"It's okay Dalvar, crows are very clean. Very few fluids to worry about."
Dalvar just glowers at Argus for a moment, then drains the broth from his bowl to empty the last of his breakfast from it. This done, he dishes up a chunk of somewhat wobbly eel flesh, and proffers it to the bird as he asks, "Is it trying to pay for its meal?"
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Immediately, the bird hops to close the distance to the plate, placing its body fully on front of the coin on the ground as if in response. It skewers and snips at the meat before its colleagues come down to tussle for their meal, but after seizing the piece of eel in its beak the bird moves back to stand directly over the coin on the grass.
For the moment, the crow appears to be ignoring everyone around it, but maybe with a full belly Argus can ask it some more questions.
Meanwhile, Feruq is starting to feel like the day won't be a total wash: but thinks staying hydrated and pacing himself today should be his highest priorities.
"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
Argus reveals what the bird shared about the kidnappers and asks if there are any questions the party would like to ask.
Having gotten up and walked around a bit during the exchange, Feruq seems to be feeling more confident. While flexing his fingers and passing his hand in front of himself as though testing for dizziness, Feruq asks "Are the birds knowing what is being the cause of the new weather, the flooding?"
About halfway finished with its hearty breakfast, the crow stops and considers the question when Argus translates for Feruq. It croaks, "This is the season for rain, but it has been raining a LOT. Shiraz asked about it too. We don't think anything strange is going on; just bad luck. Unless you're a fish!"
Swallowing the last bit, the crow continues. This is the ranger's first time talking to any kind of bird at all - maybe they don't think it's rude to eat mid-speech. "To the west, though, where the humans grow all their food, that's bad magic. The water shouldn't be here. It is not this place's water."
"Do you know where it is coming from?"
"No, I'm just a crow." It isn't trying to be a jerk, just making an observation. "There is a spirit living in the lake west of here, down the river. Shiraz talks about her all the time. Maybe she can help."
Dalvar brings out another gobbet of jellied eel, and offers it to the bird, commenting, "If this one is full but one of the others wants to eat, let them. Please tell them they are welcome to eat. Tell them also that anytime they see the one-eyed man, they shall have both a shiny silver coin and some food if they come to us and tell about it."
Argus translates, relishing this new ability but recognizing that it could get tedious.
"These times have changed since my young life and I never thought I'd see the day/There's houses in the corn field 'round a fallin'-down barn, and the old dirt road was paved" - Three Tall Pines, "Stone Walls"
His audience with the murder concluded, and his companions gearing up and ready to set out for another day's hike, Argus quickly confers with Feruq. The monk is on his feet and will do his best to keep up with the ranger, but it is probably for the best that the Heroes aren't moving at top speed while Aramil is with the party. The pair have two objecitves. First, remaining vigiliant for any potential dangers as they navigate through the forest, up to and including the forest itself; for the first time, the adventurers will be venturing where there is no beaten trail, and if disaster befalls them this far out of the way, no one will come to their aid. Second, the course they must chart leads roughly south from the Reflecting Pool, and the sky is not always visible through the canopy, so ensuring they don't get turned around must always be a priority.
It is a sweaty, exhausting affair, and multiple breaks are necessary throughout the day. There is no real cause for Jugg to overburden the party's mule, since Aramil's bad leg puts the rest of the party on even footing with the dwarf; but for now he does let the beast carry most of his gear. As they move, the sensation that their path takes them downhill is nearly imperceptible, but the forest floor is difficult enough to navigate that they must take care where they plant their feet anyway. Roots reach up to snag the boot of any traveler who takes their mind off the task at hand for even a moment. While the rest of their companions manage the minutia of not tripping and breaking their necks, Argus and Feruq keep their heads on a swivel and manage to lead the party closer (they hope) to Broken Spire Keep and away from danger.
The day and evening pass uneventfully; Thunk, having avoided subsisting on rations since meeting his new friends, mooches off Leon as the party eats out of their backpacks for the forseeable future. The alternative would be to move even slower than one mile per hour through treacherous terrain, and no one is interested in dying of old age before they unravel the diabolical cult's schemes. The night is uneventful, too, and after the day they've had the cooler ambient temperature is a blessing. Feruq has serious misgivings of laying down for the night in the dark after his nasty brush with the fuzzy monster in the tree that morning, but wakes to find no creepy crawlies came to share his bedroll as he slept.
"Found trouble in the town I come from, left six months ago or so; I had to run from the man I wronged there, with no aim as to where to go/I'm told that The Law ain't there yet, and the ones who tried are dead; but if the lawmen come to find me I'll make that river red" - Goodnight, Texas, "Tucumcari"
The next day the weather holds, but so does the heat. Under Aramil's ministrations, both Feruq and Jugg are nearly fully recovered; another night of rest and they will be back to their full fighting strength, and Jugg can finally remove his stinking bandages and wash himself properly for the first time since escaping Parlfray Keep. After wrapping up their morning routines, the party hits the trail again, emboldened by their first night under the branches of the mighty Thornwood. Sound doesn't carry very far here, so maybe they have been lulled into a false sense of security; but if it is true that they can't see or hear much that isn't right in front of them, the same goes for anyone (or anything) that may be trying to detect them. Either way, since the Heroes don't go out of their way to raise a ruckus, the morning comesa and goes without incident.
After breaking for lunch, the party continues, and the afternoon stretches into the evening. It is near the end of this second day when privately, each of the travelers begins to wonder whether they will ever reach their destination (or even if they're going the right way). The navigators leading their companions are reasonably confident they're still on track, but there's really no telling how far away this place is. Argus steels his resolve, with little choice but to keep going. He remembers the morning after Jelenneth was taken how crestfallen everyone was when they lost the kidnappers' trail and vows that this time, his quarry will not elude him.
