Caleb kneels next to the trap and tries to examine the wound as best he can without extricating Charn's leg. "Let me take a look. With any luck, we can get you out of there and hit the road again without divine intervention."
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
Eryndir had been performing his usual scouting tasks, alternating between taking point ahead of the group, doubling back to make sure they weren't being followed, and moving off the beaten path to the left and right of the group, to scan their surroundings.
While Able tends to Charn, Eryndir circles the party, creating a five-meter perimeter and scanning the horizon for anyone who might have set the trap.
Charn can feel the jarring pain of the trap in his leg, but his concern is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the trap is simply iron - not an Ankheg.
Caleb is able to examine the wound. The mandibles, a much better word that he settles on instead of jaws, have managed to avoid the bone and only rend the soft tissues. Tending the wound will be a simple formality that Caleb can attend to once the mandibles are opened back up.
Eryndir doesn't see or hear any ambushers. Yet.
Able also moves away from the site of the trap, preparing for hunters to be drawn close. Hopefully they only check the traps every few days and weren't counting on a war party. But hope was a gossamer web easily broken and Able was a realist. He expected trouble.
Eryndir completes a circle on their perimeter and moves to Charn's side, kneeling. He offers the horizon another cursory glance and then looks to the trap.
"As I am not gifted with raw strength, I hope there is some release mechanism. I hope to not have to pry this trap off of your leg..."
He examines the mandibles of the trap, hoping to find some manner of release catch.
Eryndir is easily able to find the catch. The mechanism of the mandibles drops a latch in place once the trap is sprung. The latch is released by pushing further down on the trap rather than pulling away as a beast or a man in combat might do. Eryndir does so and the mandibles fall freely to the ground. Charn's blood on the stylized bear trap catches the last rays of light as Caleb manages to stuff and bind the wound. Charn's going to have a tender left leg for a bit. Caleb can't help but think that the restorative power of the roads might help were they closer to civilization.
Able briefly considers the trap. Unlike the relatively low and broad teeth on normal bear traps, these mandibles were very thin and very tall - Charn was punctured high on his calf rather than around his ankle. Perhaps it is simply some genetic memory in the Tiefling's ancestry, but Able imagines the traps would be extremely effective against bipedal creatures with preservation instinct as opposed to quadrupeds with simple fight or flight responses.
Eryndir mutters a curse as the sun drops below the horizon. Though easily able to see in the dark, he knows that if they are going to have company, dusk is a likely time for an ambush.
The elf cleans Charn's blood from the mandibles to the degree he's able and begins an attempt to reset the trap.
"If whoever set this traps finds it sprung, they will likely try to track and hunt us down."
He pauses in his effort.
"I see two options. First, we reset this trap and obscure our tracks leading away from this spot to discourage any who would try to find us. We continue to the Watchtower and report the incident, then follow whatever orders we are given."
A mischievous glint flickers in his eye and a small grin crosses his face.
"Or, we leave the trap sprung, exaggerate our tracks leading away as though we are fewer in number than we are and perhaps more gravely injured than we are. Ensure our tracks lead to an advantageous spot, lay an ambush of our own, and turn the tables on whoever hunts us..."
"This trap isn't intended for intelligent prey. Whoever left it was certainly careless but not clearly malevolent. We're waiting time. Are we going to reach the tower tonight or are we making camp?" Able had no fear of the dark - he was more at home there than the people who would hurt him.
"We should camp. The terrain will be difficult enough to navigate in daylight. I do think, however, that we should take time to prepare for unwanted visitors. A decoy camp, perhaps, that would draw out any who might seek to harm us, with an obvious set of wounded tracks from here to there. We can then array ourselves elsewhere, hidden, until we can determine the intentions of those who set this trap."
Able signs. Setting up camp is a lot of work normally. Setting up two camps would be even harder. "How about I camp here and pretend I'm trapped and you get ready to jump out if anyone looks in on me." Able knows there are people that hunt at night, but it still doesn't seem likely that anyone would check traps tonight. Able had enough people who were out to get him to surrender to paranoid delusions like Eryndir seems to have.
The Wood Elf nods. "That does seem easier, yes, if you do not mind being the decoy." He glances towards Caleb and Charn. "If you two do not mind a bivouac outside the clearing, I can keep watch and rouse you should we have unwanted guests."
