By Brian Flood
Chapter 31 - Return to the Graves
East of Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Mid-Afternoon, 19th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
As their flankers have now discarded attempts to move silently, the party’s marching rate increases. Paced by Tiron, who moves through the woods to the north, the small group moves eastward along the East Way. They still move much slower than the average traveler, however. Their hands stay close to their weapons as their eyes roam between watching the woodline to the north and the tall grasses to the south.
It takes a little over an hour to cover the distance from the intersection to the sloping rise where, some three days before, the band encountered the undead occupants of concealed graves. Tiron and Salik report seeing nothing unusual during their flanking duties – then again, they did not thoroughly scour the ground they covered, either.
The gravesite appears much as it did after the adventurers re-interned the corpses after the fight. A dozen mounds of dirt, each measuring about six feet long by three feet wide, are scattered about an area. The intervening tall grasses between the graves and the road mask the site from casual observation by travelers.
“It looks like no one has tampered with the graves in the past few days,” Amiel announces, perhaps stating the obvious. Head down, she starts looking around the ground for any traces of new footprints while still talking.
“We have two options the way I see it,” she says, “we can try and find the caves and perhaps begin to explore them tonight, or we can try to pick up the trail that leads through yonder forest that Salik and I found. I’m curious as to the latter, as it may give us a clues as to our mysterious necromancer...”
Pausing her search she looks up, “Any opinions, boys?”
“It seems the onset of night is going to play a large part in our decisions also,” comments Tiron, noting the position of the waning sun while immersed in several moments of thought. He takes a breath and continues in a serious tone, “I must admit that we have little information on either choice – the forest path or the caves. We may not make it to the caves by nightfall, and while we may seek shelter within for the night, the Gods only know who or what else has the same idea. So mayhap we investigate this trail and put our faith in the relative neutrality of nature and the protection of the Keen Eye while we are in his realm,” he suggests rather piously.
The half-elf ranger-priest is bright-eyed and continues hastily, “Considering the trail does join with this grave site, it’s also probably our best lead!”
As Tiron voices his comments, Amiel’s careful examination for new footprints near the graves proves to be unsuccessful. She does, however, locate the trail which she and Salik found three days previous. The trail appears to have been made by a group of bipedal creatures – it is unclear whether the creatures were human, demihuman, or humanoid, however. The faint path leads off to the northwest, into the forest.
“I must say I’m curious as to where this trail leads,” says Salik, “however, I don’t think it’s going to get us any closer to resolving the task set to us.”
The rogue pauses and looks at the sun. “This path goes northwest anyway, so it’s not going much out of our way to explore it as the caves are to the north. We might as well see where it leads.”
“I believe there is wisdom in this,” Nathan states confidently. “Though I know our intentions were to get to the Caves when we left the Keep, I was unaware of this trail before.”
Leaning forward on his staff, the young mage continues, “If we were to go to the Caves and met with strong opposition, receiving grave damage in the process, any retreat back to the Keep could be hampered by who or whatever made this trail. I’d feel more confident knowing that we didn’t leave a potential enemy at our backs.”
With a sweep of his arm towards the graves, Malk chips in, “I for one would rather NOT camp for the night too close to these souls. Perhaps we could move a way up this northwest trail and set up camp just off it while the scouts check ahead a ways.”
“I be feelern the same as Malk,” asserts Velgardrin. “These graves be a concern. What if we only waked half er them before and the rest wake during the night? After all, there were more graves than we saw at first. And I be feelern bad that we failed to pay Cob the hunter. We owes him a bonus and an apolergy I thinks.”
“Alright. The trail it is, then,” Amiel announces. “Salik, I’d like you to fall back to the main party. Swap places with me. I’ll take over your position as scout. Since we’re going to be tracking, I’m probably the best qualified, along with Tiron, to lead.
“Alain,” she continues, “you have command over the main body. Follow a few minutes behind us. Whoever made the trail isn’t likely to be waiting for us in ambush as the trail was made several days ago. So we’ll be moving at a pace sufficient to track rather than silence.
“Nathan,” she goes on to say, “don’t forget to map. If we get into trouble, we’ll call for help...come running.”
