"Hey, look!" Kya points out the wagon to Chuul as it comes into sight. "Grandpa and grandson maybe?"
She sprints forward about fifty feet to where the trail widens before anyone can stop her, and hails the wagon driver with a wave of her hand.
"Hi," she calls out. "We have a bunch of horses here so we'll just need a minute to get by. Are you in a hurry?"
The younger man casts a somewhat nervous eye at Chuul, and then a somewhat less nervous one at Alannah. Both men, very quickly, glance downward into the space in front of their seat on the cart, possibly to check the availability of a weapon. And then there is a very brief hesitation while they calculate the number of apparently healthy human women, versus number of orcs, versus number of healthy "civilized" males, versus number of infrequently used weapons of self-defense.
And then the older man calls out, "I don't reckon we are. Wait just a moment and I'll pull off the road a little."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Alannah pushes her mount forward and flashes her best smile, “I’m Alannah. We were just about to stop for a meal. I’d love for you to join us and tell us about the road ahead. We won’t be stopping for long, so we wouldn’t delay you.”
Chuul doesn't speak, but lowers his brow and protrudes his jaw slightly, enhancing his more brutish features.
The younger man looks for a moment as if he's going to suggest taking Alannah up on the offer, but Chuul's grimaces are enough to make him think better of it, and the older man shakes his head, "Kind of you offer, miss, but we've got to get these lettuces down to the city. They'll only keep for so long." He guides his team off of the trail, although frankly there isn't much point because the weather has been relatively dry lately.
"Lettuces,"Kya repeats the word thoughtfully as if hearing it for the first time. "Oh, it's alright, we don't really want salad anyway, just to know is the trail ok back the way you came? All was clear on our way"
Avar trots Zeelar by the wagon liesurely. Eyeing the duo, "Lettuce to sell? Where from?"
Oskav watches the exchange for as long as he can manage, finally leaning in his saddle over toward Chuul. "Is it going to be like this every time we cross paths with someone?"
"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken
The older man replies, genially, "It's been quiet all the way, for us, except old Harder Fifalls has a bee in his ear about raising a militia, and he rode along with us for a good hour after we passed by his place, bending my ear about it. He's an excitable fellow, and he's up in arms about rumors coming down from Winterhome or Golden Sheaves. Some nonsense about goblins."
To Avar, he adds, "Grew 'em ourselves. We've a farm, about ten miles back there."
Avar nods, smiling, and just keeps trotting by.
"Hardly nonsense. We've had some run ins before we went to Port Hope."
"Just be careful," Kya adds. "We'll worry about the goblins, you get those lettuces to safety."
She is fine with letting the farmers go on their way and follows Avar's horse past.
The farmers shrug, and wait for you to pass. It's easier to see, as you draw alongside their cart, that they've come armed with a couple of heavyweight crossbows, which they've got leaning down in the part of the cart where they rest their feet.
But none of you, not even Alannah, seems interested in murdering the two men for their delightful lettuce. So they make no move toward their weapons, and soon enough you're all headed for your respective destinations.
About an hour later, everyone except Kya recognizes that you're about to pass Fifeleah Steadhold, where you stayed the night on the way down from Morville. It's still relatively early in the afternoon, and you can easily travel for another two or three hours before you'll be compelled to stop for the night.
"Ok, so let's saaay... like...7 goblins and two orcs ambush us right now, what would everybody do?" Kya talks to Garren about combat stuff, unaware that this place holds any significance.
"Kill them," says Chuul absently as he considers the homestead. "Safest to pass the night here, I think."
"Is it?" Avar offers easily letting the question serve as a reminder of what the group ran into last time.
"Besides, we still have light to ride by. I am not even sure if we would be welcome."
"I wouldn't expect another hunt tonight. Not because the fey folk are predictable, but because they're not. I expect something like that happens only very rarely in any given place. We should be safe enough on the road. And we've had our best luck clearing danger from the area by having it set upon us while we're camping."
"Fair enough," concedes Chuul. "As I recall it, last time there was a hunt because the neighbors didn't like having orcs around. Real friendly types, most like."
Alannah jumps into the arguement, "Are you two really that eager to spend another night on the hard ground, with threat of rain, and brigands lurking about? If we stay here, we should be able to push through tomorrow to Winterhome and not have to spend a night outside."
"You're the bastards," offers Avar in mock incredulity. "Certainly, sleeping outside along with brigands is just part of the adventure. No problem at all"
"Maybe we can find a barn along the way with a hayloft that you can sleep in," Kya offers Alannah innocently. She waits patiently to see what the ultimate decision will be.
