By Brian Flood
Chapter 8 - At the Ambush Site
Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Mid-Morning, 16th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Tirondalin is first to speak with eyes narrow and tone bitter, “Well, isn't this nice,” he says, inserting a bite of sarcasm as he waits for his mind to digest the situation. “Something was either very hungry or very clever, and although I’d prefer the former, I’m beginning be suspect the latter...”
He trails off as he begins to investigate the site more closely, but paying more attention to the ground than anything else. “Salik, Cob, I’ like you both to search the immediate surrounds, but do not stray further than you can shout. Look for any other clues you can find, but I’m mainly concerned of that fact that we’re in unfriendly territory. Make sure we’re secure” he finishes with a stern look before turning to Amiel.
“If I’m correct in my perception of your abilities, you’ll be able to help me search for tracks? We shan’t be long,” the half-elven party leader says to the remainder of the group. “Look around here for clues but stay on your guard,” he finishes before going back to his pedantic search. The party cannot help but notice that this is not the friendly, jovial half-elf they met at the Keep.
Salik and Cob nod and slip off into the underbrush, weapons held at the ready. Amiel and Tiron begin to walk a slow, ever-widening circle around the murder site, moving in a radius that grows to about a dozen yards or so from the clearing. The two move with their gazes locked intensely on the ground before them.
The remaining party members begin to search the ground in the vicinity of the bloodstains, searching for clues as to the identity of either the murderers or the victims. After several long minutes, the party rejoins to report their findings to Tiron.
“We have found four sets of tracks in the nearby vicinity,” reports Tiron. “Moving clockwise, we found the first set on the northwest side of the clearing. They were apparently made by a band of humanoid creatures of some type, they are directed toward this location.”
“The second set of tracks enters this clearing from the north,” the half-elf continues. “That set was made by a band of humans – or, at least, somebody wearing boots.”
“The third set approaches the clearing from the northeast and is fairly faint – probably a lone individual or maybe two. This being also wore boots.”
The party leader catches his breath before continuing. “The fourth set,” he explains, “was on the south side of the clearing. They look like they head both directions – both toward and away from this site. That set was made by someone wearing boots – there was more than one, but we cannot tell exactly how many. That set starts and ends at the trail -- we lost them there, however.”
Sighing, Tiron finishes his report by saying, “I regret that that is all we were able to discern from the signs we found. We could not determine the exact race, numbers or size of the various suspects. Nor could we figure out the comparative age of any of the tracks. What did everyone else find?”
Alain holds up a single gold coin. “I found this under some leaves,” he says. “Perhaps it was dropped by someone during the fight. It has the dragon emblem, the symbol of the Cormyrian monarchy on its face – so it must have been minted in Cormyr.”
Salik and Cob shake their heads when it is their turn to report. “We didn’t find nuthin’ or no-one,” Cob replies. “Them tracks ya foun’ comin’ from the northeast, tho – them is probably the ones I made when I first found them bodies. I left to’ard the southwest, though.”
A quick comparison of the bottom of Cob’s boots confirms that he is, indeed, the cause of the northeast set of tracks. A silence then falls over the party as they ponder the clues they have found.
After inspecting Cob’s boots, Tirondalin stands up and stretches his back. Sliding his bow off of his shoulder, he leans upon it, fingering his silver medallion, deep in thought and praying to Solonor for guidance. It is only several seconds, however, before he is eyeing the party and begins to articulate the thoughts forming in his mind. “My inner nature tells me to enter the woods and follow these tracks that come from the north, but my head tells me I have people who are perhaps not apt for such a journey, especially when there could be other alternatives. Declan, could we have the map please?”
After a brief examination of the map, Tiron speaks up again, “All that is north according to this cartographer are the Caves of Chaos. Can anyone offer any suggestion as to what we do or where we go from here?”
“The Caves?!?” Cob exclaims, terror creeping into his voice. “Ain’t nuthin’ good gonna come outa goin to them caves. Used to be, groups o’ adventurers and the like, they’d go up there to git themselves some gold. Quite a few never came back, too!” The hunter glances anxiously from Tiron to the others, his eyes darting fearfully about as he nervously fingers his bow.
Velgardrin becomes much more animated when he hears Cob’s mention of gold in the caverns. With a wink at Amiel he says, “Findin’ gold be good – fer me purse has little more than dust in it. And maybe the ladies be likin’ me iffin my purse be full.”
