The following morning, the party coordinated with the Jamesons as they prepared to leave. There was some problem with the mounts: as none of the fleeing Jamesons had any, and Andreas’s horse had been returned to Lord Sterling for military service, only Lord Spaulding’s mounts were available, and Lord Cyril and Lady Faye Cantor-Jameson were elderly. Sam quickly surrendered his horse, as did Lord Spaulding. “Far be it from me,” he said, “to ride in relative comfort while Lord Cyril walks!” he assured them that this would not be an issue, and the party set out, with Lord Spaulding trudging along in full kit, pretending not to mind. Reed scouted for the party, reporting back at intervals.
As they approached a river that separated them from the town of Wooton where they might rest and resupply, Reed crested a hill and saw on the other side a figure drinking from the river. The figure raised his face, on which a familiar domino mask rested, and he began gesturing at Reed and pointing. Looking northeast, Reed saw smoke from a cooking-fire behind a clump of trees. The masked figure, presumably Percival (the misguided village youth who fancied himself a Black Jager) motioned for Reed to follow him and disappeared downriver. Reed returned to the party to inform them, and they all diverted south to stay further from the fire.
Reed, Spaulding and Nan went ahead and met Percival, who informed them that the fire marked a campsite where several cromen scouts rested, watching ahead for travellers on the very road they were to take. As he saw the Jamesons approaching, Percival said, “It’s a good thing I saw you. You might be able to fight them yourselves, but I don’t know if you could keep them from killing those people.”
“But what are they doing there?” asked Reed.
“Who knows?” Percival shrugged. “I’ve been tailing them for days. They’ve been moving back and forth, doubling back, wandering in circles. I think maybe they’re lost.”
“Oh… well, can we just avoid them?”
“Hmm… yes, well, maybe. Idunno. If you skirt south far enough, you might only take an extra day to get to Wooton, if you don’t get lost.” None of the party were willing to take that risk, for once honestly appraising their own skills as outdoorsmen.
“Sir,” said Spaulding, “we cannot take the time. We are in a great hurry and must make Wooton by nightfall. Tell us, what is the quickest way there?”
“Oh… uh…” Percival mused. “I suppose the quickest way is the road.”
“Yes, but the road is watched!”
“Oh, right. Well, how long would it take for you to kill six or seven badly-equipped Cromen and return?”
Spaulding said, “I suppose the killing would be quick, but the travel back and forth, maybe an hour?”
“Well then, I guess the road would take you about as long as you thought, plus an hour.” And so, leaving Sam and Tookie behind with the Jamesons, the three followed the deluded young Percival through the woods in what seemed to be an inevitable encounter.
Percival had scouted the group out fairly well; there were seven of them, two looking eastward at the road some distance away and five clustered around a small fire where they argued and roasted some varmints they’d caught. The party had good concealment in a treeline to the south, and while Percival crept quietly up to a flanking position, Lord Spaulding made his own stealthy approach by running directly toward the encampment in full maille.
The cromen outnumbered the party, but they were as poorly trained as they were equipped, and before long two were lying on the ground screaming at nothing, several more were down and bleeding from sword wounds, and several continued moving forward with arrows poking out from various points in their anatomy. At one point, one of the cromen overcame his (and everyone else’s) natural fear and loathing of Ess and charged Nan, prompting Spaulding to attempt a leaping double attack with sword and buckler; he succeeded in gravely wounding the one threatening Nan, although he did receive a minor wound from the one who dodged the ridiculous off-hand buckler swing. Reed also encountered some difficulties after switching to shortsword, perhaps finally realizing the drawbacks inherent in being a scrawny kid in physical combat (though probably not).
After a brief skirmish, the group had two survivors and a number of corpses. From the former, they determined that this was a light scout party tasked to go somewhere specific, but as they were even worse at following maps than the party, they had gotten lost. They had hit upon the brilliant idea of camping on the hilltop and watching for travellers on the road…
“… So they could show you where you had to go?” asked Reed.
“Whuh…” said one of the prisoners.
From the dead, the party recovered a rude map with a number of marks and squiggles drawn upon it, showing the location of a small house northeast of Wooton, as well as several places the cromen thought they were at various points in time. They also recovered a small wooden box with an empty cameo necklace; after fiddling with the cameo for about half an hour, Reed discovered that the trinket was worthless and that the box had a false bottom inside, in which was hidden a scrap of paper.
They also recovered a soggy, ruined diary from which the pages had been ripped. All, that is, but one:
Securing this literary masterwork and the other, less important, scraps, the party decided to make best speed to Wooton after properly handling the surviving cromen according to the Cago articles of war. And so, with seven corpses left behind, they continued on their way (minus Percival, who stayed behind to no doubt give their valorous opponents a fitting burial).