The party awoke the next morning to the rich smell of roasting bear meat — or was it turkey? Despite having slain and skinned an owlbear the night before, it took an unusually long time for their minds to equate the horrible monstrosity they’d fought so recently with the smell of breakfast. After they had eaten and packed, Líadan suggested that they should attempt to find the Owlbear’s lair, siting the rather high market value of owlbear young, eggs, and pelts. Despite some dithering, and against pretty much everyone’s better instincts, the party agreed.
Lacking any real tracking skill, Líadan asked the local fauna for directions. Starting in the obvious place — where the owlbear had been caught in their trap — they followed the creature’s massive claw-prints backwards. Despite the thing’s bulk, they found no signs of its passage other than the prints — not a single broken twig or misplaced leaf. Whenever they started to lose the trail, a helpful fat, fluffy chickadee would flutter down and tweet shrilly beside the next nearest paw-print.
For over an hour they tracked the thing thusly. The trail lead them up into the nearby hills, through many a briary thicket or thorny hedgerow which seemed somehow completely undisturbed by the owlbear’s passage, and yet proved quite the barrier for the party. Finally after nearly two miles of pushing their way through the tangled undergrowth, they came to a steep ravine which cut towards the foot of Gaar Mountain. A half-mile up the ravine, they found a large cave-entrance in the hillside, with a small spring-fed pond in front of it.
With the enclosed walls of the ravine, the rank wet-fur/wet-feather smell of owlbear coming from the cave was nearly overwhelming. With much cajoling, Rhodri convinced Vicious that she should go down to the pond to get a drink and to get a look inside the cave. Grumbling as she went, Vicious reported that she saw something moving in the darkness of the cave, something big she thought. Líadan then asked the nearby birds for verification, a chickadee reported that there were “many, far too many” owlbears living in the cave and that they were “terrifically huge”.
Deciding that they were quite under-prepared for dealing with multiple adult owlbears, Tess, Líadan, and Zibbler decided to head back to camp and return with the musket squad and the bear traps, leaving Rhodri and Vicious to keep watch on the cave. The small, wrinkled faerie hid himself as best he could in the undergrowth and dug in to wait. And wait he did. Sitting there trying to keep still for solid three hours, he, unsurprisingly, dozed a bit.
After rounding up the boys with their muskets and the mothers with some sleep spells prepared, the crew made their way back towards the owlbear cave. As they neared the ravine, Tess caught a whiff of owlbear stench, not coming from the ravine, but from behind them. Going on the alert, everyone circled up and peered out into the dense tickets around them, but saw nothing.
The silence was punctuated by the squawk of a small bird and the sound of crunching bones. Then silence again.
After several minutes with no visual sign of an owlbear, they resumed their trek, but this time heard the distinct sounds of something rustling in the underbrush, keeping pace with them. Stop. Sound stops. Go. They kept it up for some time, but still saw no sign of whatever creature was stalking them. Only the smell of owlbear and the sounds of rustling leaves gave any indication that their stalker was still there.
Finally after a tense hour of this stop and go walking chase through the woods, they came to the cave. Rhodri took the bear traps and snuck up to the cave mouth to lay them out, while the others fanned out around the pool to keep watch. Tess, near the back, caught sight of rapid movement out of the corner of her eye, she spun just in time to see a flash of fur disappearing back into a ticket of raspberry bushes, accompanied by a panicked flight of small birds bursting out of those same bushes.
“There!” she cried.
Zibbler responded quickly unleashing a gout of magical fire at the bushes. The dried underbrush went up in a roaring column of flames, and something furry went rushing out of the bush and back towards the entrance of the ravine. Sadly, with the nearby flora quickly catching fire, they were unable to pursue, but instead went to work trying to contain the blaze.
Rhodri, meanwhile, so close to the cave, peered in and saw nothing. He moved closer. Nothing. Finally screwing up his courage, he marched into the cave and found it empty. Five small alcoves branched off from the entrance. There was a pile of broken and gnawed bones and bits of fur, and some bloody stains on the floor, but no sign of owlbears other than the lingering stench. He took the time to sift through the bones, but found nothing of any value.
Once the fire was under control, the party fanned out to look around, but found no signs of owlbears in the area. Disheartened by their failure, but somewhat relieved to not have to fight another owlbear, they packed up and headed back to camp.
As they left the ravine and descended the hill back towards their camp, Tess found several fresh owlbear tracks, heading the same way. Afraid that the owlbears might be heading for their camp, they sped up and ran the last mile. They arrived, breathless, to find nothing at all amiss.
