After being let into the Trading Post, our heroes finally got a good look at their host. The man certainly did not look like the sort of fellow who could heft a four-hundred-pound log — middle-aged, slightly portly, and weathered, plain clothed, with a thick donegal beard. Other than his freakish strength, harmless enough. No sooner had he barred the door, than he excused himself to go “Tell ze vife zot she’s got to make zirty peoples vorz of dinner…”
While their host was inside, Rhodri, Siclare, and Tess explored the grounds inside the palisade. Everything was quite well constructed — carefully flattened and packed ground with neatly mowed grass, sturdy wooden buildings with steep rooves. Even the middens, filled with rotting vegetables and human feces as they were, were cleanly dug, with square sides and latticed covers. The stable was empty, save for one old nag, and there were no signs of other visitors. For all that the place was built like a fort, it was unmanned save for the old man and his wife.
Finally the man stuck his head out of the main building and invited them in for supper. The house was a palace compared to what Tess was used to in Germanna — slatted wood floors, rather than dirt, and carefully chinked walls dividing it into six separate rooms, complete with finely hand-crafted furniture and cabinetry.
A long table was set out in the central room, with chairs instead of benches, set with two large iron pots of stew and a large platter with loaves of brown bread. They sat down to eat. The stew was filling but bland — a mixture of potatoes, turnips, and radishes — and the bread was warm, but had the stale taste of food that had been laid up for storage.
As they ate, the man leaned in towards Rhodri conspiratorially. “Whot’s an ugly wrinkled zing like you doing viz zree fine looking ladies like zis? And a red-skin and a negroe no less? You a slaver? Oh! You have zem under a faerie charm don’t you?!” The man went on at some length about how he knew Rhodri was a faerie, and that all faeries were liars, and how he wasn’t going to be fooled by any of his faerie tricks.
Rhodri in return grilled him for a very long time about what he thought of escaped slaves, and slavers, and the practice of slavery, and how he got on with the constabulary, and how often people from the colonies came to the trading post. The short of it all was that the man himself did not believe in slavery, nor did he have much use for “civilization”, having moved out and started the trading post specifically to get away from the colonies.
After they had finished eating — not nearly thirty people’s worth of food — they walked outside discussing how to smuggle the rest out to their followers. Rhodri, clearly not meant to be the face of the party, tried to slyly ask the man to re-open the gates. “I’m not an idiot,” was the reply, “go out and bring your escaped slaves in. Just be quick about it…”
The man seemed extremely nervous about opening the gates after dark. With a little prodding, they learned that a group of “zem Hemp-vearers from down Carolina vay” had recently moved in to the valley, south of the Trading Post, led by a “Chief Graceful Cock”, and that “zeir Mad Bear has been coming around every night asking for hand-outs at arrow-point”. He claimed that he had tried to run them off with a gun, but that the weapon had crumbled to dust in his hands when he tried to fire it. Luckily, they “are no good at ze siege” and the high walls and heavily barred gate had kept them out so far.
Armed with this knowledge, Líadan was put in charge of encouraging everyone to get inside the fort as quickly as possible. As this was going on, Rhodri noticed a dry-laid stone wall marking the western edge of the ridge. Looking for some impartial confirmation of facts, he cast stone tell on the wall. The wall, it seemed, was built entirely by their host, one large stone at a time. The stones also confirmed that five days ago, and every day since, a “man who is also a bear” had come to the fort late at night, first with eleven braves in tow, and later with progressively smaller numbers.
As he chatted with the wall, he looked down and spotted torches winding their way up the mountain. Rhodri asked the wall for advice on how to deal with the hostile natives. “Be firm. Be unmoving. Wait.” The rocks in this world, it seemed, were not very knowledgeable regarding action.
He rushed back and joined Tess and Siclare in shoving the last of their people through the gates. As Zibbler was guiding the wagon in at the end, Tess spotted the top of a torch coming up behind the stone wall. Then an arm. Then a hand. Which Rhodri promptly put an arrow through. There was a cry of pain. The torch fell atop the wall, sputtering.
