Nursing a bruised hand and pride, Lord Spaulding met up with Reed and Nan (who had come down just in time to witness her patron’s ignominious pratfall) as Torias engaged with several of the impressed villagers. Wanting to get a closer look at the platform where Spaulding fell through, Reed offered to help the poor beleaguered Dupree Carpenter in taking down the platform. Reed had some suspicion that the platform may have been rigged to allow Torias to win the match. Astonishingly, he could not see anything that really looked weakened or trapped, despite the fact that he was at least as good a woodworker as he was a physician.
Torias had a few quick exchanges with the villagers and then made his way off into the woods with his two other companions as Dupree and Reed were still taking down the platform. Nan only got a chance to “hear” *… really don’t like that Ess, better get moving I think…* as he moved off, and as this was what a lot of people thought when they were moving quickly away from Nan, she didn’t think much of it.
As Torias was supposed to come back into the village the following day to begin his instruction, there didn’t seem to be much more to do than make preparations for the evening. This naturally meant a (relatively) nice dinner at the Reeve’s house for Spaulding and a fine evening of dining on rations in a campsite in a common field for the rest of them. As the bulk of the party was setting up camp, however, Tookie came hobbling into camp, babbling excitedly about food. The fact that his weird grunty pidgin was barely comprehensible to the rest of the group, it turned out to be academic as two young village women followed him, carrying a small pot of stew and apologizing for the lack of chicken, as their birds had been poached earlier in the week.
Nan graciously thanked them in her accented Amurkan: “We thank you for this food, and assure you that we will do our utmost to help you through the trying times your village is going through.” Her grammar may have been a little off, as after staring blankly for a couple of seconds, the younger one suddenly shrieked and fled back to the village at top speed. The other one bowed and muttered thanks before making a more subdued withdrawal. At this unusual happenstance, Sam was seen to edge slowly back from the edge of the campfire, Reed looked quizzically at Nan, and Nan shrugged, opting to converse with some of her invisible friends.
As they stirred the pot of salt pork potage over the fire, Nan continued to talk to herself, becoming slightly more animated and exasperated. After a couple of minutes of this, she stood up and said, “Fine! I’ll get you some damn mushrooms!” At this she started tromping off into the dark, with a puzzled Reed following her and a temporarily relieved Sam left stirring the pot.
Apparently by purest accident, she happened to walk directly to a spot where in fact there were some mushrooms. Good looking ones too, lying on the forest floor, already picked. After carefully looking beneath these unusually-placed fungi (they had dirt underneath them!), Reed helped Nan gather them up. “I wonder if they’re safe to eat,” he wondered.
Pausing to consider this, Nan carefully inspected the mushrooms, looking underneath their caps, looking for spots on their stems, and after deducing that she knew nothing at all about mushrooms, she replied, “Probably.”
“Oh well,” mused Reed. “If we get sick, at least I can take care of us. I’m a doctor, you know.”
At the Reeve’s house Lord Spaulding’s dinner was rather pleasant, interrupted only twice: once by Tookie, who poked his head in briefly to sniff the air and make sure his master did not need anything; and again a few minutes later by Sam, who happened to be carrying the perfect wine from their absurd stock of provisions to match the roast pork and vegetables enjoyed by the nobleman and village elder. Making pleasant conversation, Lord Spaulding brought up some of the gossip he had heard about in hopes of lightening the beleaguered Reeve’s mood.
“Say, have you heard anything about the large pack of cannibal Cromen that may be heading for this village sometime in the near future?”
The Reeve had not heard this, no.
The following morning, a refreshed Lord Spaulding once again met with his entourage in the village to discuss their plans. Since nobody actually knew when Torias March would be returning beyond the specificity of “sometime today,” they decided to pass the time in various activities. Reed started looking around the village outskirts for deer, which he did not find despite his total lack of experience as a hunter; Nan stalked around the village alternately staring at people and conversing with phantoms; and Lord Spaulding struck up a number of conversations regarding an impending visit by marauding cannibal savages.
By noon, there was still no sign of Torias March, and some of the young men of the village who had been waiting for his arrival started grumbling, and Nan discovered that some of them had made deposits on the upcoming training, which amounted to not inconsiderable sums given the average level of affluence of the typical subsistence peasant. Nan quickly alerted Lord Spaulding of her discovery along with Reed, having returned from his fruitless pursuit of deer.
