment: the blood stained coat, broad belt of iron plates, iron boots (the stamp of which, they say, is proof that the Barrow King is coming for you!), and lastly but most importantly his pipe, said to be hewn from the bones of damned children.

Mood and Pacing
The characters should start the adventure learning the history of the Barrow King and the dark sacrifices to create a dark and somber mood, with the mood getting grimmer until they end the menace and reunite the children with the villagers.

Winter is a time of trial, death and darkness. However, surviving that trial is what brings forth the renewal of spring. For the day following their return the PCs become the personification of the Green Man.  Where they walk plants sprout and ice melts, long dead trees sprout and even the barren can bear again. Be careful how you celebrate, boys and girls, or you may find yourself the parent of a fated child!

See more entries in the Winter Is Coming RPG Blog Festival.

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