The party had two days in Cyril’s Rest in order to prepare for their journey with the younger Lord Jameson, and spent it predictably wisely: Lord Spaulding proceeded to chat up the local townsfolk, asking them ever so politely whether or not they expected to be devoured when this rumored Cromen invasion came to their lands; Nan found a card game where she was able to cheat her hosts out of money; and Reed, desiring to learn more about this strange game of placards, lost his entire stake from Nan in about an hour, negating her winnings, primarily since he had not yet properly internalized the concept of “folding.” In the meantime, Andreas Jameson had been unsuccessful in recruiting men at arms for his trip, owing largely to the fact that much of his father’s garrison had been deployed to the north, but Bailiff Gilikan Plough and his grunty manservant Bird were able to accompany him. Finally, after two days of this nonsense, they set out.
A couple day’s travel brought them to the crossroads town of Wooton, where Jameson was able to hire three men at arms for their trip, and Spaulding was able to find one Coz Runner, a seasoned scout. After his usual light banter about cannibalistic savages, Spaulding finally remembered to mention that he and Jameson were looking to hire a scout, and before long Coz had also joined the group, which was of course a terrific boon to Spaulding, as he now had a professional tracker who might be able to teach him the meaning of those giant wagon wheel ruts in the roadway.
Several days’ on- and off- road march brought them to Appleville, a market village that was astonishingly near some apple orchards. Although there was not much learned here by the party in their adventure, it was still a significant stop, as the card game that Nan looked for at all times included an Ess who made it quite clear that the game was to remain honest. Despite this crippling drawback, Nan booked a profit, as did Reed, hereafter known at the table at the Appleville Inn as “Sir Luckbox de la Gutshot.”
Their next stop would be the distant village of Frogg, about five days’ ride to the south, where the primary export product was apparently mud or cattails or decayed vegetation or somesuch. As it was a long trip, Coz suggested a stop at a small fishing hamlet along the way in order to resupply and rest the horses. After a couple days’ ride, before they actually reached the village, Coz came galloping back to the party, and had some whispered words with Lord Jameson, who then rode over to confer with Spaulding and his seemingly ever-eavesdropping entourage.
“Coz has a disturbing report,” said Jameson. It appears the hamlet has been attacked.
“Attacked?” said Nan. “By who?” said Reed.
“Coz did not see. He was close enough to ascertain that there were a number of bodies about and no visible living men, and came back.”
Reed asked, “But was it raiders? Cromen? Wild animals?” fully believing that he could get an answer immediately.
Jameson looked at him quizzically. “Why not ask Coz? I’m sure he has also found a helpful brochure left by the attackers with their home addresses should you wish to inquire further. In any case, it doesn’t look like we will find shelter here.”
Spaulding said, “We must of course investigate these happenings.” Andreas agreed, and leaving the men at arms behind with Tookie, Sam and the animals, they set out for the hamlet over a low rise, although Spaulding initially started walking in the wrong direction, intent on leading the way even though he had no idea where the hamlet was.
Topping the rise, Spaulding could immediately see the destruction. There were at least a score-and-a-half of dead, human and moragi, of various ages strewn about. Some fire damage was also evident, but generally damage was minimal; there were even still boats moored to the docks on the riverbank. The had apparently been there for a couple of days, as the stench indicated as Spaulding, Reed and Coz approached while Nan was having animated conversations with herself on the hill.
Spaulding and Reed came across a badly mauled morag body, face down in the mud near the riverbank, a cloak in his right hand, a woodaxe close to his left. As Spaulding pulled the cloak out to inspect it further, the shifting of the body revealed something under the body to Reed, who proceeded to fish it out with the tip of his blade. It was a severed hand, bluish in cast.
As they pondered what this meant, Nan, while turning to her right to rebut some sort of argument from a person who wasn’t there, saw some movement in the brush that lined a rising hillside some eighty yards away. “Hey,” she shouted, “something over there, guys.” As they turned to look, a figure sprang up from the brush and began hightailing it up the hill, away from them.
In character, each of the party members responded to this in their own way: Spaulding immediately began to give chase, tripping over something and falling face down in the mud; Nan looked to see what everyone else would do so she could perhaps hide behind them; Bailiff Plough readied his massive crossbow in case anything threatening should approach; Lord Jameson calling out what could only be, “Wait!” in as many languages as he could muster; and Reed, sensing impending action, carefully picked up the hand with the muddy cloak and sauntered over to Lord Jameson: “What do you think of this sir?”
“Euuaagh!” choked Jameson at the sight of the somewhat ripened, dismembered hand. “Hardly the time for souvenirs, Mister Reed!”
“Oh, but, uh, I thought maybe the color might be of some interest. It doesn’t look quite like decay, kind of brighter blue.”
Lord Jameson peered a bit closer, a handkerchief held tightly over his nose. “Hmm, maybe…”
“Could be Kharaz,” growled Plough, glancing over at the hand while keeping an eye on the dwindling figure off in the distance.
“Nails a bit short for that, I’d say,” replied Jameson, turning away from Reed’s grisly prize.
