17th Septemus - In the Backwoods:
We arose at dawn, with Heike Brethouwer doing most of the work whilst her young daughter in law slept on, which I can well understand.
Jarolf Lowhouse had agreed guide us for some of the way, and we set off. For once the weather was clear and sunny. I was keen to try my new boots (which were made by the same cobbler as the very satisfactory previous pair). Much to everyone's surprise they were fine, and Silas was the one to get blisters, and had to ride the old mare that we had borrowed from Herluf.
The track lead along a ridge away from Slapershaven, and so we could see the village and the lake for much of the day. We could also see the double masted, lateen sailed ship that was approaching. This was unusual (Albinius / Lukas operated the only regular riverboat, according to Jarolf). It must have been fairly difficult to get such a large vessel so far upstream, and fairly expensive.
We watched with my telescope, then I lent it to Drake and the rest of us pressed on.
Drake saw several figures clothed in red, and one with a blue cloak. They looked like southern mercenaries of some sort, most probably from Casilicus, at least according to Rufus. In the afternoon, they left the village, on the same trail we had taken.
We had paused at a campsite; a regular shelter with firewood, left by the locals for there own use. Then, at the first junction, Jarolf turned right to his relations' farm. We continued.
Towards dusk we arrived at another farm, where 3 of Herluf's labourers were gathered around a fire. They bid us welcome, and invited us to stay for the night, but I was concerned that the mercenaries might be following us, and would arrive in the morning (the trail is sufficiently uneven, and the light sufficiently bad, that even soldiers would have been considerably slowed by a night march). Drake had caught up with us before dusk.
We decided that walking through the woods to the third farm would be too hard for us at night (as it happened, the way was short and quite easy going), but we couldn't risk the mercenaries coming upon us by night, or at dawn. We sneaked a few bowshots away from the farm (leaving the horse, as it was stabled inside), and made a fireless but dry bivouac.
Dawn was clear enough to see woodsmoke arising from the campsite; the mercenaries had stopped there at dusk. They were now fresh, whilst (with the exception of Drake, who thrives in a wild setting), we were cold and tired.
We continued to the third farm, which I approached. Drake fetched the horse. The others hung back out of sight.
This was a prosperous farm, run by Verity Hacker, and she made us welcome. She was fairly loquacious and mentioned that other natural philosophers and fossil collecters had come this way every so often, and told us how to find the 'Famous Black Stone'. I called to the others and we all ate a meal with the Hacker household. A downpour started however, and so we borrowed oilskins and continued in the rain.
We were looking for a good campsite, in a defensible position. We also wanted to locate the black stone itself, but not to approach it too closely.
I suspected that animals could be sickened by the stone, but that they would generally avoid it. Plants might be warped.
We approached a rocky valley with a waterfall at the head, a pool, a smaller waterfall, another pool and a stream flowing out (we were walking upstream on the left bank).
The left (still looking upstream) of the upper pool was readily defensible, but was a mediocre campsite. The black stone lay near the opposite bank. The best campsite lay on the left, by the lower pool, as the trees provided some shelter.
Drake wasn't with us, so we tried both sites.
Drake had gone back to observe Verity's farm, and sure enough 6 mercenaries and some sort of officer arrived at dusk.
He made his way up to us in the darkness, but met the Groot Brothers on the trail. As we had surmised, the Groots were reasonably friendly with Verity and her family, and Drake told them about the mercenaries.
Like all the other farmers, they assumed that these had been hired by Herluf, to capture the Groots. This was ridiculous as 7 professionals (and a ship) would cost vastly more than any reasonable reward for the ruffians.
Drake returned to our camp and then a few hours later the Groots came to us with word from Verity that the mercenaries were after the Black Stone and us.
I negotiated; they would help us (as guides, rather than fighters) against the soldiers, if we could arrange for their safe passage downstream.
I didn't sleep particularly well; thinking of the stone, how I could split it's reflection by sunlight, moonlight, maybe even starlight in my prisms (people wondered if it had fallen from the stars, and I would not be surprised, as there was no trace of it being vomited from the earth).
The Groots mentioned that Clod was female, and didn't seem surprised when I suggested that she was Samuel's Wife, driven mad by the stone.
We expected that the mercenaries would come soon after dawn. I wanted to talk first, to find out what they wanted, and to assess their weapons, but we all expected a fight.