“Perhaps,” mused the thoughtful nobleman, “this Torias March was not such a trustworthy fellow after all.”
Nan considered it impolite to read the thoughts of her companions, but she surmised that if she had been so inclined at that moment, she would have gotten a resounding *DURRRRRRRRRRR* from Reed.
Gathering what wits he had at his disposal, Lord Spaulding decided that it might be best to interview the Cooper boy that had been found beaten, or perhaps his family. At this, Reed suddenly recalled that the boy had been mushroom hunting at the time that he was assaulted, and perhaps that justice would be best served if he and Nan opted to search the woods where this crime may have occurred. This seemed like a good idea to Spaulding, thankfully for Reed, and the party split up.
Spaudling’s knock at the door was answered by Mrs. Cooper, again with a stick in hand, which was quickly dropped at the sight of an actual nobleman standing on her threshold. “Goodwife Cooper, I am sorry for the circumstances in which you find yourself,” said Spaulding. “Perhaps you could tell me about the circumstances that led to this incident?”
Mrs. Cooper looked confused. “But, forgive me my lord, I have already told this tale of woe to your physician..”
“Physician? You mean Sam my valet here?”
“Oh no sir, he looked a tad scruffy to me to be a doctor, and begging your pardon milord, smelled a bit like a horse stall.”
“Hmm, I have no idea who that could be. You’re sure he said he was with me?”
“Oh quite milord, but if you would take some advice, you should really get better help. He didn’t seem to be a good doctor at all sir.”
Mrs. Cooper related the tale to Lord Spaulding again, much as she had accounted to his “doctor,” and Lord Spaulding headed off into the woods, pondering this new mystery. “A fake doctor who knows my name… these ruffians may be more resourceful than we thought…” He cogitated upon who this strange physician who smelled of a stable could possibly be, as nearby Tookie exchanged whispers with a grunty messenger who handed him a letter.
In the woods, he came across the sight of Nan and Reed, both carefully scanning the forest floor in a small clearing. They were frustrated at their lack of progress and futility of most of their endeavors to date. “I think,” said Reed to Nan as he pushed a twig out of position, to no apparent effect, “this must be the sort of thing they leave out of the storybooks.”
“I think we must be the sort of people they leave out of the storybooks,” quipped Nan.
“Ah, I see you have found the site of the assault on your own. Good work!” exclaimed Lord Spaulding. They both stared at him; of course, they had only come to the spot where they had found the mushrooms for their stew the evening before. A spot where, amazingly, there were no mushrooms now. “But whatever are you doing?”
“Looking for tracks,” said Reed. Indeed, he and Nan were looking for tracks. However, between the two of them, their tracking ability was rivalled only by Reed’s skill as a physician, or Nan’s skill as a bare knuckle boxer, and so their search was doing little more than trampling down the grass in the area, ruining any tracks that might have possibly still been there after several days of inactivity. This did not deter Spaulding, who eagerly lent his own prodigious outdoorsman skills to the search, and soon the whole area was completely bereft of so much as a single undisturbed blade of grass, to say nothing of mushrooms.
“This is all very strange,” said Lord Spaulding. “The swordmaster is nowhere to be found. Chickens have likewise vanished. This mysterious doctor who claims to be my companion who cannot be located. No mushrooms in a place where there were mushrooms before. And now the deer are missing! Could these all be connected somehow?”
As the rest of the party gaped at each other, some voices were heard from the village. Hurrying back, they saw a cluster of village boys and men, apparently speaking angrily at someone in their midst. “Let me guess…” said Nan. Indeed, at the center of the press as young Dupree Carpenter, looking frightened and lost.
“Young man, where is your master?” asked Spaulding.
“I… I don’t know sir,” replied Dupree, looking about warily. “I thought he might be here. They sent me out to fetch some eggs for the breakfast, you know, before the training. I got a little lost, came back to the campsite, and they were all gone!” He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to beg for mercy or weep morosely.
Spaulding, having secured the safety of the gullible Dupree from the group of angry villagers, elicited the information that yes, Dupree could in fact lead them back to the abandoned campsite. With a plan in mind, Lord Spaulding took decisive action in order to ensure that these ruffians would not escape justice again. He turned to address the villagers as only one born of noble blood could possibly do.
“Now, does anyone here know how to track?”