Sunday, 5 February 2012

Seawell: to the lighthouse

  In the morning, there’s still no sign of the delegates. The Duchess's agents rise at dawn and meet with Iniatar, who has arranged everything for the expedition. Fresh horses (and a donkey for the Professor) are loaded up with provisions, and a local hunter named Morgan has agreed to guide them through the swamps. Hopefully his experience can keep them from falling foul of the lizardfolk. Talking to Morgan, they get the distinct impression that lizardfolk occasionally fall foul of him, but keep any misgivings to themselves.

  Morgan gives them a quick précis of the journey ahead of them. The peninsula is split by a river, which floods much of the area during the rainy season, but is fairly narrow just now. It’s not very deep, so easy to ford. The terrain is boggy with clumps of trees and small lakes; towards the coast it slowly turns into scrubland and then sand. The latter parts of the journey should be safe enough, but the swamps are home to snakes and crocodiles, let alone the endless insects. The lizardfolk are another problem; they’re unpredictable and each tribe is different, so it’s hard to say what they might do.

  After a quick meal, they head off. It takes about an hour to leave the farmland and head into the wilderness beyond. Despite the recent storms, it’s relatively dry and they make good progress. After a few hours’ riding, Fhastina’s mind is lulled by the motion of the horse, and she doesn’t notice a boa hanging from a branch. It snaps at her as she passes, but she flinches away just in time and it slithers off, disappointed. Clouds of flies pester everyone, and the Professor grumbles a great deal about the lack of suitable magic for discouraging biting insects. Something to research for future missions.

  It’s dark by the time they reach the shores of the river. They find a good spot to make camp for the night, some distance away. Lighting a fire only seems likely to attract attention, and it’s quite a warm night. Morgan stays up for a while to fish, and catches some nice plump eels. The Professor assures them that Cedric can keep watch, so having seen no sign of people, they don’t worry too much.

  They’re awakened in the small hours by the terrified screaming of their horses. Elefthenea plucks a fruit from the tree she’s kipping in and throws it towards the sound, muttering a spell as she does. The apple bursts into light, revealing a leopard clinging to the throat of Lawson’s horse, which is bloody and on its knees. They scramble for weapons. Irritated at having his sleep disturbed, the Professor strides up impatiently and starts chanting, while strange lights circle around him. The leopard releases its grip on the horse, and both animals stare in fascination at the wizard.

  There’s a rapid muttered conversation about what to do. The Professor can only keep the leopard’s interest for so long, and even if Elefthenea tries to send it away it’ll probably be drawn back by the scent of blood. They need to kill it or drive it off. Morgan slinks up to it, shortsword in hand, and makes a sudden leap for its throat. The cat springs aside, so the hunter falls flat on the floor and buries his blade into the moss. His embarrassment turns to pain as the leopard shows him how the thing is done, leaping atop him and worrying at his leather-clad back, while he frantically protects his head with his gauntlets. A crossbow bolt grazes the leopard and evokes a pained hiss. Moments later, a second furry figure crashes into the cat and both go rolling away into the trees. There are crashing sounds, and after a while Mr. Barky trots smugly back into the camp, while something else fades away into the forest. Raylin has to call on the Goddess to heal both Morgan and the horse, which is on its last legs. Careful tending overnight and further prayers leave both strong enough to continue the journey the next morning.

  They eye the river cautiously, but there’s no obvious sign of crocodiles or snakes. The crocodiles are more likely lurking in the remaining deep lakes. It takes about twenty minutes to cross the shallow waters, leading their horses. The Professor, who would find himself chin-deep in the water, elects to stay mounted. Partway across the river, his donkey is bitten by something and starts to flail, but the Professor manages to keep his balance and make the journey safely. Mr. Barky, swimming across, is nearly swept away by a strong current, but his mistress catches hold of his scruff and strolls serenely on, horse in the left hand and wolf in the right.

  Both Morgan and Fhastina manage to lose their footing and go sprawling in the river, coming up sodden and muddy. Lawson gives a long-suffering glance to the druid and mutters something under his breath about provincial amateurs.

  Reaching the other side in comparative safety, they soon find traces of people. The trails show signs of deliberate clearing, and there are clawed footprints in muddy places. After a while, they encounter a series of trees that have been carefully carved with markings in draconic script. Between them, they interpret them as lizardfolk boundary-markers, showing the outer extend of tribal hunting-grounds. They proceed with caution, but the Professor's donkey is pained by its injury and lets out occasional loud brays that send birds skittering for cover.

  A little later on, as they pick their way across a bog, Fhastina’s keen eyes spot a figure watching them from a rise in the distance. Its posture marks it out as a lizardfolk. It doesn’t move, but watches them until they disappear out of sight. Raylin suggests going to talk to it, but the others argue it’s best not to get involved with the lizardfolk if they don’t have to. Who knows what might be going on? They don’t want to get mixed up in any tribal wars.

  Approaching the coast, the swamps slowly fade into scrubby forest, and the soil becomes firmer and sandier. They find another string of boundary markers; but these have been hacked away and nearly obliterated. The damage is clearly recent. The soft mud shows bootprints heading down a trail perpendicular to their path. The adventurers are quite concerned by this apparent vandalism, but decide it’s best to press on, rather than heading off on a tangent. The lighthouse is close and they might be able to solve the puzzle quickly. The forest gives way to bushes, and then to dunes peppered with sharp marram grass. As they carefully rise over a high dune, the compound comes into view.

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