It is close to a full day's travel when the party notices the light start to change; a break in the leaves overhead reveals that evening is settling over Haranshire. They have another hour before they have to start thinking about finding a suitable place to make camp when the circumstances of the march change abruptly. Argus has swung wide to create a wider perimeter around the column, hoping to ward off any threats or at least detect them before the party is surprised and fenced in on all sides. Feruq leads the way and nearly falls on his face when, after heaving some brush out of the way to clear the path, he suddenly places a foot down on bare ground. He looks up to see a wide, open field before him, perhaps a hundred yards or more from this point at the edge of the clearing to the keep in the center (or what is left of it). From this angle, the front gates are visible, with one standing slightly ajar to allow entry and exit. Tall stone walls surround the place and the tower of the southeast corner has fallen into disrepair, with a pile of rubble outside the keep's walls apparent to Feruq from his current position.
The rest of the place looks as one might expect when seeing an abandoned and forgotten stronghold that had been recently occupied by bandits. From this far away and outside looking in, it's hard to tell what condition the grounds or interior are in, but Jelenneth's abductors do not appear to have taken pains to spruce the place up. They certainly haven't done anything to tend to the blasted radius stretching around Broken Spire Keep in all directions: the ground here is barren and, where vegetation is visible, it is yellowed and twisted, even more gnarled than the trees and undergrowth of the forest. It isn't completely bare, though, and an isolated tree or shrub can be spied here or there between the treeline and the front gates.
Feruq shades his eyes with his hand as he stares off toward the keep. Obviously frustrated, he tries using both hands, cupping them to the sides of his face. Finally, he shakes his head and seems to give up. "There is being movement there, at the top. But I am being unable to be making out details."
He shakes his head again. "I am wishing to be having a spyglass," he says, almost petulantly.
Argus and Feruq decide to take a trip around the perimeter, keeping an eye out for activity along the walls or signs of life from inside the compound but also investigating along the forest's edge. Meanwhile, Jugg breaks down what's going on for Aramil and Leon as succinctly as he can: there is a cell of evil cultists operating in the area, having been brainwashed by some kind of aberration from the Night Below to kidnap spellcasters and minders; two of the victims known so far are Jelenneth, the daughter of Haldelar and Parella in Milborne and also apprenticed to the wizard Tauster, and Jugg's own cousin Snagg (not a spellcaster or minder, but there is no other compelling avenue of investigation as to why he is missing); after having destroyed one of the cult's bases of operation in Garlstone Mine and confirming the deaths of several other members at Parlfray Keep, the Heroes have tracked the remaining villains to this ruined fortress; and it is believed the cultists are working with a tribe of orcs who live nearby, but the party has an in: if they can find the tribe's stronghold beneath the keep, the spiritual advisor to the chieftain is plotting a coup to replace the tyrant with Thunk.
There are several other terrible things going on, of course, but most of them are unrelated to the primary task at hand. It is also true that checking the above concerns off their to-do list will make the newly minted Count Parlfray, the blind boy named Lyntern, rest a lot easier, and bolster his position with the merchant families of the Exchange. Dalvar appears to have taken it upon himself to shore up the Count's claim to sovereignty, believing some good old-fashioned law and order should help to curb Haranshire's recent outrageous run of bad luck.
After completing their sweep, Feruq returns to the rest of the party and can confirm the movement he spied earlier on the wall near the tower is all that can be seen from this distance. If anyone is moving around in the courtyard, they're not being exceptionally noisy about it, but even with the gate standing ajar it is likely they would need to be shouting or banging on something to create enough noise the Heroes could hear it at this range.
He does, however, spot the beginnings of what may be the most commonly picked path from the treeline toward the Keep. It doesn't seem like the ground is as soft here as one might expect, given the recent rainfall; maybe it isn't raining here this far south of the river as much as elsewhere in Haranshire. Even so, there is significant signs of foot traffic going to and from the stronghold. He can't follow the trail very far, obviously, taking pains not to expose himself to sentries on the wall; but it does look like where the party emerged from the Thornwood is where most of their quarry are coming and going when they venture outside their lair.
Argus doesn't notice anything out of the ordinary during his circuit around the clearing but can corroborate what Feruq sees and also elaborate on the monk's findings. Most forays into the woods consist of two or three individuals at a time, never exceeding ten to twelve (and these are certainly Bloodskull orcs, not the human or demihuman cultists the party has crossed swords with in the past). The most recent trek was two or three days ago but it looks like they came back two orcs short, and two more were carrying something heavy. Maybe injured comrades, maybe food, who knows?
As for the clearing itself, it looks like the forest has expanded as close to the Keep as it dares. There isn't anything wrong with the vegetation near or at the edge, but beyond that point the only sparse offerings are gnarled, spiky bushes or seemingly dead trees. The soil is obviously contaminated somehow; it's probably safe to move around or spend time here, as evidenced by their foes taking up residence in the fortress, but if something passing for food were to grow here, the ranger would strongly caution against eating it. Likewise, the party should probably refill their waterskins before getting any closer; even if the Keep has its own water supply, drawing it out of the ground here is inadvisable without boiling it.
He follows the same trail into the clearing that Feruq has noticed, marking its route for a bit further but not by much before the tracks elude him. It definitely seems like these people don't spend a lot of time dawdling outside the castle walls and try to make for the treeline as quickly as possible.
"Well, shall we launch an attack against the front gate? It doesn't look barricaded. We could probably sneak in under cover of darkness."