Long before false dawn, Sam had the group up and making the tiny clearing look as unused as possible. He knew it would be impossible considering that it had been occupied by five people, four of whom did not know how to walk softly. The girls came close, but Sam thought Chase was a lost cause even if Taliesin held promise.
Where Taliesin was tall and slim, Chase was a brute of a young man. Almost as tall as Taliesin, his arms and shoulders appeared twice the size of his slender cousin. Sam wondered whether the sturdy sapling in the boy’s hand would survive its first battle.
When they had cleared as many traces of their camp as possible, Sam shredded one of the rotting darnni skins and scattered it around what remained of the camp. He then took what skins remained and tossed them into the [space] and led the group toward the stream two furlongs distant.
“Now, I know that y’all ain’t got proper boots, so’s I want ya’s ta pull them thangs off’n yer feet. We’s goin’ wadin’,” Sam told his charges.
The cousins did as he bade, and soon they were wading in the icy waters of some unnamed creek, river slime testing their mastery of this new world. Sam watched as the group used their staff and each other to keep from falling in the knee-deep channel. Every thumb movement of the sun, the halfling pulled them from the water onto the bank, where the party warmed their feet. Sam set a false trail to throw off any possible pursuit. At midday, the halfling found a small clearing less than a furlong from the creek. Leading the younglings out of the cold water, he pulled the wrappings they had used for their feet and had them cover them once more.
“Warm yer feet th’ best ye’s can,” he said. “I’m gonna check our back-trail an’ see if’n I was able to throw them off the scent.” With that, the halfling disappeared into the forest.
Sam stayed parallel to the stream as he backtracked, making sure to keep to rocky surfaces and off bare spots as much as possible. He crossed the stream often in an attempt to muddle any tracks and scent a Tracker might find. Half a league along their back trail, the halfling stopped and climbed into the lower branches to observe. As he half expected and dreaded, a small troop of soldiers filtered down the game trail up which he had tried to set a false path. They were led by a Tracker.
The halfling thought furiously. How could he delay their pursuers? He closed his eyes, and a map of their trail appeared in his mind. As he wondered at the vision, a path of light traced through the myriad of game trails near where he had left the young folks. Using his roof-running skills, Sam leaped from tree-to-tree, branch-to-branch, until he reached a gap. Splashing back into the stream, he raced toward the clearing in which he had left the cousins.
“C’mon!” Sam exclaimed when he found them. “We gotta lay a false trail, and we gotta do it now!”
Chase stood facing the halfling, staff at the ready in his hands. The big man relaxed when he saw Sam. The others pulled themselves up from where they had been sitting.
“What’s happening?” asked Katra.
“They got a Tracker,” Sam said. “I doubled back along our trail and some half-league back, they come outta th’ woods from th’ last false trail I set.”
“Shit!” said Chase.
“No kidding, bro,” said Dreyah.
“What do you suggest?” asked Taliesin.
Sam glanced at Taliesin, then to Katra.
“I b’lieve, I gots a message from Our Lady of Fortune,” replied the halfling, finding a patch of dirt and a stick. He drew patterns in the mud and said, “we gonna walk these game trails like this, then head back to the creek. I want us all to find different spots to come onto the bank, then meet back here. Leave clues as you walk this pattern, but nowheres else.” He looked to each cousin, waiting for them to nod their assent before moving on. “How are y’all with tree-climbing?”
The younglings looked around at each other.
“That’s always been Ela and Eli’s thing,” said Katra. “Those two can climb almost anything. As for me, I mean, I can climb … but what good is being stuck in a tree with bad guys waiting for us at the bottom?”
By that question, Sam saw the flaw in his plan. These kids were not roof-runners for all that they were adventurous. As he thought about how to answer, he saw the young woman twitch as her expression changed from confusion to understanding.
“Ah, ok,” said Katra aloud, turning to her family. “Here’s what we do.” She then told them what Sam had a hard time conveying.
They needed to make their way through the animal trails that laced the forest along both sides of the stream. They were to cross their own and each other’s paths as much as the tracks allowed. Sam would then lead them toward a rocky outcropping to the north, and back to the stream, where they would continue westward toward the city of Blackmoor.
