Over breakfast on the twelfth day of Autumn, we talked about our best path through the Southron Duchy. Beyond a couple of game trails, we were in an untraveled area – I wondered if Ogre would be able to do much cargo ferrying. But the area along the riverbank was fairly clear so perhaps some enterprising folk might make use of him to avoid the toll bridges.
Still, the riverbank was steep enough to give us concern for the horses and ponies and wagon, and we knew we’d only a short way to go through the South Dale Woods to get to the road, then east to Fort Jaxon, so off through the forest we rode. Wikton grumbled that he’d had a poor rest; and Boraen, too, had tossed all night. Tasso – and Talvi, too! – stayed away from them both, no doubt figuring they were harsh enough at the best of times – without sleep, who knows what would make them snap!
The land became wetter – not quite a bog, but many small trickles and sloughs, leading to a small creek. Looking about, I could see this creek was flowing through a channel cut by a mighty river and I wondered how the river had dwindled so. Across the creek was a long stone bridge, with a collapsed building on the other side. There were well carved stone faces on the bridge supports, and as we came up on the building we saw it had been a small keep, with a single fallen tower towards the back. It had been long abandoned, but poking around, Beth and Fergus found a couple of huge feathers.
Pyrea felt we were being watched. We saw no one, but as we headed south again, I felt as if a storm was gathering to the northwest. Boaren suddenly burst out, “I angered Meesha! I must atone!” Wikton hurried over and as they conversed, it came out that his god also was angry with him. Without rest, neither would be able to replace the spells they used. Tasso, Luna, and I agreed that it was their guilty consciences keeping them from rest. But then, however they thought they got spells, losing two casters able to heal injured our party. Perhaps I could encourage them to meditate and gain back some peace – but then, I did not want them to repeat their brutality. A few sleepless nights might be just what they need.
Suddenly, we heard a great howl of rage from the northwest. Talvi whined and looked to Nan (not Boraen?); Lee cowered behind Beth. I suggested we make camp, cook our suppers, and prepare for an attack. Nan nodded at me, but said we should look for a more defensible spot. We found a hollow tucked into a hillside and set up camp there, with the slight cliff at our backs. Boggy ground to the south would also keep that flank secure against a charge. We made a fast meal, put away some of the food for later, and set watches.
On the third watch, a flaming arrow flew out of the darkness and buried itself in Beth’s back. Tasso quickly put out the flames as Wikton bellowed an alarm. Boraen and Pyrea leapt up – neither’d been sleeping well. Another howl ripped the dawn sky, chasing the laggards out of their bedrolls. But no enemies or other attacks came our way, so we made a quick breakfast. Beth and I climbed tall trees to see if the forest was coming to an end, but nothing but trees and migrating butterflies as far as we could see. Nann told us when we came down that the arrow was tribal-made but not quite of the style of her people.
To speed our way through the woods, we abandoned the wagon and split our supplies among our steeds. Gypsy gave me a long-suffering look when I loaded her up, but I fed her an apple and she soon accustomed herself to the added weight.
Midday, we came out into a small clearing – it was so peaceful, with birds singing and rabbits nibbling on the remains of a garden. In the middle of the glade stood a small cabin, a bit worse for wear. It looked a wonderful spot for lunch. Borean, Beth and Lee went up to the cabin to see if anyone was home- there was no smoke from the chimney, but then it was a warm day. Beth knocked and the door swung open. And two Damned came out of the house, and more rose out of the long grass around the building.
Our party leapt into action – Pyrea cast sleep to no effect. Boraen tried turning them, but they kept coming. Beth slashed around her with her daggers, but still was bitten and clawed. Tasso, Luna, and I slung stones and Nann shot arrows. Wikton hurled hammers. Some of the missiles hit, but there were so many of these unnatural creatures! I cast entangle on the surviving Damned and Pyrea followed up with a web. Beth lobbed a wicked pot of oil at the mass of them and smiled as they burned, then followed up with a pot of oil on the cabin.
