August 5, 1720 -- Night
After loading up the five large deer carcasses, the group backtracked half a mile and pitched camp on the banks of the Rocky Branch. Vicious, the pony, informed them that the carcasses needed to be dressed out soon, and that they would need to hang for at least a day to let the rigor mortis subside before the meat would be edible. With this in mind, they dug in with the intent of staying put a few days.
The older women among the emancipated persons, who after some debate were elevated to simply being called "people", immediately went to work hanging and dressing the deer. Entrails were discarded, the skins were removed and stretched over a fire to be smoke-dried, and the leg tendons were carefully cut out and similarly dried to be used as bow-strings. Líadan, thinking ahead to their need for supplies, insisted that the antlers of the stag be carefully removed and cleaned to be used for trade.
August 6, 1720
The next morning, Rhodri pointed out that in the hot August weather, they would need a way to preserve the meat. He rode out early, and following Vicious's nose (and some licking of the dirt), found a patch of riverbank where the soil had a very high mineral content. One carefully manipulated stone shape spell later, he was able to return to camp in the evening with a good-sized block of, mostly dirt-free, salt.
The hides, by this time, had dried sufficiently and, after being washed in the river, were cut up to make bindings for the women and girl's breasts -- thus relieving them of some of the discomfort imposed on them by the auctioneers.
That night, while keeping watch from half-way up a nearby tree, Tess heard the howling of wolves in the near-distance. She alerted the others and, when the pack neared the camp, obviously drawn by the smell of the five freshly slain deer, Líadan used her illusions to create the sound of a pair of feasting mountain lions. Unwilling to tangle with a cat for what they thought would be an easy meal, the wolves slinked off.
August 7, 1720
The next morning, however, Rhodri spotted another wolf slinking towards the hanging deer. The wolf was gaunt and emaciated, clearly starved, and, with no sign of others around, Rhodri assumed it had been chased out of its pack. As the wolf crept towards their food stores, Rhodri stepped out from his hiding place, shouting and throwing rocks at the wolf, and interposed himself between the wold and the deer, hoping to scare it off.
He had no such luck. The starving wolf snarled in rage and lunged for Rhodri, tearing into him with its jaws and bearing him to the ground. Tess sprung up from her bed roll, snatched her knife-on-a-stick (one could hardly call it a proper spear), and skewered the beast before dancing back out of its reach.
Or, at least, she tried to dance out of reach. The wolf lunged after her and tore open her shoulder with one quick snap of its jaws, causing her to faint from the sudden shock. More hungry than murderous, and clearly preferring fresher meat, the wolf grabbed Tess and began dragging her limp form out of the camp -- leaving an ever-growing trail of blood behind it. Líadan lashed out at the wolf with blasts of shadow and pain, while Rhodri stumbled to his feat and mounted Vicious to take up pursuit.
Vicious slammed into the wolf, knocking Tess free of his grip, but not without stomping the already badly-wounded girl in the process. A retaliatory bite from the wolf nearly felled the pony. Rhodri leaned down and tried to pull Tess's body up behind him, but his tiny arms simply could not lift her. A second bite left the small faerie hanging limply from Vicious' saddle, feebly trying to hold his guts in.
"Get the guns!" Líadan finally yelled (though it sounded more like "Buk buk buckaw!"), as the wolf resumed trying to drag off Tess to be eaten.
There was a flurry of activity and soon a pile of young boys were running up with the muskets loaded. With a deafening bang, the three guns reported, and two bullets struck home, deep into the wolf's side. Finally, with an angry whinny, Vicious reared and caved in the wolf's head with a blow of her hooves.
Líadan ordered the wolf to be skinned and its pelt added to their trade goods. She and Sara then went to work tending their two critically injured friends.
August 8, 1720
After almost twenty-four hours, and the liberal application of Sara's healing magic, Tess and Rhodri woke up. Given the apparent prevalence of wolves in the area, Rhodri insisted that they load up the meat and "grab the cart and run". Everyone else readily agreed.
Climbing a nearby hill, Líadan pointed out how the Rapidan River's course dipped very far to the south, while the main gap through the mountains was almost due west. Leading them over nature's paths, they backtracked north and crossed the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford, then struck out as due-west as they could, following the Cabin Branch river. They made good time, and as dusk was falling, skirted south around the small mountain known as Locust Hill and camped on the banks of White Oak Run in the western lee of the hill.
August 9, 1720
Early the next morning, as Tess was keeping watch, a small cardinal fluttered down and landed on a branch just above her head, staying for a surprisingly long time. Líadan stuck up a conversation with the bird, hoping to learn about any possible pursuers. Sadly, she learned, cardinals are very territorial, typically spending their entire lives in an area not larger than ten acres.
The bird did, however, tell her about a horrible pony-sized lizard that lived on the mountain and which had been attacking its nest and stealing his mate's eggs. Líadan tried to convince the others that they should hunt down this creature, but Tess countered that "fighting for the ethical treatment of animals by other animals" wasn't even a thing, and that they had more pressing concerns.
Getting under way again, they crossed the White Oak and Crooked Run rivers and then struck out to the northwest, following a narrow canyon carved out by the Robinson River, one of the Rapidan's larger tributaries. The tributary was mostly dry after the hot summer and they were able to cover nearly twelve miles that day by following the rocky banks.
As they traveled, Vicious informed them that she had caught the scent of another herd of deer. While nervous about tangling with another stag, the supplies from the last hunt were already running low with so many mouths to feed. While the others kept on up the river, Rhodri, Líadan, and Tess climbed up out of the canyon in pursuit of the deer, taking several of women and boys, and the guns, with them.
With Vicious' aid, they approached the deer downwind and soon saw that, rather than a large stag-guarded herd, it was merely four does. A surprise attack from Rhodri, a barrage of gunfire, and a pair of sleep spells from the mothers made short work of the deer. They gutted and bled the animals on the spot to reduce weight and then hauled them back down into the canyon to catch up with the others.
As night was falling, the wagons climbed up the steep rise out of the canyon and they pitched camp at the top, nestled among a grove of tall oak trees. They hung up the deer to cool and relax. After the incident with the wolf trying to steal their food-stores, Líadan suggested that they set their bear traps out around the meat.
Late in the night, while Rhodri's was on watch, a horrible sound rang through the camp -- like the squawking of a wounded bird, but as loud as a roaring lion. Rushing to check on the deer, Rhodri found a massive half-owl, half-bear monstrosity with a foreleg caught in one of their traps. The beast roared, and hooted, and strained, but could not free its leg from the iron jaws of the bear trap. Líadan tried to calm the beast down, hooting in her strange bird-language, but could not get through to it. Reluctantly, Líadan allowed the others to put the beast out of its misery, and soon its skin was in cart next to the wolf's and its meat was hanging up next to the venison it had been trying to steal.
Having exhausted the initial supply of bullets that came with the muskets, Tess insisted on borrowing the iron cooking pot that Rhodri and Vicious had brought with them and using it to melt down the lead ingot. Keeping a fire stoked and working in shifts with the one mold, they churned out about a hundred bullets by morning, with a substantial amount of lead left over, cooled and hardened in the pot.
To be continued...