A bit before dawn, whilst we were still talking about our preparations, Lukas (who had been watching the approach up the valley) heard voices. The mercenaries had braved the rough terrain and rain, and had got into position for a dawn attack.
With Rufus, I remained at the lower campsite, whilst the others climbed up to the ridge between the upper pools. As we could not get the horse up to the upper pool (at least not on this side of the stream), the Groot Brothers concealed her amongst some boulders just below the path up.
6 of the mercenaries were marines, with helmets, partial armour, pikes and slung shields. The leader (employer?) was from Takshendal, though, by his accent, not from the city (I must identify his accent). We spoke.
They had presumably asked all the locals about us, but it seemed that they had some excellent intelligence and standing orders. He addressed me by name, and demanded that I abandon my claim to the stone, in exchange for the lives of my companions. I was not to be killed. He knew about Adriana Wormpole. He didn't know that the black stone was too heavy to be moved. He claimed that he had techniques to mitigate its unpleasant side effects. His group numbered 7, all well armed. We were 5, less well prepared, but unlike them we had missile weapons and the Groots as dubious allies.
I demured, and backed towards my friends, claiming that I wanted to consult them.
The leader (he had finally given his name as Achibald Pillorseed) sent 3 men across the river, and upwards towards the second pool.
I had suggested that we have someone capable of shooting on both sides of the stream, with a wide angle between them. They didn't do this, largely because we only had Drake's excellent longbow and Silas' crossbow. As it happened, this was enough, as Drake killed 2 of them.
The other group then crossed the stream and they all withdrew behind some rocks.
Then things started to go wrong for us.
Our first problem was that Drake shot about 1/3 of his arrows, although Silas actually recovered 2 of them.
Drake had also twisted his ankle jumping across the stream between the pools. He could not harry the enemy through the forests, though they didn't know this.
I saw the disaster approaching; with the 5 mercenaries in good cover, Rufus stood before them and taunted, Lukas beside him. Silas hung back on their flank, closer to myself and the Groots. I was walking up openly, the Groots sneaking. We were still on our side of the stream; my main purpose was to force the mercenaries to detail more men towards us (not really helped by the little detail that the Groots were not signed up to fight). Rufus was standing too close.
Archibald shouted back, but before I was far enough forward, the marines rushed out; 4 in a line towards Rufus and Lukas, only 1 to Silas (Drake and Silas shot at him, and he retreated).
Rufus was overconfident and stood his ground, but was overpowered. Lukas fled.
Archibald then negotiated from strength. I never wanted to claim the stone, and it was too heavy to move, so I suggested that he send a man to confirm its weight.
Then, the best settlement that I could think of, was that he allowed Rufus to crawl over to us, we left the area, and we would not attempt to ambush them on the way back to Slapershaven.
We travelled back the way that we'd come.
Drake sneaked up to Slapershaven and saw that there was no way that we could take the ship (I'd never promised anything about Slapershaven and beyond). The locals were independent, and could not afford to be anything other than neutral. The ship's crew, on the other hand, accepted a hefty bribe to overpower the 2 additional marines on board, and accept our employment.
We bought the local fishing boats for a good price (and concealed them a little way away, telling the villagers all about it). Lukas sailed his boat, and we sailed on the ship.
I told Herluf and Brother Jeppo what we were doing, and why.
The mercenaries could, no doubt, cut other fragments from the stone. They could trek downstream, or build another boat. However, at the end of Septemus, the weather generally turns nasty, the currents become difficult, and eventually ice blocks the lake and crashes down the river.
We got to Takshendal in good time, and Adriana Wormpole sent an adequate number of well equipped troops to the area.
I wrote a full account to Lady Adriana, and I gather that Silas was rather more circumspect with the city authorities (which, I gather, rather endeared him to Lady Adriana).
In all, not a wholly satisfactory conclusion.
I feel that the opposition knew too much about us, so information is leaking from the Wormpole organisation, and more likely from the city beaurocracy. Aurore is still free (but what did she know?). The opposition also seems to know more about the stone. I'd like to study it in the spring, but suspect that it will be buried.
The larger part of the first fragment is still unaccounted for; I'm fairly sure that it left Slapershaven.
Archibald may have escaped with additional fragments, but nothing large.
The villagers may have known who the latest iteration of Clod is all along, and not tried too hard to trap her.