Elminster's Guide to the Realms
The Leaning Tree
by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day (Dragon #294)
In the backlands of the FORGOTTEN REALMS, travelers depend on landmarks but often come to fear them - for any place familiar enough for them to use as a landmark also sees enough passing traffic to make it a good lookout or prowling-place for hungry monsters.
Leaning Tree is a typical trailside camp, controlled and inhabited by no one but used as an overnight resting-place by many. This traders' crossroads is located where the Northride (the traderoad west out of Shadowdale) meets the Tethyamar Trail (known locally as "the Daggerdale road") south east of Spiderhaunt Wood.
It was named for a huge shadowtop tree that for years jutted out of the earth at an angle that made every passerby believe that it must soon topple over. Some two hundred years after the spot acquired its name, they were proven right. The forest giant reportedly crushed a small cottage in its fall (some tales insist that gruesome loss of life was involved), though all traces of both tree and building are now gone.
This waymoot stands in an area of gently rolling terrain broken by occasional rock outcrops and deep, narrow ravines overgrown by a thick forest. Water is plentiful, and mists are common at dawn and dusk throughout much of the year.
The soil is rich and dark, but it lies in a thin layer over bedrock, and both treeroot tangles and loose stones are plentiful. As a result, both trade routes at the crossroads are of hard-packed dirt studded with small stones.
Leaning Tree boasts a horsepond, a ramshackle pavilion, a few hollow-tree hiding places, several dry wells now used for contraband storage, and a small rock pinnacle that can be used as a lookout and as a site for beacon fires. Drinking water can be found in the woods behind the pavilion, where a small spring rises among rocks. Even in winter, folk who can shatter a foot or so of ice should be able to take buckets of water from "Alath's Hole," a small but deep pool that the spring empties into before trickling on through the forest to join other rivulets and form what eventually becomes Daggerstill Stream. No one can remember who Alath was or why the hole is named for him, but the most popular tale is that he hastily buried a cauldron of coins very near the pool during an orc raid - and was then slain. No one, local rumors add, has found his hoard since.
There are other rumors about Leaning Tree: that it has been the site of murders, spell-battles between wizards, pitched battles, and that it is haunted by beautiful women who sing sad songs and even by a "ghost dragon."
The most striking feature of Leaning Tree is this spar of bare rock. It stands amid thick trees and creepers some distance back from the crossroads, in the northeast angle of the two trails. Rising some eighty feet off the ground at its tip (which is large enough for three humans to stand on), it stands higher than most of the surrounding trees by a dozen feet or more, and it usually offers a view along the Northride for three miles or more and vistas in other directions of perhaps a mile.
Beacon Fang is a sheer drop to the south, southwest, and southeast, but it is easily climbed on its other sides. Harpers keep its top crowned by an unlit beacon fire (and check on this every four days or so, replenishing it whenever necessary).
The beacon fire consists of a tree branches laid in rectangular layers, each layer of boughs laid at a 90-degree angle to the layers above and below it, to form a "log cabin" roughly six feet high. An old, cracked greathelm laid at the heart of the log cabin is kept stuffed with dry kindling; its scorched and blackened state attests to how often lazy folk have ignited the tinder without even bothering to take them out of their protective container.
The second prominent feature of Leaning Tree is a long, narrow, and stagnant pond in one angle of the meeting of the roads. It's typical of what some folk call "drovers' ditches" and others term "drive-through troughs," found at many wayside inns.
It has bogged down many wagons in the dark or under the guidance of weary or tipsy drovers - because both of its ends are mud-ramps, allowing horses to be driven or towed by their reins down into the water from one end, thence through the water, to then be brought up and out the other end in the same manner.
Small personal items might well lie buried deep in the hoof-churned muck at the bottom of the pond, but larger items are found and removed by travelers who care for their mounts and probe with wooden poles. The fastidious who'd rather skip this aromatic, often splatteringly dirty step are warned that when troubles over the rulership of Daggerdale first erupted decades ago, the local phrase for someone having been murdered was that he'd "been to visit a horsepond." (It's not uncommon for corpses weighted with stones to be found in wayside ponds wherever roads traverse wilderness in the Realms.)
The pavilion at Leaning Tree is known as "Peddler's Palace" to old drovers. Today it's little more than a leak-prone shelter from driving winds, rain, and snow.
Standing just northeast of the waymoot in the shelter of Beacon Fang, the ramshackle pavilion is little more than the standing trunks of two old, dead trees cut off and then top-notched to hold a third trunk laid across them as a crossbar.