The night brings no comfort to the travelers. Two full days of travel left them feeling each pebble in their shoes and each creak in their bones. The soreness of a long hike and a dangerous environment prevented all but the most momentary of rest.
By the time the light of dawn illuminated the leaves in the wood, every traveler had been awake for at least an hour, if not longer. They began the last leg of their journey quietly, with nary a word spoken between them.
The first to react to the smell was Able. The revolting smell of death combined with the unmistakable aroma of fish oil was enough to elicit an audible gasp. It didn't take long for the rest of the travelers to discover the body. Evidently, the Ankheg Mandible traps were a recurring problem in these woods.
Impaled through the rib cage was the corpse of a halfling. Whereas Charn had suffered only superficial bleeding to the soft tissues of his calf, the halfling likely breathed his last through the ragged holes in his chest. Evidently a merchant of some kind, the halfling had two jugs strapped to a pole which he had carried on his shoulders in the same direction the travelers were going. When the trap was sprung, the halfling dropped the pole and shattered one of the two jugs. Salt, fermented fish, and aromatic herbs had attracted the attention of a small colony of ants now cleaning the Ankheg trap.
The remaining jug had stayed intact.
Eryndir reacts viscerally to the stench of commingled fish and death. He recovers quickly, though, and looks upon the rotting corpse with an air of detachment. Kneeling a short distance from the grisly tableau, he runs his eyes over the scene, examining.
"Can't leave this for the commies." Able begins searching the body for valuables.
Eryndir stands and scans the horizon for unwanted visitors out of habit. He turns to the others.
"If the halfling was headed towards the Watchtower, someone there may wish to know of this. Perhaps he has kin to whom we can return his wares. And if not, perhaps they will still fetch a price."
He glances at the medallion of the Feudal Order. "Seems likely he was at least acquainted with Gladestrider's people."
Charn regards the mangled halfling grimly and observes, "Not an end I would wish on anyone." Looking around, he wonders, "Do we have time to give a proper burial before we move on?"
Able looks hard at Charn, then looks over at Eryndir, then finally the heavens above. He wasn't sure how he had fallen in with people that were so committed to burying the dead, but he had. If Charn hadn't suggested it, someone else would have. Able tries a new tactic.
"We probably don't have time. But we're close enough that once we determine what's happening at the keep we could send someone back to deal with this. We should figure out why the traps are here and how this unfortunate creature got mixed up with them. I don't think his cargo is particularly valuable, and even a gallon of fermented fish won't feed an army for long. I don't think he was planning on spending much time on the road."
"Able makes an excellent point. If this halfling had any kin, a shallow roadside grave would not do. We can bring his remains to the Watchtower. He can either be buried there, or his bones can be sent to those who might mourn him."
Eryndir begins making a makeshift sack from a bloodied halfling cloak.
Eryndir pauses in his preparations and, in one swift movement drapes the bloodstained cloak he had been fashioning into a sack over the corpse of halfling.
"Something is not right with this. The body should have attracted more carrion scavengers than just a few ants. We should not disturb the remains until we have had an opportunity to report this to the Watchtower."
He looks to the others. "I agree with Able. We should press on, now. The only moment we should spare is to check Charn's wound and ensure there is no fester. Then, on to the Watchtower."
He looks to Caleb, who he expects is far more proficient in Medicine than he is.
Charn grimaces, but acquiesces. "Let us inform the Watchtower, then, and fulfill our obligations."
Abandoning the grisly scene, the travelers make their way forward across the uneven and rocky terrain. The underbrush remains thick and difficult as they proceed.
The road cutting through the wood becomes visible only about 50 yards away. Placing two feet on the tangible evidence of civilization's mastery of the frontier lifts Caleb's spirits. Ten minutes of a brisk walk later and the travelers arrive at the foot of a watchtower. The building itself is extremely unusual as it is only three stories tall with an open roof behind crenelated stone barricades. The tower's other unusual feature is the extremely sharp cliff that it rests within. Fully half of the watchtower would be hanging off the edge of the cliff but for the additional semi-subterranean floors exposed by the cliff face. Looking over an incredible vista of the exposed north, the three story watchtower can easily see for several dozen miles of wilderness. Eryndir can even see the farm where he escaped the communists from here - distant though it may be.