Sam knew he would find more clues to the whereabouts of this “Ela” and “Eli” in the city. He had heard enough snippets of conversation while acquiring the kids’ wardrobes that he was sure the pair had been taken to the local lord for disposition. And from what he knew of Blackmoor’s lord, he wasn’t sure the twins would survive such a welcome. Half-thumb later, the group met back at the stream. Barefoot once again, they waded west toward Blackmoor.
In the late afternoon, Sam guided the weary party from the stream.
“How’s yer feet holdin’ up?” he asked.
“They ache,” said Dreyah, the others nodded.
“There be a road up ahead,” he said. “It’ll take us to Blackmoor.” He looked around at them. “That town ain’t a good place ta be if’n ya ain’t from there. We’s all gonna be strangers there, so watch yer back. All y’all’s accents’ll give ye’s away as not from here. I’ll do th’ talkin’.”
They nodded in unison.
“Now,” he continued, turning to Katra, “you, bein’ a priest o’ Minerva an’ all, is leadin’ this motley band o’ worshippers, so act all pious if’n ye can. Y’all be from the far east and be on pilgrimage ta Minerva’s shrine in Aernon. Katra, yer their translator, so y’all’s gonna have ta act like ya don’t understand nothin’. Got it?”
They nodded again.
“Yer feet’s gonna show y’all are a bunch o’ tenderfoots, most folk here don’t have boots or shoes.”
“We could have run out of money and walked our boots off our feet during this long trek,” suggested Taliesin.
“Ok, tha’ might work,” said Sam.
“We could be the rich adventurous type who set out unprepared,” offered Chase.
“Um …” started Katra.
“That’s kind of what we did, cousin,” said Taliesin, finishing his sister’s thought.
Chase looked at him and reddened.
“I coulda swore we were prepared,” the big man answered.
“Me too, Chase, me too,” replied Taliesin, slapping his cousin on the shoulder.
“So,” said Dreyah, “what do we need to know going in?”
Sam pondered the question. He knew little of Blackmoor, save that its lord was not known as a kind master. The fortunes of the city waxed and waned according to the disposition of Perrin Volyar, ruler of Blackmoor. The Shadow Orphans stayed clear of the place because of the harsh penalties if caught thieving or begging. He had also heard rumors they didn’t tolerate halflings, and that could be a problem.
“Is there a shrine to Minerva in this Blackmoor place?” asked Katra, pulling Sam from his thoughts.
“I can’t say for sure, but most would have a temple,” replied the halfling.
“That’s our reason for being here, then,” she said. “We’re pilgrims from the east. What’s a city in the far east, Sam?”
“Um …” he stammered, thinking furiously. “Um, Thayur, I think.” He vaguely recalled the name from some long-forgotten source.
“Ok,” said Katra, eyes shining. “We’re from Thayur. We’re on pilgrimage to visit as many shrines and temples of Minerva along our route from Thayur to … where is it we’re supposed to be going, Sam?”
“Uh, Aernon,” he replied.
“Oh, yeah, Aernon,” she said, continuing with her tale. “We’re on a pilgrimage to visit as many shrines and temples to Minerva as we can between Thayur?” Katra looked at Sam when he nodded, she continued, “and Aernon. Blackmoor is just one stop along our road.” She looked at her cousins expectantly.
The rest of the group stared at her. Her brother looked thoughtful. She knew he could pull off the part of a pious pilgrim, as could Dreyah. Chase, on the other hand, was another story. He was never very good at the ‘role-playing’ aspect of their role-playing games, but he always tried to act the part of his character. As much as she loved her cousin, Chase wasn’t very bright. She had to admit his instincts were usually spot-on, though.
“Now,” said Sam, breaking the silence, “we ain’t got much coin, so lodgin’ might be a bit dodgy. I could pick a pocket or ten, but if’n they’s catch me, they’ll take me hand.”
“No, Sam,” said Dreyah. “We’ll make do with what we have. We can’t afford to lose you.”
“She’s right,” said Taliesin. “We need to get the lay of this place before we can do anything.”
“And we need boots,” said Chase, looking down at his aching feet.