Having successfully secured the valuable services of a ten year old village boy who happened to know something about tracking, the party set out for the former campsite of the presumed con man, led by Dupree Carpenter, and including Lord Spaulding, Nan, Reed, Sam, Tookie, and several disgruntled-looking villagers carrying moderately threatening-looking farm tools. As they trudged through the woods and up a hill, Spaulding engaged the lad in conversation. “So, young man, er… how exactly does one do this, tracking thing?”
The boy, not having internalized the normal village peasant’s respect/fear of the nobility, looked at Spaulding oddly. “Really? Idunno, you just… track. Broken blades of grass, moss rubbed off, broken branches, stuff like that I guess.”
“Ah…” mused the nobleman thoughtfully. “Also, you find clearly-defined bootprints a lot?”
The boy’s expression became more incredulous. “If you’re tracking someone across a mud flat I guess.”
“I see I see… so, this finding of bootprints, it happens quite frequently?”
“Not so much, no.”
“I see…” Spaulding pondered this latest plateau of understanding as they came upon the campsite.
As expected, the campsite was deserted. The embers of a cooling fire pit still glowed a little under white ashes and hastily kicked dirt, and there were some tell-tale chicken and pig bones discarded nearby, but no blankets, no tarps, no rope…
“No mushrooms,” muttered Reed under his breath. Nan glared at him and whispered something unintelligible into the air to her left.
The villagers were starting to feel slightly more sympathetic for Dupree at this point, meaning that they still wished some degree of discomfort on him, but were no longer quite so murderous in their intent, as he was also a victim of Torias March’s, and perhaps a greater fool than they; not only had he lost his money, but a sizable chunk of his lifetime. As the only visible focal point for their resentment of the con man, their resentment did remain palpable, and Dupree was spending a certain amount of time positioning himself in such a way that Lord Spaulding remained interposed between him and an uncomfortable number of rusty pitchforks.
With the able help of the village boy, the party was able to track the missing men a short distance around the village, but the boy was a tracker of game, not a hunter of men, and they lost the trail about an hour into their search. Disgusted and disgruntled, the party made their way back toward the village. It was at this point that Reed noticed Tookie pass a crumpled piece of parchment to Sam, who in turn passed it to Lord Spaulding, who read it with some interest. It was in Old Amurkan, the ancient language of the Nat noble houses, and although it has become torn and weathered and the seal was somehow broken, it bore his name on its outside.
“At last!” cried Lord Spaulding. He quickly shared the contents of the note with his companions, who naturally could not read Old Amurkan but would no doubt be thrilled at the prospect of an objective that would take them further away from Cago. It was welcome news, but the timing of it seemed odd.
“Where did this note come from?” asked Nan.
Lord Spaulding, still grinning, looked at Sam for an explanation. “Oh, uh…” stammered Sam, who in turn looked at Tookie. Tookie, kicking at some dirt, paused a second and then explained.
“I finda grunty in village, nother grunty, messenger grunty. Say carry carry note for to Cago, for the Master, the old Master, Master’s father. But old Master gone now, now the Master here, so I take for him.” Tookie looked around smiling blankly.
“And you waited until now to deliver this?” said Reed, somewhat accusingly. There were few people that a stableboy outranked in Cago’s social pecking order, but the grunties were all pretty much holding up the bottom.
“Oh uh, well, he he, Master having great big adventure, no wanna spoil it me no!” explained Tookie. Comprehending Tookie’s weird dialect was fairly painful for just about everyone but Sam, who had years of practice, and so everyone decided it was best just to let it go at that.
As it was close to dusk on everyone’s return to the village, the party opted to stay one more night, which passed thankfully uneventfully (with the exception of the unobserved and pragmatic departure of Dupree Carpenter). As they left, Lord Spaulding felt remorseful over the suffering of the villagers, even though it was no fault of his, and so elected to recompense the villagers for their losses. This would have been a sizable amount of money, even for an unimaginably wealthy individual like Lord Spaulding, but thankfully like so many of his other acts of commerce this one was delegated to Sam, who having dealt with situations like this many times in the past gave away enough to earn the gratitude of the villagers, but not so much as to endanger his master’s bankroll.
Cyril’s Rest was about a week away overland, and most days the group could make good enough time to at least reach a small hamlet to rest for the following day’s journey. At the first two villages, they asked about March and his group, but found no sign of them, until after waking up one morning in the outskirts of a tiny fishing hamlet, Reed discovered his wooden sword was missing from its scabbard. (Why one would need a scabbard for a wooden weapon was perhaps beyond anyone’s reckoning except Reed’s.)
“My sword! It’s gone!” he exclaimed.
A quick search of their belongings turned up naught else missing aside from several bottles of wine from the pack mule. “I know they’re missing, because Too… I inventoried those bottles very carefully, sir,” Sam explained.