Glancing at Tiron, she nods in the direction of the forest. “Let’s move. Stay close – I’ll track while you make sure nothing jumps us.” With that, she follows the trail north.
Tiron heads off with Amiel and the main body falls into the order designated by the party’s leaders. The party creeps through the forest, paced by the two rangers who move ahead of the group and watch the ground for the telltale signs of the unidentified band’s passage.
* * * * *
After a little over a candlemark – and about a quarter mile’s distance – of travel, the faint signs of tracks bring the adventurers to the southern edge of large field. The rocky and otherwise bare clearing is covered in a blanket of brambles. A narrow path – discernable even to the untrained eye – cuts its winding way through the unpassable undergrowth, ending some two bowshots or so against a barrow or shadowed low cliff face. The rangers confirm that their quarry’s trail continues along the narrow path.
Eyeing the path, Amiel says with a frown, “Single file it’ll have to be. Tiron and I will go first; the rest of you follow after we get to the cliff face. Move in this order: Alain, Salik, Declan, Nathan and Vel.”
Still scrutinizing the path, Amiel predicts that, “Those brambles are going to be full of thorns.” She removes her thick cloak and rolls it into her pack. “Put away the map for now, Nathan. All of you remove your cloaks. I don’t want anyone to catch on any thorns because of some flapping clothes. Protect your face and arms with your cloaks, those of you without armor.”
“Hold a moment, please!” Nathan calls softly, but loud enough to be heard by the departing leaders. Making the last of his annotations to the map, he carefully sprinkles a bit of sand on the ink to dry it. Pausing for a few seconds, he shakes the sand loose and rolls up the parchment before stowing it in his scroll case.
“Ink does not dry instantaneously, though I wish it did!” he says with a grimace. Taking firm hold of his staff, he indicates that he is ready to go.
Turning, the lady ranger heads toward the path, murmuring, “Ladies first, Tiron...”
“I shan't debate that,” rebukes Tiron, and picks up the pace after her. With keen eyes ahead and all about, the sylvan’s instincts take control. His bow finds its way to his firm grasp and a short prayer is uttered from his lips, “Watch us, Keen Eye.”
With a cheeky grin on his face, Malk holds his hand up like a child in class and coughs to attract attention. “Hu Hum. Er… Amiel… are we forgetting someone? Or do you want me to march on my own? The brambles would play hell with my leathers if I had to move off the path.”
While waiting for a reply, the bard loosens his pack and adds his water flask to it after taking a quick drink. As an after thought, he adds half of his sling shots into a pouch in his pack.
Rolling her eyes, Amiel turns back. “Oh sooo sorry, Malk,” she says with exaggerated sweetness. “You are before Vel.”
Salik sniffs the air nervously like a dog looking for scent. “I don’t like this one bit,” he grumbles. “This smells of a trap to me. A small narrow path leading to a cliff? A couple of bowmen could pick us off easily from up there. Still, if we have to go through here, let’s leave a bit of space in between us and move fast... no sense in making easy targets.”
The rogue deftly reaches for his green sash and a couple of daggers appear as if by magic, one in each hand. “Let’s go!” he exclaims.
After stowing his cloak and tabard, Alain draws rapier and a dagger balanced for throwing. Looking to make sure that everyone is ready, Alain begins following a short distance behind Tiron.
Velgardrin quickly looses the peacebond on his axe and wields it in his hands. The dwarven priest nervously looks all around, expecting battle at any time with more zombies or worse.
Amiel proceeds first, bastard sword drawn and held in both hands. She walks carefully – far enough ahead of Tiron so that any branches swinging as a result of her progress do not hit him. She tries to avoid being cut to pieces but continues to study the track made by their unknown quarry.
Behind the two rangers, the remainder of the group moves very slowly, their pace governed by both a desire to remain unharmed by the brambles and Amiel’s concentration on the faint signs of the unknown group’s passage. Torn scraps of cloth and numerous bits of graying flesh imply that whomever – or whatever – passed through here before did not take nearly the same amount of precautions against the prickly undergrowth as the party does now.
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