"I don't enjoy having my sleep disturbed by squads of goblin raiders and kobold bandits, but we certainly were more productive than when we spent the night here. At least, I feel like making careless deals with malicious fey was less productive, but I could be wrong. There will be nights on the hard ground - it doesn't matter to me whether it is tonight or a fortnight hence. But if you think we should stop, that's fine. We could at least look in on our host to see if anything has happened of interest."
"That settles it then," Alannah says, ignoring the fact that it hardly settled anything. She edges her horse off the road and toward the main house of their recent hospitable host.
Midafternoon, 14 Verdil, 973 IRFifeleah SteadholdMereflow Valley
The farmstead is much as the Bastards left it when the departed southward to Port Hope. A tree-lined drive leads off the road to a sprawling farmhouse that's big enough (but not fancy enough) to count as a mansion. From the look of things, this building has been added onto several times, accreting around the nucleus of a great hall, probably in response to the growth of the family inhabiting it.
Past the farmhouse, a scattering of outbuildings provide storage, shelter for animals, work space, and so forth. Somewhere back there, someone is forging metal—a haze of smoke from the fire and the ringing of hammer on anvil make that clear. Even more distant, two riders in one of the pastures are casting unsaddled horses together into a group, probably in preparation to bring them into a corral or stable.
From their last visit, the Bastards know that there are at least four more people living at Fifeleah in addition to the ones who can be seen or heard now. But none of those people are immediately visible or audible.
Alannah continues to travel slowly down the drive, knowing that it's likely she'll be spotted and intercepted before she reaches the farmhouse.
Despite Alannah's expectation of being spotted almost immediately, that isn't what happens today. It's not until she's in view of the farrier's shed near one end of Fifeleah's stables that someone pauses work to greet her. The smith turns out to have been Harder Fifalls's younger son, Hamas.
He's not in a huge rush to get around to saying hello to visitors, either; the rancher's son lays something next to the hearth of his forge, hangs up his tongs and hammer, and otherwise tidies up before he walks out to see what the Bastards want. He's grimy from long hours of sweaty labor near a source of ash and soot.
Alannah dismisses the look of irratation at having to wait and puts on a smile, "Master Hamas! It's a pleasure to see you again." She dismounts, sliding from her horse. "My companions and I were traveling to Winterhome and were wondering if we could ask for your family's hospitality again? We will happily provide news, song, and story... Is Master Harder about?"
Hamas looks ever-so-slightly displeased, but replies, "I'll let him know you're here. May be a little while before he can get to you, so you might as well water your horses while you're waiting."
He crosses the farmyard to the back door of his home to fetch a tarnished old bugle from where it dangles on a hook, and puts it to his lips. After playing a short sequence of notes, he goes back to work at the forge. Looks like he's making horseshoes.
Avar recognizes the bugle call as something that the sentries posted around an encampment of the Imperial Legion would use to signal the approach of friendly forces.
Alannah nods in acknowledgement, "That shouldn't be a problem, we can wait. Thank you."
About a quarter of an hour later, the two riders in the distance have cast together their herd, and have moved them efficiently into a corral adjoining the stable. One of the riders is Harder Fifalls, and the other is his older son. Wisym, if the Bastards' memories don't fail them.
It takes a few more minutes for the men to get the corral's gate closed up, and then the older man rides over to greet you. He's probably in his sixties, still vigorous, and wizened by years of working outdoors.
Wisym trails his father, quiet as usual.
Alannah approaches the older man, noding with respect, "Greetings Master Fifal, it's good to see you again." She also acknowledges as well, "and Master Wisym, you as well. I hope all his been quiet and peaceful at Fifeleah?"
Fifalls agrees, "Peaceful enough for the moment, but things are getting unsettled. There're more rumors about goblin raiders, especially off to the northeast of Winterhome. The shorties probably won't be able to hold them if it keeps getting worse." Absently, he asks, "Did you see a cart with two men on your way up here? An older fellow, my age, and the other about Wisym's age. Dark hair."
He's obviously talking about the two farmers.
She nods, "Yes, two men with a cart of lettuce. They said they were on their way to sell it in Port Hope. We met them not very far from here."
"Lettuces," Kya whispers. She stands at rest surveying the homestead suspiciously.
Both Fifalls men grimace at Alannah's reply, and the elder comments, sounding worried, "They're making terrible progress, then. But Belford's never worried about anything in his life, so I guess he's not going to start now. Still, this is a bad time for people to be away from their farms. I tried to tell him, but it's like talking to a brick."
Shrugging, he adds, "But you didn't come up here to listen to me grouse about the blockheads living around this district. What's brought you back to my doorstep, miss? Did your business in the city go alright?"