With everyone inside, their host slammed the massive bar back across the gate. Líadan ordered the musket crews up onto the catwalk around the top of the palisade, where Rhodri, Tess, and Siclare joined them.
Peering into the darkness, Rhodri and Tess spotted five natives creeping through the trees at the edge of the cleared area. The five men didn’t really fit his preconceptions of native warriors — they were broad and stocky, rather than lean and muscular, and dressed in thick, long-sleeved coats and pants of woven fiber, with tall bows, almost comparable to the long-bows of the English, slung stringed across their backs. The central figure, and clearly the leader, was short and jowly, with a wild shock of hair held in place by a decorative headband. Tess lit up the leader and the two flanking him with faerie fire, and Rhodri promptly fired at one of the two flankers. The arrow hit dead-center of mess, but slowed and tangled by his thick fibrous shirt, and barely penetrated to flesh.
The natives responded with high, arcing shots, badly wounding Rhodri and Tess. The leader strode forward and raised one hand towards the muskets trained on him. There was a click as the boy pulled the trigger, followup by an oddly muffled bang as the gun exploded from the inside out, crumbling into metallic ash and blowing away on the wind. Rhodri fired on the leader, but the arrow stopped inches from his flesh, hanging in mid-air. The flickering green faerie-fire also shifted, pushed away from his body, until it made the shape of a large semi-transparent bear superimposed over his frame.
Up on the wall, Siclare foxed out, literally, growing fox-like ears and a tail, and tried to parley with the bear-man, first in her native Apalachee, and then in Sylvan. Either the man did not understand, or he did not care. He shouted something she could not understand, though she pegged the language as Tuscarora, an Iroquoian language, and his braves let fly another volley of arrows, injuring her and dropping Tess. Rhodri narrowly avoided being hit again by dropping to the deck.
Tess, bleeding badly, rolled over and fell right off the narrow platform, dropping twenty feet to the ground below. Sarah and a few of the slave-mothers rushed up and began patching her up with bandages and spells. Groaning and sitting up, Tess expressed her exasperation and rummaged through her pack, finding a Powhatan war flute — played by war bands when they go on the offensive.
Rhodri, his arrows unable to get through their strange hempen armor, and worried about losing more of the guns, ordered everyone down off the walls. With the counter-fire stopped, the five men rushed towards the gate, and the bear shouted in broken English. “Old man! You bring weak defenders. Open gate now or we burn your fort down!”
Their host glared at Rhodri, “You just had to provoke zem!” he said. Then yelled out the chink in the gate, “Fuck off!”
The men outside pulled bundles of pine-tar soaked kindling off their backs and piled them against the gate. Then their leader splashed a jug of something that smelled very strongly alcoholic over the wood of the gate and set the whole thing alight.
“Fire!” went up the general call.
“I need a hole over there!” Siclare told their host. Obliging, he grabbed a knot-hole on one of the posts making up the back wall of the palisade and heaved, lifting the heavy log three feet strait out of the ground. “Vat are you doink?” he asked as she slipped under the gap he’d made.
“I’m running away…” And ran she did.
Líadan, who had already been working with the ex-slave women at coordinating their limited spellcasting abilities, gave the order and twenty-four create water spells splashed down over the gate. Nearly a hundred gallons of rapidly conjured water did the trick, and the hastily made blaze was just as promptly doused.
At the same time, Tess struck up her best war-tune on the flute she had found. This, combined with a mixture of her own dancing lights and illusions from Líadan, and the abject failure of their fire plan, sent the five attackers retreating back into the woods. Siclare, outside the walls, followed them for some ways south along the ridge, then circled back to the fort when they started headed downhill to the west.
With the immediate danger dealt with, their host asked if some of their very large group could keep watch on the walls. The rest found the nearest bedding they could and passed out exhausted.
To be continued…