But allow me to back up a bit:
When last we left our intrepid - ahem! - heroes, they were trying to scrounge up enough gold pieces to build their own stronghold outside the reach of the Keep's new merchants guild (and the new 10% tax on treasure being brought through the Keep's gates). So they returned to the Caves of Chaos...
After a slog through a small section of tunnels near the kobold caves (the inhabitants of which they had cowed into submission during an earlier expedition), they were barely any richer. However, the Castellan's standing 10gp bounty for orc heads would make up for it, as they each had a half-dozen such grizzly decorations adorning a spear on their return to the Keep. "Tax these, you bastards!"
After a few days of recovery and recruiting new henchmen - made much easier by the party's growing fame and the recent caravan from the west, which brought with it numerous fortune seekers - they made their way back to the Caves with a small army all their own.
Things were quiet. A little too quiet.
Until the front rank of the party (comprised of Hildy and her quartet of fighters) disappeared into a well-camouflaged pit, followed by the sounds of horns blowing from the caves on either side of them. Everybody survived the fall, but the party was in big trouble. It became instantly apparent by the appearance of a company of goblinoids that a local tribe of hobgoblins had taken advantage of the power vacuum the party had created in the area and consolidated their power, enslaving the local goblins and the remaining orc tribe. (The party would learn the fate of the local bugbears later.)
And the newly formed goblinoid alliance had set a trap for the adventurers.
It looked bad for our - ahem! - heroes, but a well-placed sleep spell and a few charm person spells quickly leveled the playing field: The goblins' pet ogre suddenly turned on the little bastards, mowing down several ranks with a single swing of his massive club; the remaining goblins broke ranks and ran for the woods. The hobgoblin leader similarly turned on his men, creating a brief bout of chaos as he was laid low by his underlings and a successor found to take his place - only to suffer the same fate!
In the opening moments of the battle, the adventurers had managed to scatter the goblins on their left flank and render unconscious all of the orcs on their right. (Damn Hildy and her magnificent luck with the effects of that sleep spell!) That only left the hobgoblin horde - two score-soldiers strong - to deal with, and they were forced - thanks to some well-placed burning flasks of oil - to approach the party in narrow paths around the pit that now lay open between the two forces.
Despite this temporary advantage, a huge number of the goblinoids soon made it into melee and the battle was joined. Blacktome the magic user used his new levitate spell to gain a better vantage point from which to continue targeting the hobgoblin leadership, only to make himself a perfect target for their crossbow-wielding troops. Moments later, he lay in a bolt-laden heap on the ground.
He wasn't destined to do so alone, as his comrades began to fall around him. The battle wore on, at times looking desperate for the party. Ultimately, they managed to win the day, although at a terrible toll: nine of their eleven henchmen lay among the dead, and Blacktome had suffered a serious wound. Were it not for Rube, the charmed ogre, the battle would surely have been lost.
The survivors quickly scouted one of the other caves, which they found had once been home to a clan of bugbears. The creatures had apparently been disinclined to acquiesce to the hobgoblins' demands to join them, and had been murdered for their insolence.
Suffering from fatigue, injury, and lack of spell power, the adventurers decided not to attempt the return trip to the Keep, and instead locked themselves in a room within the orc caves that they had cleared out earlier... only to have the remaining goblins return in the middle of the night and attempt to burn them out. They managed to escape only thanks to a spell of fire resistance - from a scroll that had belonged to one of their deceased henchmen - cast on Rube, who bashed down the burning door and the barricade beyond. Hildy, Blacktome, and one of the henchmen succumbed to the smoke, but were dragged out of the cave by Brother Zogtavius, Rube and the other henchman (er, henchwoman - a lawful fighter named Elaine) - only to emerge into a dozen waiting goblin spears. Poor Rube, who had saved the party by turning on his previous employers, fell at the end of those spears before the two remaining conscious party members managed to drive off the foul creatures.
When all was said and done, another henchman was dead, and Hildy - miraculously unscathed in the earlier battle - and Blacktome were nearly dead from smoke inhalation. The party huddled at the mouth of the cave to await dawn.
Suddenly, from the darkness, a figured approached, calling out meekly. It was Mylor, new apprentice to Blacktome. Mylor, whom Brother Zogtavius swore he had seen split in twain by a hobgoblin's blade. It seemed impossible, but here he was. He claimed to have awoken among the dead at the canyon floor, and heard the party fighting the goblins. He told them he was so thankful they had not left the canyon, leaving him lost, injured, and unarmed in the dark.
The party was suspicious, but welcomed him back just the same.
Unsure of their situation, and wary of this person claiming to be the surely slain Mylor, Zogtavius made an executive decision, and the party quickly limped its way back to the Keep in the pre-dawn hour. Miraculously, they did so without further trouble.
When the group returned to their townhouse, Blacktome laid Mylor's spell book on a table - next to his own, and another he'd previously captured. He said he was unsure which was Mylor's - he could take whichever one was his. At first, the young apprentice looked confused, but then he said: "I've suffered a great blow to the head - I'm a little unsure right now which one -"
That was all Blacktome needed to hear. He threw his Snake Staff at the young magic user, and quickly rushed in and slit the ensnared man's throat. The thing that had been posing as Mylor turned a sickly gray and its facial features disappeared. In mere moments, it had melted into a puddle of smelly, sticky goo on the rug. (DM's note: I hate that damn staff - I've lost so many good monsters to it since Blacktome found it early in the campaign. The fact that it doesn't use any charges makes it a real boon to Blacktome - and a bane to me! I have sworn that I will get it away from that troublesome sorcerer yet!)
Two nights later was midsummer's eve, and the Castellan had declared that there would be a celebration of the Keep's newly found prosperity. The adventurers attended the shindig as the guests of honor. (Minus Elaine, the sole surviving henchman/-woman; she decided she'd seen enough bloodshed to last a lifetime, so took her share of the pitiful booty and returned to her family's farm in the west.)
The festivities had barely begun when a shriek went up from the head of the Castellan's table. The adventurers rushed to the scene, where they saw that the ruler's chair lay tipped on its side, next to which the Lady of the Keep, wailing in anguish, knelt and cradled her husband's limp body in her arms.
The Castellan was dead. Poisoned, it would appear. But by whom...?
. . . . .