Once the cabin had burned out, Josef poked around in the ashes and found a metal box. I opened it and showed everyone a ring with a small emerald, and Josef spotted a finely wrought chain with a pendant in the box as well. Seemed to me the chain and pendant were worth a bit, the ring not so much. Beth tried both on and rode off, but Boraen had a chat with her and Pyrea ended up with the pendant.
Wikton and Fergus felt something was pacing the party, and as dusk fell, we heard another howl of rage, from due north this time. We made camp and I made dinner. Pyrea cast identify on the chain and pendant, found nothing magical, so she put it away but declared it was treasure of the company.
Again we set watches, and again an attack came just before dawn. Nann was hit, and Tasso yelled to alert the camp as again he put out a flaming arrow. Beth had seen the weapon arc in from the west, and shouted this to me as she ran to defend Nann and Tasso. I cut to the northwest and Luna went southwest, thinking we might circle behind the archer, and I saw Fergus, Josef, and Wilhelm running naked but well-armed to the west. Another howl tore at our ears, and Boraen howled back, then walked to the west. None of us found a foe. Once everyone was back in camp, Beth shot the arrow back west – it was a beautiful shot, but a waste of an arrow.
Again Beth and I climbed trees, and we saw the end of the forest! Today’s ride would be take us out of the forest. We dropped from the trees and jubilantly shared this with the others over a hot meal. Wikton, Boraen, and Pyrea had had another bad night, and the news did not quite dispel their dourness. Wikton had spent a restless night asking his god for guidance; Boarean had talked at Meesha on how he would ask for nothing until he atoned and proved himself. Meesha, he indicated, was exasperated and disappointed in him for making this declaration. Maybe another day or so and I’ll teach them to meditate and clear their minds.
About midday, we came out of the woods. We headed east, skirting the edge of the woods, and shortly the ground became boggy and we had to pick our way carefully. Massive swarms of insects rose up and bothered us; Tasso, Luna, and I had the sense to put kerchiefs over our faces but our ponies still suffered, as did the horses and the rest of the party. We found soft but dry land to make camp and discussed our options; as evening came and the winds picked up, the insects went away.
We decided to head east one more day. We could not find dry wood anywhere so we made a cold supper and bedded down. Happily, this night passed without any attacks. In the morning, another cold meal, then we picked our way through the bog. The insects were back, but a light breeze made them less a nuisance than the day before. I felt we were being followed, but each time I looked back I saw nothing. The frogs were so loud, they would have drowned out any sound of pursuit!
In the afternoon, we saw smoke rising on the horizon, and we saw a camp of frog farmers a little before dusk. Racks of drying jerky to one side, sealed barrels stacked up on the other, and fires with great cauldrons of soup and sticks of seasoned frog kebabs in the middle. Behind the fires were rough tables and a sea of tents. We assumed our alter egos.
As we approached, the cooks waved. Out of the large tent in the middle came the campmaster, who introduced himself as Gerald. His wife, Shayna, came up from the cookfires, wiping her hands on an apron. Gerald quickly gives us directions to the road we sought, and Shayna promised us the soup was the best we would ever eat. We added some frog jerky to our supplies, then sat at the tables to sample the soup and kebabs. Beth tossed her money to Gerald and asked him to bring some drink.
The brandy was strong but sour. Beth didn’t mind – as most of us sipped, she drank deeply. And she turned out tobe a mean drunk. Beth sneered at Shayna, “Did you piss yourself, or is that just the smell of your soup?” Against the outraged murmur from the froggers, Beth drew herself up and challenged “ all you drunken bitches to fight!” Boraen reached for her, tried to pull her away from Shayna, but Beth slipped away and smacked Shayna. Insults and punches, Shayna gave back as much as she got. The whole camp rushed in, some to watch the fight, others to join in, and a few trying to break it up.
Well, I’d noted where the money was being kept: Three bags, one each of gold, silver, and copper, and a ledger on the side that tallied each day’s commerce. I emptied the bag of gold, and tossed my few silver and copper pieces into the appropriate bags. They’d have a very hard time making the books balance tonight!
I slipped back and saw the fight was over. Cooler heads had prevailed after Beth passed out. Pyrea suggested we leave; Gerald, sporting a bloody nose as he dragged Shayna away, angrily agreed. Certainly I was amenable, and so we rode away.