Alannah looks as unhappy as the Fifalls did at the mention of the Belford's progress. "Somethings could have gone much better, but we got the refuges safely in the city and connected them with some friends that can get them back on their feet. Now we are heading back out again, to Winterhome and then maybe Golden Sheaves." She pauses, taking a moment to study both men, "We've been attacked several times on the road at night and I was really hoping you may allow us to impose on you again. I don't enjoy sleeping in the open and would very much appreciate somewhere safe to rest tonight. We won't be much of a bother and I can repay you with coin or entertainment. There's been plenty of stirrings from Port Hope you may be interested in hearing."
The old man replies, bluntly, "That depends on whether Sir Avar might get up to any shenanigans if the gentry ride again tonight. They've been active, off and on, ever since your last visit with us."
Avar adopts a look of annoyance, and shakes his head slightly, but simply offers, "I'll sleep in the barn. I won't speak with any gentry."
Alannah rolls her eyes and replies sourly, "Sir Avar gets himself into trouble no matter where he goes. But we will make sure he behaves this time, even if we have to tie him up and put him in a corner all night."
Master Fifalls inclines his head to the paladin, but tells Alannah, "Please consider yourselves our guests, then. I believe most of you already know your way around, so I reckon you can go on and get settled in. If you need something, let us know."
He looks over at Kya, and introduces himself, "Young woman, my name is Harder Fifalls. This here's my older boy, Wisym," he gestures at the other rider, "and over at the forge is my younger son, Hamas. The ladies of the household are indoors just now. I'll leave them to introduce themselves when you meet them later on. How shall we address you?"
"The hosipitality of Fifeleah is very much appreciated. Thank you, Master Fifalls. Please, there are several working hours left in the day and my companions have many skills, we are more than happy to repay your kindness for allowing us to spend the night by helping with whatever you might need."
Kya is visibly horrified at Alannah's potential plans for Avar and doesn't immediately realize that master Fifalls is addressing her.
"Uh...Kya, I mean, my name's Kyanite, you can just call me Kya."
"Lady Alannah speaks true. I would have traveled several hours more today if there was any point arguing with her. Since there is not, I'll be happy to help as you like. I grew up on a small farm - I won't get in the way."
Fifalls inclines his head to Kya, but answers Garren instead of subjecting the flustered-looking young woman to further talk.
"Well. There's always firewood to split, if nothing else. We're just about to look over these horses' hooves, so if any of you are horse doctors there's that. Or fodder to bring out. And I reckon there's stuff Vluba could use help with around the house. Eggs to bring in, or whatever," Harder Fifalls muses. "So yep, lots of chores you could help with if you don't mind gettin' your hands dirty."
Kya pulls herself together and shakes her head. "I didnt grow up on a farm, I'd probably just get in the way...i dont know, maybe I could try splitting some firewood." She seems enthusiastic enough about the idea.
Chuul dismounts. "If you will point me in the direction of your wood pile, consider it done," he says. After a pause, he adds, "You have been good to us twice now. It was suggested to me that you might have an interest in breeding the blood of an Ilmuktan horse..." (he pats his mount's neck for emphasis, as though any more action would be needed to draw attention to the giant beast) "...into your stock. If that is the case, please feel free to do so while we are here. I doubt he will complain."
Fifalls eases his mount over toward Sir Fluffernutter, and examines him with some interest, "Ah, is he a purebred Ilmuktan? Never seen one in person. I probably could find a mare that'd accept him if you have time to wait for her to cover him. But it could be days, maybe even a week, if at all. It's late in the season, and all my stock's pretty regular about going into heat. So I'd have to tease them a bit to figure out which might do."
Chuckling, he adds, "And I don't reckon that you'll want to leave him here. We've a good reputation and would take fine care of him, but as big as you are, I'm sure you wanted him so you could ride without wearing out your horse."
"Yes," confirms Chuul. "I would leave him if I could, or stay on for a time, but there are things that must be seen to. But if you can get him to show enough interest in a mare to get the deed done tonight, then you are certainly welcome to whatever you can get from it."
Fifalls nods affably. "Well, I'll take you up on that, and you've my thanks." He exchanges a few words with his son about where to put Flutternutter, and then excuses himself, "I'd better go on and get this old boy stabled up so I can go in and make arrangements with my wife to see that everyone is fed. See you folks after a bit."
He rides off toward one of the outbuildings, which is obviously a stable, heeled by his older son. Hamas, the younger son, is still working briskly over at the forge even though it's late in the day and there are guests to talk to. He's not nearly as cheerful today as he was the first time the Bastards met him, either.