Then he turns more serious and continues. “So it may be more than one group like I wondered. That mere still make me nervous, though.” The dwarven priest puts his right hand on the head of his axe and says a small prayer to Clanggedin Silverbeard for guidance and protection for the group.
“Whatever we do, it should be together,” suggests Malk. “If people stay clear of the caves, then it would be a good place for our murderers to hide. I still worry about any undead, but if we are together on this then I feel that the caves are a good place to start."
Malk turns to Baulin and asks in a somber voice, “I don’t suppose that you can tell whether they left here walking after they were dead? Do things like that leave a feeling about a place?” The bard continues to keep a sharp eye and ear on his surroundings.
Velgardrin – not the other dwarf, Baulin; they really don’t look alike like all humans do – answers Malk’s question. “I have no special sense of undead, but will ask the Father of Battles if that is what happened to these. He may answer and he may not.” Then, Velgardrin prays to Clanggedin Silverbeard; thanking him for his previous guidance and aid and asks if the corpses here were animated as undead.
Hands on his weapons, and a sharp eye on the surrounding forest, Alain moves to the edge of the group. “I like this not. It’s bad enough to be murdered, but to have your body desecrated after your passing...” Alain makes a sour face and spits on the ground. “If we find who ever is responsible for this, I intend to do all in my power to make an example of them!”
Alain then looks to the party leader. “Oh Tiron, did you want to hold on to this gold piece?” Alain’s gauntleted hand extends out, offering up the found coin.
Tirondalin makes no move to accept the coin from Alain, but instead returns the gesture with a grim smile. “You may keep the coin, warrior. Let it be a reminder of the pledge of revenge you made in this place of death.”
Folding up the map of the area and returning it to the mage, Tiron then turns his attention to Malk. “Your logic is sound, and furthermore, it seems that the caves are the best lead we have at this point in time. I know little of these things you and the dwarves call “undead” but of the stories shared by my grandfather of ghosts and specters. However, I do feel it premature to worry about such things given the very little evidence we have.”
The half-elf squats down and picks up a fallen leaf of rich green and standing up again, holds it in his hand, admiring it with a sigh. “Such evil deeds corrupting the tranquility of this lovely forest.” He looks at the party members that have yet to speak, “Declan, Amiel, Salik – if you have no further input, then I believe we will follow this northern trail. Any objections?” The question comes with a rise of his eyebrows and a look of determination.
Declan takes the map and places back in its pouch and then back in his backpack. Having remained quiet up to this point, he merely nods and looks about. The mage doesn’t seem as confident in the wilderness as he did in town.
Amiel finally stops pacing around. “I agree Tiron. It’s a bit early in the piece to be considering the dark art of necromancy,” she says with a girlish shudder.
“But I too cannot make much sense of the information we have,” she adds, shaking her head. And then in a quiet voice, under her breadth, she says, “My father wouldn't be pleased....”
“The humanoid tracks possibly confirm the presence of an active band of gnolls as Jadale said,” Amiel continues, “But did they ambush the caravan trail? Somehow, I doubt it. And while I’m sure a filthy bunch of gnolls would love a bit of tasty human meat in their cooking pots, from what I hear about them they simply would not be as methodical in cleaning up as the evidence around us suggests. And there’s the two separate sets of tracks made by booted feet. One set could possibly be the bandits’; it’s much more likely that they slew the merchants, and picked them clean than the gnolls. The gnolls would have taken them immediately to their lair and not left them to rot.”
Glancing at Cob, she finishes by saying, “And not left them here for our guide to find. Therefore, our prey is the bandits rather than the gnolls,” she concludes firmly.
“But I don’t quite agree that the Caves are our only option,” she states, staring levelly at Tiron. “Remember, Jadale mentioned that there was an old bandit camp somewhere in the woods south of the East Way? Could it possibly be in use again? By either one of the three possible groups involved?”
Addressing Cob, Amiel asks, “Do you know where this camp is? How long will it take us to get there?”
Cob’s face screws up as he ponders Amiel’s question. “Don’t reckon I e’r saw it,” he replies. “Only woods south o’ the East Way ‘r on the other side o’ the Goblinwater. I do my huntin’ in these northern woods, here. Don’t wanna go messin’ ‘round near the ‘Mere – can’t be nuthin’ good comin’ o’ that!”
Directing his attention back to Tiron, Cob asks, “Well, where do ya reckon we oughta go?”
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