“I find it hardly fair,” said Torias, “that one so financially secure as yourself should feel free to deprive an honest workingman such as myself of his living.”
“Hardly an honest workingman,” replied Lord Spaudling, dismounting from his horse as his companions did. “You preyed upon the naivete of the villagers of Middenton, teaching them nothing of value in exchange for all they had remaining, even after being victimized by thugs before you!”
Torias blinked, stifled a chuckle, and replied. “‘Twas of some value, surely; I gave them confidence and surety in their ability to defend themselves. And, though I lack evidence, I would wager that the incidence of robberies declined sharply in the weeks after my classes.” Some dark laughter was heard coming from the tree lines north and south of the road, where some rustling was heard and seen as well; Reed and Nan both started searching for ambushers.
“Sir,” Torias continued, “this need not end in bloodshed. I was, after all, very close to a point where I could retire, perhaps settle down in a little cottage surrounded by crops and mewling brats a-plenty. Your actions have directly led to my financial ruin. All we require is some recompense to make ourselves whole and continue down the road.” Torias peered past the group to where Tookie was grabbing at the reins of their mounts and pack animals. “And perhaps some horses to ease our journey down that road? No? Then,” Torias eyed the flintlock pistol that was now in Spaulding’s hand, “perhaps you would do me the honor of facing me in single combat?”
“A gentleman could make such a request; a ruffian like yourself may only offer his quick surrender, sir!”
“Oh well, I suppose I was going to do this anyway.” Torias whistled and a pair of archers came out of the trees to either side of him, while a number of other armed men began making their way toward the road from the trees.
The ensuing battle was somewhat chaotic, but if anyone happened to be watching from nearby, they might have remembered a number of details, which would include:
- Lord Spaulding carefully aiming at an advancing Torias March, who then ducked behind a tree, causing Spaulding to shrug and put one through the chest of a nearby thug who was closing on Nan;
- Several arrows sailing far over Lord Spaulding, causing Reed to scoff at their lack of skill before he proceeding to also miss with almost all of his arrows;
- Tookie running off into the woods in a panic, some scuffling noises, and then Tookie running back out of the woods in a panic, being pursued slowly by a limping Morag (Thoss Groat, the shill from Middenton) with a huge club;
- Several enemies suddenly dropping to the ground, unconscious, for no apparent reason, including Torias once he charged back out of the tree line;
- The one enemy that Reed managed to sink an arrow into running away, changing his mind, and charging straight at Lord Spaulding just in time to get cut down by the latter’s broadsword;
- Sam running up to several enemies and taking a guard position just before they were felled by someone else.
“It is most unfortunate,” said Lord Spaulding after they had ridden down and brought back the two fleeing archers, “that I cut down this one, who is no doubt this mysterious doctor who has been hounding our trail, or he would be able to better tend to their wounded.” The wounded having already been tended by Sam and Tookie while the rest were engaged in mounted pursuit, they were able to offer no more confirmation or denial of Lord Spaulding’s theory than the bound unconscious who were just now coming around, including Torias, who for some strange reason was looking around, convinced that a pack of vicious wild dogs were about to tear him limb from limb. Nobody knew quite what to make of this; Nan shrugged.
Under questioning, Torias’ scam was pretty much as Reed and Nan had already guessed: Some of the group would move close to a village, robbing and burgling the area, in order to raise fear in the citizens. Torias would then show up, most conveniently, and offer to teach them about the “Dancing Edge” technique (really a combination of some unremarkable broadsword techniques, acrobatics, and high hopes), thereby “legitimately” pocketing money from the citizens, while the vanguard of the gang would start moving ahead to the next village to start the scam all over again. While Nan and Lord Spaulding were discussing what to do about them, Reed began searching them for their ill-gotten gains, in order to replenish Spaulding’s expenses incurred at Middenton (in theory); however, the money was already missing! Very strange, thought Reed as an unseen Tookie was already in the process of refilling his master’s coffers.
It was decided that they should proceed on to Cyril’s Rest, taking the prisoners with them to meet whatever justice seemed appropriate to Lord Jameson. In order to better drag along the wounded, Spaulding decided to use his remarkable carpentry skills to construct a sledge, and he disappeared into the nearby woods, from where a thump-thump-thump could be heard, punctuated by a far-off utterance of, “Aaaah… ssssss… aaaah… sssss…” Before long, Sir Peter Griffin Lord Geoffrey Spaulding re-emerged from the woods, bearing a swollen thumb and the worst sledge anyone had ever seen.
With the wounded on a rickety sledge and the able captives walking behind the mules, the group made their way to Cyril’s Rest, where they were met by the local alderman, who sent word on to the hold that Lord Spaulding and company had arrived with some captive brigands. Several hours later, a small company of armsmen led by a huge Morag in double mail arrived. The morag, Bailiff Gilikan Plough, having kicked Thoss Groat in the face, bid them all welcome at Cyril’s Rest, where they were invited to the hold to meet with Lord Jameson.
“Lord Spaulding, we are honored,” greeted Lord Cyril Jameson, “though I must express some surprise, as we were not expecting you.”
“But…” stammered Nan.
“Ah, but this invitation,” interrupted Spaulding, “is this not from you? It was addressed to my late father.”
Lord Jameson studied the wrinkled, torn paper. “Well yes, this is my ink, but… ah, I see. Somehow,” he indicated a torn corner of the letter, “Lord Bartholomew Forska’s name has apparently been removed by damage of some sort. I expect this is the source of the confusion.”
Reed coughed into his fist, *Tookie!* Nan rolled her eyes.
At supper in the manse, the party was introduced to Andreas Jameson, recently returned from his travels as far as Ost, and throughout the western and southern reaches. They listened to his stories, some of which involved exciting encounters with raiders and the Cromen (Reed’s ears perked up), some of which involved rescuing the innocent (Spaulding’s spirits lifted), and some of which involved the incredibly dramatic affairs of a professional diplomat (Nan fought to stay awake).
“As a matter of fact,” Andreas said while his wineglass was being filled by a footman after Lord Cyril has retired to a sitting room, “I am glad to find you here, particularly as you seem to be the type of folk who are looking for adventure. As it turns out, I am about to leave two days hence, on a journey to a place that may well be the most fantastic place in this land.”
“Of course, we will be glad to accompany you,” replied Spaulding quickly.
“But sir, if I may,” said Reed, “exactly where are you, I mean we, going? What is the most fantastic place?”
“Why, a great city of technological wonders and great order, the seat of power for the known region…”
“Oh no…” muttered Nan.
“That’s right,” said Andreas jovially, “we’re going to Cago!“