|Assailants from the woods rain darts and sling stones, then come out swinging!|
The dart hits Chonkorchuk in the shoulder, and is followed by two pebbles launched from slings. Four men dressed in sheepskin overcoats and hats, and with scarves tied around their faces to conceal their identity, step from out behind trees, and charge the group, waving cudgels. They surround Chonkorchuk and Plamen, while Fox-Raskel flees deeper into the woods. The battle initially goes badly for the companions. Chonkorchuk is struck square in the ribs with a cudgel, and decides to flee when he has an opportune moment. Plamen is left face to face with all four, though one turns to pick off the fleeing Chonkorchuk with a dart. He initially tries to fight back with his own cudgel, but to no avail – the men’s coats are too thick, and he lands only a glancing blow. He draws out a spirit of bear-kind from beyond, which bolsters the party’s morale, and likely keeps Chonkorchuk alive. He then summons forth a wave of thunderous force to lay low the assailants. The first wave does not deter them, but the second sends three to the ground, blood coming out of their ears because of the impact. The last one standing attempts to flee, but Plamen finally connects with his cudgel, and cracks him upside the head.
Fox-Raskel watches all this from behind a tree. The assailants seem to pay him no mind, but Kutkh the crow shortly informs him that another assailant approaches from the direction in which the companions were walking. He is similarly dressed, but otherwise looks different – bigger, faster-moving, and better armed. Raskel soon sees him – a dark-haired, bristly man armed with a spear and shield, and carrying a quiver and bow on his back. Raskel prepares for the worst, and changes into a fox-man in full view of the man. The man stops before closing with Raskel, and surveys the scene, though shortly, Plamen dispatches the last of the four assailants, and goes over to minister to Chonkorchuk does not pass out from the pain. Raskel asks the new arrival why he is following them, and the man explains that he was actually following the other four, who he claims are smugglers.
The armed man announces himself as Dmitri, and says he is in the employ of Yurii Yelizarov – the boyar whose fort the companions passed earlier in the day. Yelizarov asked him to track the smugglers, to see what they are up to and where their hideout might be. He lost them in the woods, and came upon a frightening cairn (which the companions also passed), and which he claims nearly killed him. He then assists Chonkorchuk and Plamen in checking to see if the assailants are still alive. One has apparently died from the impact of the blast, but the other three are still hanging on. Chonkorchuk ties their hands with their scarves, while Raskel takes the dead man’s overcoat, and rifles through their pockets. A few darts, sling pebbles, copper pulo coins, and two hunting knives are discovered, but nothing else of value, and nothing that indicates who they might be. Their faces don’t look familiar – they simply appear to be young villagers heading out to trap in the forest, but Raskel detects a slight meady, honey smell about them. Dmitri indicates that one of them has only one mitten, which matches a mitten he saw earlier on the cairn.
|Dmitri - a well-armed hunter with a canid scent|
Plamen uses one of his magical berries to revive one of the survivors, who is quite scared, and willing to spill the beans, apparently honestly. Though he does not directly admit to smuggling, he says that he and his companions were “working”, and that they were going to their hideout to meet up with other associates, who are preparing the base for winter, when sled traffic will travel freely upon the frozen Vydra River. Among their associates is someone named Radei, who apparently stays at the hideout, as well as Vasya – a one-armed guardian whose description matches that of the Galumphing Oaf the companions have been seeking. The smuggler indicates that they were aware that Dmitri was following them through the woods, and tried to mislead him by throwing a mitten onto the cairn. He is quite surprised, however, that Yelizarov had them followed, because he is under the impression that Lionia had “arranged everything” with the boyar. It thus appears that Lionia is part of his band as well, though the smuggler insists that he works with him, not for him. The smugglers attacked, he says, because they thought the group was trying to surround them on their own turf, but he denies they were trying to kill anyone.
It is now decision time. Dmitri and the others are a bit taken aback by Yelizarov’s role in this, but they conclude he was probably trying to press the smugglers to get a better deal out of them. The nearby cottage might contain the band’s cache, but there is little desire to move against Lionia’s allies at the moment. Unsure what to do, the companions decide to go to Yelizarovka to search for Lionia so they can get some answers, figuring he would have an easy time finding them there. Dmitri follows them, thinking he can at least learn more about what he was really doing, and pick up some new work after his deal with Yelizarov expires – the companions indicate they are looking for treasure, and might be interested in taking on a little muscle. They release the prisoner, who runs off in the direction of the hideout, and leave the two survivors warming one another under their coats (they take two others sets of clothes, as well as the other objects found on the smugglers), and head back to Yelizarovka.
After a few misadventures (Raskel gets caught in a snare near the fresh grave, Dmitri pokes at the mitten on the cairn, and feels a bit queasy as a result, Plamen sends the flock of crows to feast on a dead body near the smugglers’ cottage), the four arrive in Yelizarovka, and buy a place to stay for the night at the local waystation. After they finish off the venison, Kutkh informs Rodion (who by now has changed back) that a sizable group of people is resolutely approaching the waystation compound. They take positions around the perimeter, and one of them heads for the front gate, converses briefly with the host, and then heads toward the shed where the companions are holed up. Nervous, Dmitri slips out the back, and hides.
The man turns out to be Lionia. He tells the party that it’s time to deal, as he has something they want, and they have something he wants. There is a bit of wrangling regarding who was responsible for the altercation. The companions now know where Vasya is, and where the hideout is located, though Lionia points out that they can’t relate this information to Yelizarov, because they are responsible for the death of one of his peons, and he will want restitution. He does seem grateful for the information about Yelizarov’s spying on the smugglers. In turn, he pointedly reminds the group that the longer they wait, the more likely it will be that someone else will move to take the treasure. Plamen is still reticent to move against Plamenka, though he is willing to stand aside and let Lionia and the other companions take the treasure provided they use stealth or magic to keep her asleep, instead of trying to kill her. The old fox suggests that the tracker may make a useful ally, and replacement for Plamen in this endeavor, and asks if he might come back inside and join the parlay. Dmitri returns, and the rest of the group fills him in on what they know about the poleviks under Crows' Meadow warren, the treasure, and its ultimate destination. Lionia agrees to meet the group outside of Lazarevo in three days time, when everyone has finished recuperating. With regard to Yelizarov, Lionia agrees with the group that it’s a good idea to play for time, and then to blame the death of the smuggler on the crows (who were invited to eat his body anyway). Before he departs, Lionia asks for the two sets of winter clothes the companions took off his smugglers, and they acquiesce.