At the base of the watch tower a table with an officer's luncheon sits, complete with still steaming tea and a chilled glass with a hint of moisture siphoned from the ambient humidity in the last vestiges of summer. Ten feet from the table an orc is strapped to two trees. His right arm and leg are bound via leather pulled tight around a nearby oak while his left arm and leg are bound to another. He hangs roughly two feet in the air with his head bowed. He shows signs of a rather severe beating. As near as the travelers can tell, he is alive.
Slightly farther away, a Gladestrider Irregular Sergeant is overseeing several junior soldiers as they stomp on a mixture of clay and straw. Eryndir knows the junior soldiers are young skirmishers from the pelts they wear as uniforms. For whatever reason, the soldiers are mixing cob to be used in construction of some sort.
Distantly, a griffon's cawing can be heard. No one greets the travelers.
"Well this is a fine welcome," Able mutters to no one in particular.
Eryndir makes his way towards the sergeant and brings his fist to his chest in an offer of salute. "We come from the Outpost on assignment from Archdruid Taron. Where can we find the officer on duty, so we can report?"
The Sergeant, a dwarf with a ruddy nose and a beard too dirty to be inside of regulations, looks up at the wood elf. His return salute is somewhere between lazy and indignant.
"She'll be out shortly. You and your friends can sit near her mess." The dwarf's lazy saluting hand goes from his chest to gesture vaguely toward the orc. There is only one chair available in that general direction.
One of the skirmishers, a halfling, evidently does not meet the Sergeant's approval. The Sergeant delivers a surprisingly swift kick to the halfling's bottom, sending the trooper sprawling into the wet clay. "We're mixing cob, not dancing to one of your damn melodies. Don't do a jig, mix it like I told you, Porrin."
The dwarf turns back toward the travelers. "See any greenskins on the road?"
Able doesn't care for the dwarf's casual abuse of power or his apparent disregard for his prisoner. But he also doesn't care to start a fight. He moves over to the indicated chair and helps himself to the chilled beverage.
Eryndir narrows his eyes at the sergeant's treatment of his charges. He shakes his head summarily when asked about greenskins and joins Able at the table, though he does not touch anything upon it.
He stands next to the table and waits.
It isn't long before a wood elf woman wearing a loose fitting commander's uniform emerges from the watchtower. The right side of her face bears a brutal scar extending from the bottom of her eye down to her jaw. It is obvious that her jaw was shattered by whatever caused the injury and that it did not grow back the same way. Despite the extra room in her garments and the distracting facial injury, she has a je ne sais quoi that commands respect.
She walks directly to Eryndir, giving him a formal salute. "I am Commander Erendi Highleaf. This is my garrison. I know you are a member of the Irregulars, but we have not yet been acquainted." She returns her hand to her belt, her thumb looped behind the strap of leather. While the other travelers can see Eryndir is several inches taller than Highleaf, he will forever recall thinking that she was taller in this moment.
Eryndir returns the salute crisply, his posture becoming rigid and formal. "Commander Highleaf, I am Eryndir, recently recruited to the Irregulars and stationed at the Outpost. We are here at the direction of Archdruid Taron. There is much to report, but as a preliminary matter, we came upon the remains of a halfling less than a mile from here. It appears he was a merchant of some kind, perhaps on his way to deliver his wares here."
Eryndir relaxes slightly, but only slightly. "He was killed by a trap made of what appeared to be insectoid mandibles. A similar trap caught my compatriot in the leg and gave him a minor wound, but the halfling was less fortunate. There was something . . . wrong with his remains. We would have brought them here, but I thought it better not to disturb them until the source of the wrongness it could be discovered."
He begins to speak again, but realizes he is rambling slightly and falls silent.
Able raises the chilled glass in salute. "My compliments to your chef. I'm sure you won't mind that we have taken your hospitality for granted." Able's comment seems to include his companions even though he appears to be the only one taking advantage. "Before Eryndir who's name sounds like it could be your name's lost twin fills you in fully can you explain the nature of the show." Able's goblet gestures toward the restrained orc.
The wood elf commander looks to the tiefling and back to Eryndir. "Your friend is in my chair, soldier."