“Pah, wine is wine, we can always get more anywhere,” said Lord Spaulding, unaware that villages, roadside inns and hunting camps may not be as brimming with vineyards as he might imagine. “But… your sword! The sword your father left you! How can we replace that?”
“Oh… yes, what shall I do?” moaned Reed, sensing opportunity.
Tookie tapped Reed in the leg with his staff and whispered, “Hey hey maybe you make another one from soma dose dead tree, hey? Haha!”
How odd, thought Spaulding, then dismissed the thought; Tookie was always saying strange things. “No matter, a market village lies a half day away, we can surely find you a replacement, of sorts anyway. My condolences on loss of a family heirloom, Reed,” he sincerely said.
“Yes… thank you sir, most generous,” Reed replied, glaring a bit out of the corner of his eye at Tookie, who was telling Sam, “Family heirloom hey, family of woodcarvers maybe! Ha hey!” Nan stifled a chuckle; Reed, glancing at Lord Spaulding to make sure he was oblivious to the grunty’s joking, thought, Maybe Tookie is the brains of the operation…
Making good time, the party reached a market village in the early afternoon of the same day and made their way to the stalls. As it was not a general market day, the selection was limited, but soon enough they were able to find a smithy where some low-grade swords of various types were available. “I know it cannot replace such an heirloom as what was taken from you,” said Lord Spaulding as he handed over a shortsword to Reed, “but at least you’ll feel better with some solid iron at your hip should trouble arise on the road ahead.”
“Oh, why thank you milord,” said Reed, attempting to look as morose as possible while quickly buckling the weapon into place as behind the pair Sam bargained down the smith, who was no doubt looking forward to turning a handsome profit on such an everyday item, at the expense of a Nat nobleman with more money than brains.
As Tookie quietly tsked to himself, the group perused the rest of the market, but failed to find any sign of miscreants attempting to sell of an extremely limited selection of wine and a priceless heirloom blade. They did, however, successfully find a bustling tavern, which was perhaps even better. Upon their entry, Nan spied a game of cards going on in one corner of the great room, and approached.
“Kind sirs,” she said, startling several of the players, “I am but a simple traveler passing through this… excellent town… and I could not help but notice that you are playing a game that I am familiar with. Might I prevail upon you to sit in?”
As all simple folk who listen to childhood ghost stories knew, all Ess were capable of strange and terrible feats, not the least of which was the ability to hear what was unsaid. However, the implications of this latter gift upon a game involving wagering went temporarily unnoticed by this group of players, as one of them swallowed a bit and asked Nan, “You uh, ain’t gonna like turn us all into frogs or set our heads on fire or have a pack of wild pigeons peck our eyes out now, wouldja?”
“Why no sir, I only seek a relaxing way to pass the time.”
“Ain’t thinking of cheating, are you?” asked another.
Nan looked shocked. “Why sir, it would be against the code o my people to attempt any sort of trickery in the execution of the honorable game of cards.” And so after ascertaining that she did, in fact, have a bit of travelling money, Nan sat down with the gentlemen (such as they were), and Reed observed the game, attempting to figure out how it was played as Nan wildly cheated her hosts out of their socks.
It was at this moment that Lord Geoffrey Spaulding strode up to the bar and, in an attempt to appear as adventure-worthy and road-hardened as possible, put one foot upon the rail and leaned his weight on one end of the bartop, a bartop that had, unfortunately, been recently repaired and not completely cured. This became apparent as the weight of his mail flexed the bartop down at his end, flipping the opposite end of the bar upwards, free of its confining nails and still-wet glue, sending tankard after tankard spilling down toward Lord Spaulding, to end up on the floor next to him, having been intercepted largely by his head along the way.
As the mugs clattered on the ground at the feet of the thoroughly drenched Lord and the bar’s patrons stared at him, Spaulding cheerily said, “Barkeep, a round for the house… and Sam, could you fetch…” as Sam presented his master with a dry towel, readily in hand from they moment they entered the bar, or in fact any bar.
As Nan continued fleecing the locals for pocket money and Reed attempted to discern how she could possibly surrender three of a kind to a single bet without hesitation, Lord Spaulding plied the bartender for any information on Torias March and his cronies, having promised adequate compensation for the repair of the bartop, of course. It did seem that a couple of people were in there asking about a Lord Spaulding, a smooth talking human and a gigantic ugly Morag, but they had left earlier in the day. Now a bit more alert, the group rented rooms in the inn for the evening (even for the relatively impoverished Nan and Reed, thanks to the generosity of the local card players), secure in the knowledge that they might be safe from any further thefts of alcohol rations and useless toy swords.
It was not until late the following afternoon, as they continued on their way to Cyril’s Rest, that the thought of Torias March again occurred to them, precisely because he was standing in the middle of the road in front of them as they rounded a bend in the woods.