We rejoin most of our heroes resting and recuperating with the Ents in the shelter of Fangorn Forest. Smial, in particular, is treated by both Nwalme-Anna and the Ents to repair the ravages of his imprisonment. As a result, he is now stronger than ever (+1 ST).
Several days go by, and a messenger arrives in Fangorn. The siege of Isengard has begun, and the party has been summoned to appear before the Empress and King Beren in her army’s encampment outside the city. They quickly pack up and make their way to their liege.
Upon arrival, both the Empress and King Beren rise, honoring the group. When the party begins to kneel before their liege, the Empress urges them to remain standing. She thanks them for their bravery in her rescue from the Usurper’s clutches, and declares that they need never bow to her nor to anyone that owes fealty to her. The group is of course honored, but also know that this means that still more dangerous duties lie ahead.
They ask how they can serve their Empress, and she smiles, inviting them back to the planning chamber of her tent (which is scry-guarded), along with King Beren. She also invites along Alfirin, who had accompanied the army from Fornost and has been serving as one of the Empress’ bodyguards since her escape. She and the rest of the group exchange some quick greetings, and the planning commences.
The army is set to attack the city shortly after daybreak two days hence. Since everyone present is now aware that the Usurper can track the party, she charges them with creating a diversion for this attack. They are to enter the city approximately an hour before the attack commences, and try to evade capture, serving to draw the attention of the Usurper and his men. Their secondary objective is to bring in the Usurper, preferably alive enough so that she and Nwalme can extract a few answers from him.
The group has some time to prepare, and most merely continue their regular regimens of combat training, animal care, and other routines. Smial and Nwalme visit the medical facilities in the camp, Nwalme to lend assistance (none is necessary), and Smial to obtain a drug for his special poison dagger – one that will quickly and effectively knock someone out. He manages to find a nurse who can produce such a serum – two types, in fact. Smial opts for the one whose effectiveness is more certain, but whose risk of killing the victim is higher.
Nwalme also uses the two days to attempt some Divination. The first day, he finds that there is a Nazgul at the main gate into the city (at the moment of his Divination). The second day, he learns that the total number of Nazgul in existence is currently
between three and four…
The group also makes contact with the “hobsters” who have been their allies within Isengard. They agree to unlock the postern gate of the city at the appropriate time, and create a diversion to make it easier for the party to enter. The party also takes a few minutes to check the “PalaceCam” scroll, finding the rooms to be mostly empty – a few guards left in the throne room. There is still evidence of the Usurper’s presence in the private chamber behind the throne.
There’s a last-minute debate about attire to wear, Guthwyn insists that we need to dress like the Usurper’s men to blend in. After some discussion, it’s clear that blending in will not require specific uniforms. There are enough bands of different types within the city that another one won’t draw any attention, unless that other one wears the livery of the Empress Guard. So the group stows their winged helms (to Thaliondor’s* in absentia dismay), and Nwalme casts illusions on both himself and Smial so that they appear human.
Now established, the party leaves camp and reaches the postern gate at the given time – and find it locked. They wait a minute or two, listening to the sounds of guards within the city raising the alarm about a fire somewhere not too distant. The gate remains locked, however, and at that point Araphor turns Smial into water, so that he can slip under the door and see about opening it from the inside.
Smial oozes under the door and looks up to see the back of a guard. The guard is holding his throat with one hand, while trying to fight off two hobbits. Still in puddle form, Smial opts only to ooze under the man’s feet. The guard doesn’t last long, and as he falls to the ground it becomes clear that his throat had been cut, and he hadn’t quite succumbed yet.
Smial flows off a little ways to wait for the spell to end as the two hobbits move to open the gate. Once they do, Araphor releases his spell; Smial returns to his normal form, and the party enters the city.
They confer with the hobbits briefly, learning the best street to take toward the Palace, quickly being marching in that direction. The hobbits head off in the direction of the fire to put an end to it before there’s further injury to anyone.
The group marches easily up the street, unchallenged. They spot a few groups of soldiers moving along parallel streets, one a company of about a hundred, but they pass without incident.
As they draw closer to the Palace and the wall to the Old City, the group briefly discusses how best to try and enter the Palace. Smial suggests they can bluff their way past the main gate, but Guthwyn’s suggestion of the servants’ gate meets with more approval. The party heads toward the gate to the Old City , wherein the servants’ gate to the Palace lies, and spends a few minutes reconnoitering.
They see three groups of soldiers pass, ranging in size from a company of about a hundred to a patrol of only four soldiers. All of them, however, are headed out of the Old City. They wait a few minutes to see if this trend changes, while discussing their story for the gate – that they’re returning to report on the fire near the city wall.
They approach the gate, Nwalme in the lead. He’s stopped by the guard, but the guard seems to readily accept their story, and lets the group pass. The party doesn’t get very far, however, when Nwalme spots someone out of the corner of his eye: someone on a side street reacted as if they recognized the party, quickly ducking out of sight. Nwalme quietly lets the group know they’ve been spotted, but they continue on their course, as they’re still being watched by the guards at the gate.
As they reach the servants’ gate, it becomes apparent to several of them that they’re being followed. When they enter the gate, Reneand Smial slip off to ambush their tail, while the rest of the party proceeds to the guard house. There are two guards present; one is asleep, the other is eating dinner.
Rene, meanwhile, has snuck up on the man following the group, and recognizes him as Enderian, a bureaucrat from the Palace with a reputation as being a decent fellow. Rene comes up behind him, placing a blade to his throat, and asks him to profess his allegiance. The man whispers, “The Empress has already escaped, you don’t need to be here.” Rene replies simply, “We know.” The man seems surprised by this, then asks Rene to follow him. Rene takes him to Nwalme, who quickly confirms his allegiance as being to Empress Ethurien. Nwalme also recognizes the man as someone with a reputation for overconfidence in most of his abilities, but a real gift for getting things done in a bureaucracy. The party and Enderian head for a quiet place to talk.
As they pass the open doorway of the guard room, one of the guards challenges them. Enderian responds by upbraiding him for eating on duty, and he backs down. The party passes into the servants’ quarters. They seem fairly empty. There they begin to discuss their mission and the next steps to take…