August 5, 1720
While the forests west of Spotsylvania were not particularly dense, with numerous game trails running through the underbrush, navigating at night, with a new team of oxen and the long train of escaped slaves, over hills crossed by numerous creeks was not an easy task. Before long the deepening gloam threatened to make them stop, for fear of the oxen breaking a leg on the unseen terrain. Moaning in exasperation, Tess rummaged through her pack and found a small lantern and reflector that she had forgotten about. Líadan's magic further aided them, picking out unseen paths that made the going much easier than it should have been.
They followed the Rapidan River as closely as the terrain would allow, and made good time. As dawn was breaking, Zibbler spotted a high rocky promontory to the north, which he suggested would give them a good view of any possible pursuers. At his advice, they followed the bed of the stream known as Potato Run to the foot of the low mountain and pitched camp in it's western shade.
Líadan's magic again proved its usefulness for the road, turning water from the stream into a dark-brown, meaty broth, while the ex-slaves dug up and added the copious wild tubers which gave the small stream it's name. As the camp, such as it was, was being set -- the girls gathering fallen limbs and twigs to cook the stew -- Zibbler's keen eyes spotted a flash of bright red from the top of the promontory. There, nearly five hundred feet above them, man and horse could be seen silhouetted against the rising sun.
Figuring it impossible that someone on the cliff had failed to spot their large party coming, Tess shouted greetings up at the man. He vanished from sight, then soon re-appeared, circling down around the north side of the mountain. What came into view was not a man at all, but a small, hairless, gray, misshapen thing, mounted atop a small pony, which was itself oddly mis-proportioned with an large head, over-sized eyes, and oddly upturned snout, and was also a bright cherry red in colour. Líadan immediately recognized them as creatures of the faerie courts, and invited them to share the stew. The small man introduced himself as Rhodri the Third and his steed as "Vicious".
The exchange of pleasantries was interrupted when some of the boys, who were unloading the cart to feed the oxen, suddenly started shouting excitedly. Tess wandered over and saw that they had found a hidden compartment beneath the seat of the wagon, and were lifting a large, fur-wrapped bundle out of it. Unrolling the large bundle, they found three muskets, with powder and shot, tools for making additional ammunition, a pair of axes, bear traps, a bottle of booze, and a waxed-leather scroll case with, among other things, a very detailed map of the eastern coast of the colony.
Having committed themselves to a largely nocturnal existence over the past two days, they bedded down and rested until sundown. The ex-slaves (or emancipated persons as Tess now insisted on calling them) and their emancipators worked in shifts keeping watch from atop Stone Point, but no one saw any signs of pursuit.
By nightfall they were back underway. After much discussion of what paths they might take west, it was agreed that they should continue following the Rapidan, despite it's wildly meandering path, and cross the mountains at its headwaters. As they traveled, the issue of food also came up -- while the wild tubers and Líadan's magical broth had helped, along with the emancipated mothers' talents for preserving food -- one day of camping had largely depleted their meager stores.
Rhodri and Vicious agreed to scout for game. About three hours after they had broken camp, Rhodri returned with word of a large herd of deer that he had seen crossing to the south side of the river. They marched for another mile before they found a ford. Rhodri, Tess, Sara, and Líadan, along with a half-dozen of the boys crossed the river to go hunting, leaving Zibbler, Amos, and Thond to guard the wagon.
They back-tracked to where Rhodri had seen the deer cross, then hiked for nearly an hour, before coming upon the herd. A half-dozen does and nearly as many fawns stood grazing in a small clearing, watched over by a pair of young bucks and one truly massive stag, nearly five feet at the shoulder and easily three or four hundred pounds, with a broad rack of least twelve sharp tines.
They circled around to the east to get downwind, and Rhodri told everyone to spread out around the glade and close slowly. Once within range, Tess lit up the clearing with dancing, flickering faerie fire. Rhodri charged in on VIcious, firing at one young buck, while Sara rushed the other, tangling it in her impossibly long tresses. and Líadan unleashed an eldritch blast at the great stag.
The does and fawns, panicked by the sudden attack, bolted bounding away to the west. The ex-slave boys, working in tandem to load and fire the muskets they'd found, brought down two of the does before the others escaped. The stag and the two bucks, meanwhile, turned to defend the herd. The great stag, enraged, lowered its head and charged at Líadan, who promptly took cover behind a tree, as Rhodri wheeled Vicious and unleashed a volley at it, drawing its attention. The buck held in Sara's hair bucked and thrashed, breaking itself free and goring her with its small antlers, while the other buck charged at Tess.
Wheeling around, the great stag bore down on Rhodri and hit him with a full-force charge with its horns, knocking him off of his pony, then trampling with its sharp hooves. Thinking similar thoughts, Tess and Líadan both moved to blind their prey -- Tess by dropping a globe of inky darkness over the buck charging her, and Líadan by unleashing a blast of glitterdust at the stag.
Tess rushed into the darkness and circled around the sightless deer, trying to get close enough to cut its throat with her knife. Slashing away in the dark, Tess managed only to anger the deer, which reared and lashed out blindly, striking her with a hoof. She circled around, putting the buck between herself and a large fallen log. Then roaring as loud as she could, and doing her best impression of a bear, she grabbed a branch from the ground and swung it at the deer. The buck, startled, turned and bolted, easily leaping the fallen log without even having to see it, and dashing out of the darkness.
Líadan's worked perhaps too well, as it blinded Rhodri as well. Vicious charged back in and bull-rushed the stag, knocking it away from her master, who promptly stood up, groped about, and pulled himself onto the back of the nearest four-footed beast. Which he quickly realized was the wrong one when the stag started to snort and buck, running blindly around the glen trying to shake him off. Clinging for dear life, Rhodri rode the stag around as his vision slowly cleared of the blinding motes.
Líadan then dropped a globe of darkness similar to Tess's over the stag. Luckily, Rhodri could see in the dark just fine. Clinging with his legs, he pulled his bow and fired a shot strait into the back of the stag's neck. The pain of the arrow caused the stag to lower its head, skid to a near stop, and buck, sending Rhodri flying over its head to land in a heap.
The boys with their guns, having taken down the does they were firing at and reloaded, turned their aim on the two bucks and quickly brought them both down. Tess, winded from the hoof-shot, sat down on the ground and began lashing her knife to the end of her branch to make a make-shift pike. Sara rushed over to Tess and promptly patched her up.
Badly injured and still blinded by Líadan's clinging darkness, the stag bolted. Right at Tess and Sara. As the stag neared, Sara rolled out of the way, unusually spry for her age, and caught it's hind legs in her hair, causing it to pitch forward right onto Tess's waiting spear. The stick splintered as the stag's weight bore the knife-tip into its neck all the way up to the hilt, finally killing the massive beast.
Unable to move the large, dead animals, Rhodri rode back to the ford and escorted the wagon and the rest of their band back to the clearing to collect their game.
To be continued...