Meanwhile, Lord Spaulding cursed and dragged himself up from the mud which at this point had thoroughly covered his armor and looked back at what he had lost his footing on. Spying a pistol handle in the mud, he carefully drew it out. He examined it for a moment… fine workmanship, could obviously use a cleaning, the frizzen…
No frizzen. “Percussion gun,” he thought sourly. This was a very sophisticated weapon, normally only found inside Cago and very rarely on very important Nats; Jameson sported a percussion musket, but as a member of a core house unlike Spaulding, and a ranking diplomat besides, it would be easier for him to get permission. Holding onto the pistol and wondering at its meaning, Spaulding spun around to look for anything else on the ground, thus causing him to promptly fall backwards into the mud; his coat of soil now uniform over his body, he struggled to his feet to once again pursue the figure, now topping the ridge; realizing he could never catch up to him laden with steel and filth as he was, he trudged back to Lord Jameson, Plough and Reed, where Nan was also approaching.
Sharp-eyed Nan had also discovered that the bluish cast of the hand was now also upon the woolen cloak that held it, having rubbed off the necrotic skin. “A dye?” she wondered aloud.
“Where exactly did you find this hand?” asked Jameson.
“I can explain that,” said Lord Spaulding before Reed could answer. Brandishing his newly found pistol, he indicated the various locations they had searched in the hamlet by use of the end of the barrel, finally indicating Reed by pointing it directly at him. “And young Reed here spotted the…”
“Aaah!” cried Reed, ducking. “Would you please point that somewhere else, lord?” he pleaded.
Jameson gingerly reached out and took the pistol from Spaulding while the latter was wondering why everyone was looking at him so strangely. “Gods,” he whispered, noting the lock on the thankfully long-since discharged weapon.
“Not normally the sort of thing you’d find in a human-morag fishing hamlet?” asked Nan after Jameson quickly explained the nature of the gun.
“Not what you would normally find anywhere but in Cago, where law dictates it must go,” he answered, wrapping up the gun… and the hand… into the filthy cloak before passing the bundle to Plough. “But we need answers, and the most likely person to have them has just run up over that hill.”
“But of course. Onward!” said Spaulding jovially, striding over toward the hillside where Coz was not crouched in some brush, the remainder of the party and a veritable swath of mud in his wake.
As Spaulding crested the top of the hill, Reed close behind, with Gilikan standing before Andreas a bit further down the hill (having made a tactical decision to allow the “brave and expendable” to lead the way ahead of his master), his view into the distant glens was obscured by a ring of a dozen or so raggedy-looking moragi and humans crouching in the brush, armed with farming tools, wood axes, hunting bows… and one musket. Oh man I hope they don’t know this thing isn’t loaded, I think was what the wielder of the gun was thinking when Nan snooped him.
Fortunately for all involved, the survivors were calmed and brought back to the horses and men at arms by the party, where a makeshift camp was set up. “Sure glad Plough didn’t shoot that kid on the hill…” quipped Reed to Nan as rations were distibuted to the grateful fisherfolk. They seemed to accept the group as friendly, even Nan, although they seemed a bit wary of Lords Spaulding and Jameson for some reason.
Spaulding approached the villager with the musket. Also a percussion gun, hmmm… “Good sir,” he inquired, “might I ask where you came across that musket?”
The scraggly peasant clutched the gun closer to himself. “Found it,” he said, a bit defensively.
“It was dropped during the battle, was it not?”
In further similarly wordy and poetic conversation, it became clear that the survivor did in fact pick up the weapon off the ground while fleeing for his life; since he had expected to keep running until he reached a new settlement, he had planned to sell the gun to restart his life, as he was now homeless and destitute. Naturally as he was ignorant in armoury in general and guns in particular, he had no way to know that attempting to sell a controlled weapon like this one was just as likely to reward him with a long period of uncomfortable questioning as a brand new life in some other miserable hamlet. Luckily for him, Lord Spaulding offered to buy the weapon, and after a very brief negotiation, Sam was counting out a generous amount of coin for the grateful refugee as Spaulding carried the longarm directly to Lord Jameson, recommending that it be handled much as the recovered pistol.
The presence of two controlled percussion guns at the scene of the massacre naturally raised some interesting questions about the nature of the raiders, and questioning the survivors yielded some contradictory answers. It was dark; some of them did have unnatural skin coloring, so they had to be Kharaz; they had armor, horses, and guns, so they must have been nobility; they killed without stealing, so maybe they were madmen, or Cromen. “None of this makes much sense,” opined Jameson away from the refugees as they gratefully tore into the group’s extra rations.
“It seems someone would be impersonating Kharaz, to frame them, no?” asked Reed, remembering the dye on the hand.
“Isn’t it weird that two percussion guns would be found just left on the ground? They’re very expensive no?” asked Nan.
“Not necessarily so strange,” replied Jameson. “Young lady you have never been in battle have you?” Nan shook her head. “Things are confusing in battle. You fire your weapon, but are suddenly beset. You drop the gun to draw your blade, no time to put it away over your shoulder with an enemy on you, even…” He shook his head. “… enemies like defenseless peasants armed with farming tools. If it’s dark, you might never find it. Even when it’s light, things are lost.”
“It certainly is puzzling,” said Spaulding, who believed he had just pieced the mystery together. “But why would anyone pretend to be a group of Nats who were pretending to be Kharaz?”
Everyone froze for a second, befuddled again by Spaulding’s strange brand of logic. Jameson cleared his throat. “Perhaps it’s time that we all made some things clear, regarding the political situation in Cago. Lord Spaulding and I had discussed this a bit earlier, and no doubt you might have been informed about some of it through conversation or,” He glanced at Nan. “Well, maybe we should just make things more clear, at least as clear as I understand things.”