The southwest side, facing the roads, stands open, but many tree trunks of various sorts and sizes have been leaned on angles against the northeast side of the crossbar, rising up diagonally from the ground to form a sloping back wall. Most are long enough to protrude up into the air, overhanging the crossbar a trifle, but the term "Palace" was obviously bestowed with sarcasm.
In front of the pavilion is a firepit of scorched rocks overhung by a fire-blackened iron cooking-hook of massive size. Many folk have tried to remove this over the years, but they found it too firmly anchored to carry off; thrice it has been severely damaged and repaired by the Harpers.
A cauldron hung on the end of this jutting hook is suspended not far above the firepit; the hook is part of its pole, originally dwarf-forged as one piece. Dwarves drilled deep into bedrock beneath the pit to anchor the pole, which has rusted slowly and so remains both secure and very heavy.
Leaning Tree has almost as many real, oft-used hiding places as it does legends of unclaimed valuables hidden in its environs. The heat of cookfires makes the firepit less than ideal for storing buried treasure that can't take severe heat (thanks to the bedrock not far beneath), but several hollow trees (one beside the pavilion, and two flanking the horsepond) offer cavities large enough to conceal coffers, carrychests, and even dwarves or smaller creatures. A human can crouch in one of the horsepond trees, though immobility and drab clothing might be necessary to escape being spotted.
Unfortunately, these hiding places are clearly visible and thus obvious to any passerby. Only slightly less obvious are the two old wells that date from a time when an unusually dim-witted human family tried to settle on the spot and farm.
Wooden covers for these wells have been made and renewed many times over the years, and mud, stones, and dead leaves have found their ways into the shafts to block them both at a depth of about seven feet. The eastern well is lined with stone and surrounded by a pile of broken rocks, and both often see use for overnight food storage and as temporary homes for more long-lasting valuables. The wells retain their wooden covers to this day, rocks and deadfall tree boughs anchoring them.
The Snarling Dwarf
Buried a few feet beneath the trodden and weed-choked earth of the pavilion floor is a huge slab of flat stone, probably from the immediate area, the uppermost face of which has been skillfully sculpted into a relief carving of a snarling bearded face with strong brows and a large nose. Who carved it, and why, are mysteries - several times it has been dug up and examined in vain for spells or treasure beneath it. It's said to be a fearsome sight when laid bare, causing most who reveal it to decide not to sleep in the pavilion thereafter, but for some reason (probably suspicions of curses) no one has ever shattered it, tried to move it away from the spot, or taken it. It remains a mystery that might have nothing at all to do with dwarves.
Some rocks around Beacon Fang, when disturbed, have been found to be deeply graven with old runes. Some are mere symbols whose meaning is now lost, and others are but fragments, but messages have been found, and some of these (their rocks long ago carried off) are reported here:
- "The hidden ways hold more Art than has been lost."
- "Seek you Authelass of the Dripping Eye. He has mastered . . ."
- "Nathurr has the Hidden Stone. It now commands the other . . ."
Know ye the tales of a "Watching Spirit" lurking about Leaning Tree are true: a spectral harpist (in life, the half-elf sorceress Thelaerle Moushraun, a gentle healer and singer who served the Harpers well) can manifest anywhere within a mile of Beacon Fang.
In life she could take the shape of a tiny flying dragon, and she often does so in phantom form when she doesn't want living creatures to see her true likeness, which is that of a beautiful, fair-haired maiden with very large, dark eyes set in a bony face. Form this comes the tales of a "ghost dragon" lurking about Leaning tree. Thelaerle Moushraun is a kindly soul, easily moved to pity or to aid weary or stricken travelers. She's been known to guide folk, bring Harpers and other helpful folk to them, retrieve lost and fallen items, rouse folk to face impending attack and even try to frighten predators. Apt to be lonely, Thelaerle loves to hear fireside tales or even to dance around, above, or through the crackling flames of a campfire. She reports to certain Harpers, who regularly see her out and bring word to me in Shadowdale of brigands or other folk who seek to settle in "the Tree" or establish ambushes there.
As for the Snarling Dwarf: I, too, know nothing of how the carving came to be there or what purpose it might have or have once had. I can confirm that it is ancient, and that no magic whatsoever clings to it. No treasure lies beneath it, right down to the bedrock, which was examined for messages, openings or hiding-cavities for some dozen feet in all directions. This examination occurred some three decades back, when the pavilion collapsed and had to be rebuilt.
As to the writings; all that I have seen bespeak use of the area as a message-drop in the time after Netheril fell. None of them are tomb, treasure, or way-marker inscriptions. Many have been taken away by wizards hungry for old lore, but many more lie buried in the woods east of the waymoot, along the Northride.