By Brian Flood
Chapter 63 - The Scouting Trip
North of Corm Orp, The Sunset Vale
Late-Evening, 14th Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Paced by Cyzicus' relatively shorter stride, the six scouts march together through the high grass at the foot of the eastern hills for almost five hours until they finally see the faint glow of a campfire in the distance. By Alani's estimate, their journey has covered some four miles or so.
The companions move another mile or so until they are directly east of the glow of the fire and then select a distinctive cluster of small trees to use as a rendezvous point. Next, they split into their predetermined groups; the two wolves head further north to flank the far side of the fire while Cyzicus, Alani, Corax, and Cyzicus' mysterious new pet dog move to scout the southern side of the fire.
Moving slowly through the tall grass, the four southern scouts creep closer to the glow of the fire. At a distance of about a quarter of a mile, by the light of the distant flame, they discern a campsite that has been established a little over a bow's shot from the eastern side of the road. A row of five small tents, spaced evenly from west to east lies between the fire and the scouts' position. Each tent is a simple affair capable of housing one or two human-sized individuals. To the east of this row of tents are two larger tents - one square and one round. Each of these tents looks like it is capable of comfortably sleeping three or four humans.
West of the campsite, in the area between the tents and the road are several horses. By the light of the fire and the fading light of the moon, the scouts can pick out at least six horses that are picketed in the open space.
The adventurers' visual inspection is interrupted by the jingle of metal from the west. They quickly look in the direction of the sound and see a distant group of riders moving slowly through the grass in their general direction. The four scouts sink slowly to the earth, below the height of the tall prairie grasses. Their hearts pound in their ears and they focus their efforts on controlling their breathing as the sound of the riders gets closer.
The sound of softly clanking armor and hoofbeats passes nearby between the four prone scouts and the campsite. By the sounds of it, the riders can be only a few dozen yards away. The riders pass and the scouts allow a few heartbeats more before they rise slowly in the patrol's wake.
By the light of the moon, Alani and the others can discern about half a dozen mounted warriors riding away to the east. As the companions watch, the group slowly curves its route and begins to travel northeast.
"A counterclockwise patrol pattern," whispers Corax. "Looks like they are staying about a bow's shot away from the camp," the rogue assesses.
The others nod silently and then turn their attention to a group of lights located near the road itself. Again, the four scouts creep through the tall grass to get a closer look - this time being sure to stay outside of the radius of the patrolling riders.
A few tense minutes later, the companions can see that the lights at the road are torches and lanterns held aloft by crude lampposts made from lances. The light reflects off of the armor of five or six mounted warriors that sit patiently on their mounts. One of the warriors holds a banner aloft on his lance. A fluttering of the wind stretches the banner, revealing an embroidered symbol identical to one side of the pennant taken from the dead Zhentarim sorceress.
Having seen enough, the four scouts begin the slow and stealthy journey westward toward the rendezvous point. They reach the cluster of trees almost an hour after they split from the two wolfish scouts. The companions wait in silence for several minutes and then a soft 'woof' announces the return of Darius and Soft Fang.
With the familiar rippling of flesh and fur, Darius transforms back into his human form. "Soft Fang and I saw five tents on the north side of the campsite," the druid announces. "We saw only one soldier - without his armor - when he left the group of tents to relieve himself. There are also several horses in the grasses between the tents and the torches by the road - maybe a dozen or so.
"What did you see?" Darius asks. As the druid asks the question, the others notice that the pale glow of dawn is barely visible above the eastern hills.
Cyzicus tells all that the four southern scouts saw and then adds, "What concerns me most is two things. First is the symbol on the banner; and second, the patrol. The heraldic device matches the witch, and the patrol is concentrating to the south. Taken together, these strongly support our suspicions that we are the prey they seek rather than just passing merchants. After all, merchants pass both ways and they are not concerned about the north."
" 'Saw the same, let us hurry back," Alani says with a smile. "We have done well this night, let us report back and get sleep," the elven girl suggests, emphasizing her words with a yawn.
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