Giving the two of them time to sort out the social faux pas, she continues. "An unbelievably brash greenskin raiding party crossed the river." The commander walks over to the strung up orc. "They caused havoc, as is the way with their kind. Raiding and pillaging, rather than living as civilized folk do. They even smashed poor Borrin's oven." She gestures in the direction of the dwarven sergeant.
"Now, this one," she lift's the orc's chin with one hand, "inconveniences me further as I have to devote my incompetent sentries to creating a new clay oven as punishment for missing an entire greenskin raiding party." She lands a vicious hook on the orc's jaw. There is a sickening pop. The orc moans softly.
She turns to Charn. "We have placed a number of traps to the south to make it more difficult for the greenskins to make their way through the woods. I'm sorry about your leg. I might be sorry about the halfling. What was he selling?"
The Commander turns back to her chair, expecting it to be vacant.
Charn gives the commander due honors and answers her, "Fishguts, ma'am." He pauses, realizes this probably isn't an adequate answer and elaborates, "They tell me it is a taste sensation when spread on toast."
As the commander turns back to the group, Eryndir bobs his head in the direction of Able as an introduction. "My compatriot sometimes lacks for the social niceties, but he has it where it counts. His name is Able, and he earns that name as an able combatant against our enemies."
He makes no effort to extricate Able from the chair.
Able got exactly what he wanted - a read on the personalities at this watchtower. He hoists himself up and vacates the chair. "I've kept it warm for you. You're welcome." He has not relinquished the chilled glass which he takes another sip from as he stands in front of and to the side of the chair.
Highleaf frowns upon hearing Charn's report. "Simeon has perished, then? A shame. We will have to recover his garum and his corpse. Borrin?" She calls for the dwarf sergeant who hustles over from the stomping skirmishers. When he arrives, she continues. "Tell the skirmishers to recover Simeon from the woods and reset the traps. We don't want to get outflanked again." The dwarf departs, shouting indignities at the skirmishers and urging an alacritious response to the Commander's request.
Once the light infantry began to depart, Highleaf returned her attention to the travelers. "What is it that Archdruid Taron would have of our watchtower? More sentries for his Outpost?" She sits in her chair and pours herself some hot tea.
Eryndir's eyes narrow again at the command to reset the traps. He watches the skirmishers as they go, his gaze lingering on them thoughtfully.
He returns his attention to the commander. "We were sent with a message to Druid Hatepshon. Having delivered the message, he mentioned the Watchtower, and we felt it would benefit us to see a bit of the frontier before returning to the garrison. If there is assistance we can provide before making our way back to the Outpost, please let us know."
He shifts his weight. "I am unaccustomed to seeing physical abuse of recruits and tactics involving traps that might skewer friend as easily as they do foe. I imagine what is considered 'acceptable' is different on the frontier than it is in garrison."
He delivers his comments evenly and plainly, attempting to mask any sense of judgment he might be harboring.
A gleam in the eye and a shift in the fins on his head suggest that Charn is content that someone, at least, is interested in proper burial of the dead. The warrior concurs in part with Eryndir. "We are happy to assist."
Eryndir nods to Charn. "You will find Simeon's body beneath his cloak. It was the closest we were able to a burial under the circumstances. His remains were curiously undisturbed. Not by carrion scavengers, not by others who would seek to loot his garum. We believed it prudent to leave his corpse until we could determine why only the ants felt it safe to partake."
The commander nods. "This isn't the city. Life is a bit more savage on the frontier. If Simeon hadn't stumbled into the traps, he would have stumbled across greenskins or whatever monster is in those woods that is keeping away the scavengers. We'll get his body, send his wife a token of our mourning, and we'll find a new way to make Borrin's hardtack palatable."
Highleaf strokes her chin, a motion which accentuates the extremely severe angle her jaw takes just beyond her finger.
"As you're here at Taron's request, you are of course welcome to recuperate here for the day and enjoy our hospitality. When you get back to The Outpost, you can tell the Archdruid that you drank my wine." She points to Able. "Our quartermaster is inside if you would care to trade or square your debt."
She returns her attention to the orc. "If you have nothing else to report, I wish to converse with my Irritation." Clearly, the captive orc continues to frustrate her.
"You've heard the phrase, you capture more flies with honey than with vinegar? Tell me what you want from the prisoner. If I get what you need, give him to me to deal with as I please. I have some ideas that may work to our mutual advantage." Able flashes her a devilish smile.
