The North. Known to some as the Savage Frontier. A cold, biting place on the edge of civilization. Poised at the base of the Spine of the World mountains, leagues West of the mining city of Mirabar, is a sleepy little town called Grateheim. A century ago, Grateheim was probably a booming trade town, situated at the base of a route through the Spine, a place where travelers to, or from, Icewind Dale could stop before making their way on to Luskan, Neverwinter, or Waterdeep. Now, the town is over half abandoned, run down and rickety, and only a small population of hangers-on continue to live in Grateheim. It is into this small town that our heroes ride, unaware that mere hours later they’ll be leaving once more…
The heroes ride into town and meet the local Sheriff, a grizzled, weathered old man who introduces himself as Elias. Sheriff Elias warns the heroes that they don’t want any trouble, and if they have any notions in their heads of adventure or excitement, they’d best be moving on. As they are getting stern warnings from Sheriff Elias, a well-dressed, charismatic and roguishly charming many by the name of Arden swoops in to offer a more proper welcome. As it turns out, Arden is the owner/operator of several local businesses (Arden’s General Store and Fine Goods Emporium, Arden’s Tannery and Leatherworking, Arden’s House of Companionship, etc.) and the self-described Commissioner of Grateheim Commerce, who extended the hand of friendship to the heroes.
Later, as the heroes dined at a place called the Leaky Tankard (owned by the Sheriff’s niece-in-law, Arissa), a caravan of wagons rolled into town, disgorging food and supplies from the first wagon while the other two sat untouched. After a bit of prying, the heroes discovered that the caravan’s other two wagons are intended to be sent across the Spine to the Ten Towns area, specifically a walled town called Brynn Shander. However, the wagons would be going nowhere, as they had been claimed by a band of outlaws calling themselves the Blackhands, named for the black leather gloves they all wear. Just as the heroes go to ender one of Arden’s establishments, seven Blackhands barge out of the building, knocking poor Harold over in the process. Unaccustomed to such rough treatment, Harold casts a sleep spell on the leader and two of his lackeys, and the fight is on! While the party struggles to deal with the human bandits, a halfling Blackhand leans out one of the upper-story windows and begins slinging stones down at the heroes, raining damage down and forcing the heroes to take cover behind a building. As the fight wore on, the heroes took down several of the Blackhands, and, enraged, the halfling leapt down from the second story window with a lantern in hand, smashing it against the side of one of the wagons and setting it ablaze. Fortunately, the heroes subdued the halfling and put out the fire, ending the scuffle.
Needless to say, the Sheriff is none to pleased with what the heroes have done, but he seems more agitated than angry. After throwing the surviving Blackands into the lockup, he tells the heroes that mostly he just warns people away from Grateheim because he knows hotheaded fools (like the heroes) will get themselves killed. Seeing the heroes know how to handle themselves, he mentions that they might be able to deliver the much-needed supplies to the Ten Towns area in Icewind Dale; with Arden offering to front the money for such an expedition, the heroes accept, and will leave within the day to head across the Spine. First, however, they decide to interrogate the prisoners, and learn a good deal about the Blackhands. These particular Blackhands left their hideout in the Spine of the World weeks ago under the orders of a man named Azard. Azard, reputed to be a powerful sorcerer who steals men’s souls, dispatched the Blackhand thugs to bring the supplies into the mountains. However, the illiterate Blackhands proved to be no help in pointing out the location of their encampment on a map, and the heroes decided to leave matters alone. The Sheriff assured the heroes that the prisoners would be no further trouble, and so the trip to Icewind Dale began.
Nearing the most dangerous parts of the Spine of the World, the heroes began to see strange sights. In the dead of the night, strange balls of fire began to drift back and forth across the horizon, with no explanation for their presence. The very next day, as the heroes passed through a wide, wooded trail in the mountains, four goblins and their wolf pet sprung out in ambush. Thanks to the canny skills of the heroes, the goblins were defeated (though not before Malkyr suffered a near-fatal wound), but on the leader of the ambush party, a note (in crudely-written Common) gave the heroes an interesting clue to what lies ahead. Scrawled on the note were the following words: