Able looks at his companions. "Well, I guess we are all men, but I usually prefer the term mail carrier. But you know the saying - through snow or sleet or communist ambush, the mail must get through."
The druid looks back from Eryndir to Able.
"Rupert would have told you if I was anyone else. Help me move these bodies from the water and into shallow graves. I'll repay your intercession with a meal and a warm hearth. I'll take your letter then. Do we have a deal?"
Charn rinses his blade off in the river, sheathes it, and approaches the druid. "That is acceptable to me," he says, and proceeds to drag the commies out of the river.
"Hm?", Able adds, with surprise. "I would have thought you'd have wanted to leave them for carrion feeders or something. Let them return to the cycle of life or something. Apparently I don't know anything about druids." Able doesn't make any real effort to drag the bodies into shallow graves, but he does make an effort to LOOK like he's helping - or at least, not shirking.
Eryndir also assists, and checks their pockets, purses, belongings, and other accoutrement as he does.
Digging four holes each large enough to accommodate a grown man takes a fair amount of time when digging without a shovel. Charn feels as sore from the digging as he does from the battering he suffered but his clothes aren't as soaked through as Caleb's. The earth by the river is soft - a merciful blessing for the laborers.
Hatepshon disappears for a few minutes and returns with a wild boar hung over his shoulders. The boar must have weighed 200 lbs but the druid casually carries it over one shoulder as if it weighed nothing at all. As the graves are dug, the druid prepares the carcass for a meal. He is meticulous about his work and peppers the process with careful applications of Druidcraft, a cantrip that flavors the meal and alters the aroma to a more palatable one.
Over the next few hours, the druid prepares a meal of root vegetables and loin while softly singing. He's a passable vocalist and could possibly pursued a career as a bard if he hadn't become a druid. There is denying that he is in tune with nature, however. Dinner is simply excellent.
Around the modest campfire, Hatepshon begins using prestidigitation to cleanse the soil from his garments and his body. In the darkened wood, the flickering lights cast an ethereal look on the druid's features. His otherworldly appearance does not distract him from business.
"Now that we've salted together, let's discuss your postage."
Eryndir performs the work of burying the dead silently and efficiently, piling their belongings near the fire. He picks through the items, giving them a cursory examination, but leaving anything of value in the pile. He takes a few of the letters and pamphlets and reads through them over his supper.
He eats with an appreciation of the sustenance but without much sense that he is either enjoying the meal or not. It is an act of nourishment. When the Druid speaks, Eryndir finishes what is on his plate and sets it aside, giving the party his attention.
Charn produces the letter which he passes politely to the druid. "Something tells me it won't be a wedding invitation."
Caleb makes no move to help bury the Communists, and makes no apologies for not doing so. He watches Eryndir's antics with the magical canteen with passive interest, but refills his own waterskin from the stream and drinks his fill.
"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 watches the Druid closely as he reads the letter.
The druid reads the letter. He smirks. He then proceeds to smell the letter. He makes several loud inhalations through his nose, holding the letter just above his slight five o'clock shadow.
The druid looks up at the assembled.
"My Archdruid wants to warn me that there may be communists in the area. I'm not sure I believe him."
A crackling sort of hissing sound escapes Charn's mouth, and it's difficult to tell whether he's laughing or sighing. "Would that the blighters stay in their communes and share their brand of misery exclusively with themselves." After a moment, he asks, "Other than the one who managed an escape, are there more nearby?"
The druid furrows his brow. "Where there is smoke, my scaled friend, there is fire. Perhaps you and your colleagues can find out if you are not needed back at The Outpost immediately? I would be happy to have your assistance scouting these lands if you are so inclined."
The druid reaches into his robes, pulling out a legume. He cracks it between thumb and forefinger before fishing out the edible interior.
Eryndir offers an uncharacteristic bark of a laugh when Hatepshon describes Taron's warning. The smile still lingering on his face, he replies to Hatepshon.
"The Archdruid suspected you might ask us to assist, and gave us leave from the Outpost if we wished to do so. He also mentioned that you might have some other request of us, though he may have been speaking generally.
"For myself, I would be eager to help. I cannot speak for my compatriots, however."
"I don't really care for the wilds. If we're going to be traveling far from soft beds and hot food, we'll need to be compensated."
The druid smiles at the Tiefling's request, as if he knew it was coming. "I know you're no communist, now don't I? Able, was it? Tell me about yourself Able. What would you wish from a man of the woods such as myself?"
He crushes two legumes at a time between his thumb and forefinger. His amusement is plain to see.
"Gold won't serve you here. Can't you command the moles to dig it up for us?"
Now it is Hatepshon's turn to bark a laugh. He crumbles up the contents of his hand while chewing. After digging a small divot in the ground, he dumps those crumbled contents into the earth and covers them back up again.
"I don't command anything, I'm afraid. I'm not Archdruid Hatepshon, I'm simply Hatepshon. I have no particular rights or responsibilities. Unlike your cleric friend," the druid gestures toward Caleb, "I don't believe I have to do anything just because someone tells me to do something. I suspect you have a similar outlook. Am I right?"
Eryndir begins sorting the assorted goods taken from the bodies of the dead Communists into four piles. Each pile contains 550 copper and 20 silver. Seeing that the gold does not divide evenly, he places 12 gold in his own pile and then 15 in the other's piles. He places one scimitar and one set of leather armor in each pile, as well.
In a separate pile, he arranges the three gems, the four canteens (setting the magic one just to the side of the others), the spell scrolls, and the potions taken from Marx.
He hands Able his share of the coins. "It seems this work may be lucrative on its own, without asking for gold from a man of the woods."
He hands each member of the party their share of the coins and places one of the scimitars and sets of leather armor by their packs. He then gestures to the other pile and says "each of you can also take one of the three gems, dividing them however you choose. One of those canteens seems to be bigger on the inside, as well. And I lay no claim to the goods taken from Marx himself."
He sits once more and offers Hatepshon his attention. "How would you recommend we begin?"
The druid looks between Eryndir and Able thoughtfully. "That depends. If you're looking for mercenary work, there is a watchtower to the north of here that needs capable hands. Their Commander is a good friend of mine and I know she pays well. If you're looking for interesting work, a . . . " he trails off, looking for the right word.
The pause is frustratingly long. The fire crackles and the woods at night loom large beyond the flickering of the flames. Somehow, the darkness is not menacing.
"An acquaintance, let us call him, of mine needs a cave explored. Apparently it is a new cave, but I don't quite know what that means. Of course, you also likely have work back at The Outpost if my Archdruid sent you all the way out here to warn me about the communists who want to kill me."
Hatepshon looks to Rupert, silent in the trees.
"That owl hates me, you know. It really isn't my fault."
Eryndir follows Hatepshon's gaze to the figure of Rupert. "He doesn't seem overly fond of us, either. We trespass upon his patience. It seems he expects us to fly at times and is put out that we cannot."
He looks back to Hatepshon and then to the others. "Mercenary work might pay regularly, but our gains are limited to our wages. Exploring a cave might allow us to be more . . . entrepreneurial."
He looks to his compatriots for their thoughts.
Charn furrows his scaly brow in thought and wonders, "What is that saying they're so fond of? From each according to his ability to each according to his need? Well. I have a heavy boot, and their pants will have need of it until they leave the good people of this area alone."
"The cave sounds interesting. All the best features of the wilderness like wild beasts and danger in every corner with all the advantages of the cramped warrens of a city."
Caleb watches the exchange with some amusement. "I think we should report back that the warning of Communist activity was more than appropriate. I am sure it would fall to us to do the scouting and patrolling anyway, but it seems imprudent to volunteer to go spelunking when there are known dissidents at large in the area; and all without warning our superiors of what we have encountered."
"We can send the parrot back with word of what we've done." Able doesn't actually know or care about the differences between bird species, but he's pretty sure that if it talks, it must be a parrot.
Eryndir nods. "I agree with Able -- sending word with Rupert will suffice in terms of reporting back. Unless we have a specific reason to return to the Outpost, I believe the watchtower or cave would make an apt next destination."
The druid watches the exchange. His eyes dart back and forth between the travelers as they debate their next destination.
"As I see it, all of you have to have a reason you're here wielding swords instead of in a city wielding a hammer or a pen. A skilled craftsman can live a very comfortable life that will be much longer than an adventurer. A banker or a lawyer can grow fat and rich and enjoy all the comforts of civilization surrounded by friends, food, and other follies. Did the allure of honest work get outshined by the glittering gold of adventuring? Did the glory of defending The Empire at the remote edge of civilization draw you to The Outpost? If you know why you're here, now, in a wood beset by violent revolutionaries, you might be able to determine where you want to go next and why."
"I'd like to be a banker growing rich and fat. I don't think that was a realistic option. I'm not even sure that honest work would have kept me fed and paid. There are too many that feel paying someone like me a pittance for the work I do makes them charitable."
"So you're out here for the money?" The druid ruminates on the assumption.
Eryndir fidgets idly with the handle of a sheathed dagger on his belt, lips pursed and eyes focused intently on a patch of dirt while the druid speaks.
"It seems to me that the Watchtower carries the promise of a certain direction, an identified mission, and fair wages for defined work. The cave carries the allure of mystery, the possibility of untold discovery, but also the risk of finding an empty hole in the ground at the behest of an individual only described to us as the acquaintance of our friend here."
He looks around the assembled individuals.
"I have no real preference on which direction we pick as long as we continue moving forward. I am happy to make a decision if no one else wishes to, but I would bet a copper that someone else has a preference between the two paths before us. Modest certainty or unlimited possibility with a risk of said possibility being empty? Do you like guarantees or wagers?"
He shrugs as if to emphasize his indifference to the choice made.
The druid eyes Eryndir's proclaimed indifference incredulously.
"What is it that brings you to these wilds? Surely, you're not so disinterested in comfort that you picked up that bow to feel a twinge of pain in your forefingers."
Eryndir grins wryly and gestures to the emblem of the Gladestrider Irregulars on his tunic that covers his studded leather armor. Although the tunic itself is well-worn, the insignia looks newer, relatively unblemished.
"I live in service to Elector Gladestrider, and will likely die in her service, as well -- though hopefully many years from now. I go where that service takes me. A cave or a watchtower . . . "
"So long as I am away from The Outpost, I will not have to take a turn mucking out stable stalls. The life of a soldier seems glamorous to some. They forget that when not engaged in glorious combat, there is shit to be shoveled."
The druid smiles. "The public servant is here in service to the Elector. I'm sure your altruism is laudable. What brought you into her service? Surely it isn't the same circumstances that brought you," he points to Charn, "or you," to Caleb, "into these woods."
"Well, if we explore the cave, the only shit we have to deal with is our own. That's my preference."
The Wood Elf's wry grin fades when the druid asks about the events that brought him to the Gladestrider Irregulars. "There are more paths to public service than altruism. Not all who serve have chosen their life of service, and those who do often have reasons as varied as the seasons for making such a choice."
He shifts uncomfortably on the tree stump. "My own path to service is somewhere between. The least bad of two choices, perhaps? Suffice to say it was better than a cell, and leave it there."
Charn regards the druid a moment, as if he's weighing whether to confess his circumstance. With a weary shrug, he says, "I'm here over a piece of cheese. It's a long story."
The usually sullen elf cannot help the warm smile that briefly crosses his face at Charn's description of the circumstances that brought him into their company.
"Long story or not, sounds like a good reason. Maybe the only one."
Eryndir leans in curiously. "You have surely piqued my interest. How, pray tell, can a piece of cheese led you to these woods and our company?"
The subject is clearly a sore spot for the warrior. "I was at one of those fancy parties back west. One of the uppity folk took issue with my manners." He grimaces. "And my heritage. And we exchanged...words. He had more powerful friends than I do."
"And the cheese gets the blame. That sounds fair." Able's tone makes it clear that it doesn't sound at all fair.
The druid laughs at Able's sarcasm.
"With the exception of your priest," he gestures toward Caleb, "you've all actually been spurned by society. You're out here to avoid the various pitfalls associated with living in the city. That may inform your choice. The watch tower is garrisoned by Elector Gladestrider's men. The "new cave," whatever that means, is farther removed from the Elector's forces. If you want to reconcile with society, you clearly should make your way to the watchtower. If you want to strike out on your own, away from society, you clearly should make your way to the cave. I know why you're here, but which way do you want to proceed?"
Charn listens to the archdruid and concludes, "Let us strike at the tower, then."
Eryndir considers. "I likely *should* report to the Tower, if there is an option to assist my fellow Gladestrider Irregulars. However, I am sure there are stalls to be mucked there, as there are at the Outpost. If Able prefers freedom and the cave, I have no objection. There will be orders to be followed later."
He looks to Charn. "Unless you prefer to . . . bolster . . . the forces at the Tower, not strike at them?"
And to Caleb. "Where would you see the path take us?"
"Spelunking really isn't in my job description. The watch tower serves an important function in this region and if their garrison could use our assistance, we should provide it before reporting back to the Outpost."
Hatepshon nods. He puts the remnants of his legumes in a pocket and wipes his hands against each other. Small remnants of his snack make their way to the folds of his cloak as it lies on the floor.
"The Watchtower is garrisoned by Commander Erendi Highleaf, a wood elf associate of mine for a few years now. She's young, maybe only sixty years or so, but a clear contender to be called back to The Capital to serve as some sort of military advisor. Of course, she loathes the idea of becoming a small fish in a big pond and greatly prefers serving the Elector here. I've established a relationship with Erendi that focuses her attention on the northern border while I tend to problems here. I don't know how any of you feel about greenskins, but Erendi loathes them and their tribal way of life. She appreciates that I'm able to alleviate much of her responsibility of monitoring these forests and I appreciate that her . . . soldiers," he lingers on the word, "stay focused on the raiding parties they find from the north." The druid shakes his head, his crown of antlers bobbing softly.
"Go to her and tell her about these Thousandfold Men of Industry. Tell her that her patrols are going to be needed here. Do this for me and I will repay you with some scrolls and a carrying case."
"Can you explain to the parrot what we're doing so we can report in? I think if he sends word back about what we're doing, none of us will have reservations with spending a little longer on the frontier."
Rupert hoots dismissively in response to Able's mischaracterization of Rupert's pedigree. That doesn't stop the Druid from agreeing.
The night passes quietly. In the morning, Hatepshon prepares a meal of eggs and slightly spiced root vegetables. The repast is easily better than any at The Outpost. The only beverage available is river water but the river is clean and cold and refreshing. After brief consultation regarding the 25 mile hike north to the Watchtower, the druid bids the travelers farewell.
A day and a night passes with the travelers enjoying the benefit of decent weather but brutally broken terrain. Although the distance is only 25 miles as the crow flies, Eryndir spends a considerable amount of his time trying to figure out if taking a 100 mile detour to the nearest path might be preferable to constant changes in elevation and uneven slopes.
On the second day of travel, just as the sun is starting to go down, Charn catches his foot on something and stumbles. Two barbs have entered his leg, dealing four points of damage. It appears as though Charn has stepped in a heavily modified bear trap. Instead of the traditional jaws that resemble rows of teeth, Charn's bear trap jaws resemble the mandibles of an Ankheg. The jaws stay wedged in the Dragonborn's leg.
Charn hisses something in Draconic that involves Tiamat and her non-existent mammary glands and calls to his fellows, "Hold a moment, please." He tries to get a better look at the trap, especially regarding whether it's attached to the rest of an Anhkheg.