"What did you intend to capture when you took my wine, tiefling? My appreciation?" The wood elf commander raises an eyebrow at Able as he is holding her formerly chilled glass. "Thus far, I would not agree that you are at all mutually advantageous to me."
"I was prepared to solve your problem with the greenskins. The wine was simply to remind you about the dangers of pride. It would have cost you nothing to hold your tongue. Instead you have lost the aid that would have been yours for the asking. And you may not recognize that as a loss, now, but in the coming weeks when you find yourself casting about desperately for a single ally, remember this wine draining into the soil at our feet." Able pours out what remains. "Lost, for no reason other than the poor choices you made." Able twists the knife. "The only pain I feel is that others will suffer as you learn your lesson too late."
"If any of you choose to stay, that's your choice. These people don't deserve our help. We have better things to do with our time. I'm heading to the caves."
Charn watches the interaction between Able and the commander with a look of horror and agrees, to a degree. "Yes, I suppose we have better things to do than rudely trod on another's hospitality and insult her when she notices." This is a sensitive subject for Charn, of course, and he turns to the commander. "As a mere Irregular, I would be honored to learn more of how you do business." He nods over to the orc.
At the Commander's mention of needing the garum to make their provisions palatable, Eryndir pulls the packets of spices they took from Marx's gear from his pack. He places it on the table.
"It is not much, but we took these spices from the leader of a group of communists Hatepshon had encountered in the woods. He was making zombies and seemed ready to make Hatepshon their next sacrifice. Please take the spices with our compliments. They carried some other gear which might be of interest to your quartermaster or armorer, as well, at a fair price.
"Hatepshon mentioned that he regarded you highly, that you needed mercenaries, and that you pay well." His eyes flick towards Able when he mentions pay. "I believe we would have time for one contract before returning to the Outpost. As I owe my loyalty to the Gladestrider Irregulars, I offer my services in exchange for a meal and a place to lay my head for the night. And that whatever I would have earned otherwise be divided equally between my compatriots for their efforts."
He steps forward. "After that, as has been mentioned, we might explore a nearby cave so that we can report to Hatepshon and then return to the Outpost. What is the greatest problem we may solve for you?"
The commander considers the array of reactions before her. After mulling it over, she considers. "My sentries couldn't spot the greenskins before their raid. There is no chance in hell they'll be able to spot combies. You can, however, teach them to fight. Beat some sense into them so that when the greenskins or the combies show up they're worth a damn."
She sips her tea.
"They won't be back for a few hours, so you're welcome to sleep in the cots inside for a spell." She gestures with one hand toward the watchtower.
As the commander finishes, Eryndir inclines his head but never takes his eyes off of her. He grabs his pack and heads inside to find the quartermaster that Highleaf mentioned previously. He smiles gregariously in greeting and places the scimitar and leather armor taken from the communists on the counter.
"Any use for these? My compatriots may have identical ones as well, if any of your recruits need upgrades."
Caleb accompanies Eryndir to liquidate the party's spoils from the skirmish with the Communists. He's had a sour look on his face since arriving at the watchtower and makes no effort to conceal his disdain for these people or their behavior; but so far has said nothing.
Eryndir eyes the quartermaster. "You drive a hard bargain, friend. But I accept."
He hands over the scimitar and leather armor.
Eryndir looks to the quartermaster as he slides the gold pieces into the purse on his belt.
"Tell me, friend. You're offering quite the premium for these goods. Are you in short supply? Has the Outpost not kept your men properly equipped? Has Commander Highleaf not submitted appropriate requests for support?"
The quartermaster is a slight human behind a row of bars. Behind him, broken crates and straw line the floors of what is almost certainly one of the draftier portions of the watchtower. Given the watchtower's position quite literally on top of a cliff that overlooks dozens of square miles of farmland, Eryndir can imagine the winds (and thus, the drafts) can be quite intense here.
"Them fookin greens gitten bolder, sirah. Them shipments from Elder Moot gettin raided twice a month on tha regular now. We get plenty o' coin roundabout these parts, but good fookin steel," he spits, "them greenies don't use none. You bring me steel and I'll give yahs plenty of gold. If it'll take yah a bit extra to come round here, I'll give yah a bit extra."
The elf nods. "I have friends who appreciate gold. I'll let them know."