August 12, 1720
After the incident with the Tuscarora trying to burn down the gate, the night passed uneventfully. With the morning came the difficult decision of what to do next. Tess and Rhodri, independently and almost simultaneously, came up with the idea that they should seek out the hermit, Elisha Bokken. Their host informed them that, “Old Bokken ain’t ze nicest fellow. Likes his privacy.”
“Less nice than you?!” Rhodri asked incredulously.
Their gruff patron went on to explain that he knew Bokken’s dugout was somewhere to the south-west, as he always saw Bokken arriving along the ridge-line from that direction, and, from things Bokken had said, about a half-day’s journey away and somewhere on the western slope of the mountains. But, of course, he had never been there himself and couldn’t give better directions than that.
Figuring that, given the vagueness of the directions, finding Bokken’s home would involve some exploration, Tess asked if they could leave the bulk of their group at the Trading Post for a few days. “So long as ze make zemselves useful, and zey’ve got zeir own food,” came the reply. When they asked if they could buy food, he explained that his wife had had to largely empty their larders to make the massive meal the night before and that he barely had enough to get the two of them through the month, let alone feed a small army. Their little caravan had barely enough food to feed everyone for a day, so the party’s plans once again turned to hunting and gathering, rather than finding Mr. Bokken.
On the topic of “making zemselves useful”, they learned that their host was apparently a very poor farmer, and had failed to get a field planted earlier in the season due to all the work he had been doing building and maintaining their “very fine accommodations”. With Líadan translating, they convinced the emancipated persons to take over getting the fields planted, even though it was late in the season. They had been farmers back in Sierra Leone, and had the basic skills, though they lacked any familiarity with the climate or local plants. Zibbler was able to step in with the requisite knowledge of local farming techniques, and Siclare provided some wild greens and ramps to augment the potatoes and turnips that their host had for planting.
With Zibbler and the emancipated persons dealing with the the long-game of food production, Tess, Líadan, Sara, Rhodri, and Siclare turned to the more immediate need. Heading out of the gate, Siclare quickly spotted a distinctive browse-line at the edge of the forest, and a deep-rutted north-south trail following the ridge. Bison, she explained. Judging by the churned, muddy hoofprints, a large number of them had passed by the Trading Post heading north early in the morning.
An hour of following the quite obvious trail soon found them creeping downwind of a large herd of Eastern Wood Bison. Nineteen mature cows and eight calves were clustered around a single large bull, casually munching on the surrounding rhododendrons. A second, smaller bull stood several yards off from the main herd. Having learned somewhat from their deer-hunting misadventures, Rhodri suggested that they use the terrain and try to chase the herd back towards the Trading Post and over the western cliff.
They circled upwind, catching the big bull’s attention, then Rhodri and Sara charged, Rhodri putting an arrow into each of the bulls and Sara flailing her hair at the larger one. Tess followed with a quartet of glowing torch-lights moving rapidly towards the herd out of the woods. Finally Líadan conjured the sounds of a roaring mountain lion, while Siclare foxed-out and ran in snapping at the cows rears.
All this of course amounted to an instant stampede.
When the herd started moving, Sara was the first casualty. Close enough to grab at the big bull with her hair was close enough to get that hair stepped on, and she was soon plowed under by the trampling hooves and left bleeding. The others managed to duck aside, though Siclare narrowly avoided getting rammed when she darted in to nip at another’s heels.
With magical roars and dancing flames chasing them, and the occasional fox-bite or arrow pricking the stragglers, the herd ran strait back towards the flattened clearing around the trading post, then strait at the low stone wall marking the western edge of the ridge. The calves, unable to clear the wall, were crushed against the stone by their parents in their panicked flight. The adults that cleared the wall were no better off, encountering a nearly two-hundred foot, uncontrolled tumble down a steep hillside.
Having watched the spectacle of the stampede from the safety of the fort, the rest of their crew came out as soon as it was over. The ‘musketeers’ were sent off to retrieve Sara’s body, and she was soon nursed back to health with the aid of some of the mothers’ magic. The rest went to work dressing out and hauling the twenty-odd bison back up the hill — sped by the fact that their host seemed able to lift and carry a full-grown cow all on his own.
By noon they had all the meat they could want. Some of the mothers went to work dressing the bodies and magically purifying the meat. Other teams were dispatched to dig pits just inside the wall, and cut down trees to start smoking the meat under Thond’s direction. While still others began cutting away chunks of the fat to be rendered and used for poaching. Even with such a large labor force, with nearly ten tons of usable meat, Thond suggested that it would take nearly two weeks to fully process it all.
As the day lengthened towards evening, their host reminded them of the Tuscarora threat — and the likelihood that the Mad Bear would be back again that night. They hurriedly finished moving the last of the carcasses and operations inside the walls, and their host dropped the massive bar across the gate. Tess, Líadan, Sara, Rhodri, Siclare, and the musketeers took turns standing watch on the walls while the others took it in shifts to continue the massive undertaking of preserving nearly 22,000 pounds of meat.
About an hour after nightfall, Rhodri’s sharp night-eyes spotted a dozen of the hemp-wearers making their way slowly down the trail from the south-west, with the jowly, wild-haired Mad Bear at their lead. When they got close to the walls, it became clear that they were hauling a large, felled pine tree, with most of the branches stripped away, save for a few on either side that could be used as handles, and the wide, cut end tapered to a battering point.
Rhodri put an arrow into one of the lead one’s bearing the ram, then shouted a warning to the others below.
The Mad Bear trotted forward and yelled up, “We smell your food. Open up or we’ll smash your gate down!” Líadan’s response was to light them all up with a blast of glitterdust. Thus provoked, the tree-bearer’s charged, full-tilt towards the gate. Their make-shift ram struck with a resounding crash, and the sound of splintering wood, but the massive bar held.
As the ramming squad backed up for another rush at the gate, Sara tagged one of the bearers with a ray of enfeeblement, causing him to stagger under his portion of the tree’s weight. Siclare then set the tree on fire with a produce flame spell, and Tess snatched up an oil lamp and tossed it to smash against the tree as well.
The Mad Bear grabbed one of the limbs and joined the next rush, slamming the burning pine into the gate with tremendous force, but still not enough to break the heavy bar. They then tossed the burning wreckage up against the gate, hoping for better success than the previous night’s attempt to burn it. They, of course, had no such luck. Líadan’s faerie magic transformed the burning oil coating the ram to quite non-flamable water, then Sara and the mothers drenched the old tree with another hundred gallons or so of magically conjured liquids.
Siclare shouted down to the men, in English this time, suggesting that they should stop raiding, make peace, and try to do something productive with their lives. Tess in exasperation, quietly pointed out that these people had just lost a devastating war with the white settlers to the south, and were probably not in a mood to make friends half-way through a raid on a white-man’s fort. Rhodri and Líadan, meanwhile continued to rain arrows and eldritch blasts down on the attackers.
The Mad Bear’s response to all this was simple — he summoned an enraged spirit-wolf inside the walls of the Trading Post. Siclare leaped down at the thing, but missed. Líadan then whistled for the three owlbear cubs, who quickly bumbled up and tore the thing to shreds. She made a mental note that the smell of owlbear might be a pretty effective way to start their next bison stampede without risking getting themselves trampled.
Thus foiled in his latest scheme to get into the fort, the Mad Bear and his braves began another fairly-orderly withdraw. One last toxin-laced eldritch blast from Líadan dropped the portly Mad Bear, turning the withdraw into a proper route — his braves scooping up their leader as they retreated over the wall and down the hill to the west.
To be continued…