With the sun now high in the sky, they ate a quick lunch and broke camp, determined to make some progress at least. Turning south by south-west, they followed the Whiteoak Run upstream. The mostly dry riverbed of the Whiteoak run served as a fine road, and they made good time. Near nightfall, they cut through the gap between Tippet’s Mountain and Carter Ridge, then pressed on, downhill, another two miles to the confluence of Whetstone Run and the Rapidan River, and camped on the shore.
As camp was being set, Rhodri rode out on Vicious, making a circuit of the camp, looking for “signs of bandits or wolves or bears or whatnot”. While he found none of such, he did stumble upon a large field of wild radishes. Making mental note of the location, he gathered up what he could and rode back to camp. Soon several parties of the emancipated people were coming and going, laden with large armfulls of the roots and greens to add their mostly carnivorous diet of the last few days.
That night, everyone was plagued by nightmares. Everyone except Rhodri that is. While standing first watch, he found a small wooden doll on the edge of the camp, looking like a vaguely feminine fox, painted in bright reds and yellows. He pocketed it with the intent of giving it to one of the young girls in their train.
August 11, 1720
The next morning, everyone woke bleary-eyed and grumpy, having suffered a night of much fitful turnings and cold sweats. As they packed up camp, Líadan pointed out that they had regained the Rapidan, having cut out nearly fourty miles of its southern dip from when they’d left it back at Raccoon Ford, and were now on track to follow it strait north to the gap at its headwaters if they chose, but also pointed out that the next ridge to the west marked the edge of their maps. Vicious countered that he smelled owlbear from the north, and that they should instead follow the Rapidan south by south-east and look for another path west, since the way due west looked “much too rocky”.
Exasperated, Tess pointed to the west, “There’s a pass right there!”
As they argued about which route to take, Zibbler spotted a tiny fox lurking on the edge of their camp. The little creature trotted into the camp like it owned the place, and began telling them, in plain English, what idiots they were and how it was a miracle that they’d survived this long. A moment later, a horse followed the fox out of the woods, bearing a native woman with an elaborate feathered headdress.
She explained that she had been watching them since the owlbear cave, and that the owlbears they seemed so afraid of were still on their trail. She pressed them as to whether they had thanked the spirits for their good luck so far, and for the food which had so fortuitously come to them, then lead them in a brief ceremony before urging them to move.
With the native woman’s aid, they took the western route, back up into the hills, then down into the Conway River valley, then around the northern edge of Teel Mountain and Lydia Mountain. By late afternoon, they reached the Swift Run and started finally making their way through the gap and up into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As they started up the steep trail, climbing thousands of feet, the wind changed and they caught the now familiar scent of owlbears. They scrambled, trying to move the ox-cart and the long train of women and children up the mountain as fast as possible before the predators could catch them.
As they moved up another switchback, Zibbler, walking at the trailing end of the group, once again heard the sound of a small bird being eaten whole. He spun around to see a rounded, furry haunch disappearing behind a large boulder. At his signal, Rhodri turned and kicked Vicious into a full gallop up the hillside. They rounded the boulder to come face to face with three razor-sharp beaks. Albeit much smaller than he expected…
The babies, it seemed had been following the scent of their mother all the way from the den. Líadan stepped up and tried to coax them out from behind the rock with a series of gentle “hoot hoot hoot” noises (presumably something in owl-language). Within moments the three wee beasties disappeared around the other side of the rock, then rushed Líadan, scrambling up her back and clinging to her protectively. They made a small ruckus of grunts, and growls, and whistles, and hoots, but Líadan wasn’t able to understand a word of the owlbear speech.
As night was falling, and it was already quite dark on the eastern face of the ridge, Rhodri suggested that they camp where they were. The native woman, who had by now introduced herself as Siclare, pointed out that there were numerous human tracks along the path they were taking, and Tess argued that the Trading Post was supposed to be right at the top of the ridge. So they pressed on.
It was full night, and an overcast one at that, when they crested the mountain. There, nestled in the gap, was a small fort, surrounded by a tall wooden palisade with a pair of square watchtowers at the corners. Worried that the force at the trading post was likely to give them away to the colonials, the escaped slaves hid in the woods while Rhodri rode up to inquire at the trading post about food and supplies.
Rhodri argued with the very rude gatekeeper for several minutes, asking to be let in. Tess, Líadan, and Siclare slipped up to help with the extended negotiations. Finally the promise of money, and two shillings tossed over the wall, led the man to open the gates. They were lead inside, where Rhodri explained that he was “twenty or thirty people worth of hungry”, and Líadan offered the man the owlbear pelt in exchange for a place to sleep for the night and “a very large meal”.
The gatekeeper, nodded. “I veel ask my vife to cook somezing for you”, he said, as he casually shoved the twenty-foot high, solid wood gates closed with one hand and lifted a log that was easily twelve-feet long and bigger-around than a man to bar the gates behind them.
To be continued…