The weather turned rainy again with the odd thunderstorm that forced the trio to seek shelter from the forked lightening. The stream they walked beside became a torrent and they had to move away from the path they followed in case they were swept away by a sudden flood. This made the going slower as they had to pick their way through low scrub and bushes.
They were all becoming a little paranoid about encountered creatures or buildings now. Perhaps they were learning from experience to question who or what they met, but Stove doubted that. He believed it might be more accurately the negative reinforcement of being nearly killed a number of times on the journey.
On the second day the land began to rise and they could see a vast forest ahead of them that they thought was their goal. Somewhere in the eaves of the forest was a cabin that was the staging post of the main smuggling route of brandy and ethanol. Ethanol is a popular volatile liquid with the residents of Cheapside and the Wharf in Santos. Ethanol gave an instant and short-lived intoxication and was taken by pouring on a spoon and using the heat of the mouth to cause evaporation. A major advantage was that a second intoxication could be achieved by taking some water immediately after. Smuggling brandy without paying tariffs to the Patrician's tax collectors was of course illegal. The use of ethanol as a drug was also illegal but not necessarily discouraged by authorities, if it kept the poor happy and intoxicated. Ethanol was cheap, readily available from portable vendors and was probably only illegal as the Patrician hadn’t worked out how to efficiently tax it. It also had the tendency to make one blind if taken in large quantities.
Neither Darkon, Graphen nor Egil were particularly concerned about the Patrician's taxes which they frequently also 'forgot' to pay too. They had taken the Fatman's Silver to bring the bandit leader back to Santos. All other acquired goods Could be disposed of as they saw fit. The Fatman was not interested in the goods but for some reason was fixated on the leader of the bandits being returned to Santos unharmed. This made the enterprise likely to be extremely profitable if they could avoid being killed or badly injured. Darkon reckoned the smugglers were likely to be reasonably well armed but the trio had the element of surprise.
The third day took them to the edge of the forest and the odd shaped stone that marked the start of the path through the forest. This was the sharp end of their adventure and likely to be the most dangerous. They discussed how to approach the cabin, making plans which they then discarded when one of them discovered a flaw. After several hours of fruitless discussion, they thought it might actually be useful to see the cabin and try to guess the strength of the opposition. Only then they decided could they make some farm plan. This would do as the plan for now. Darkon referred to it as rolling planning and said he had learnt it during his time at the Adventurers Guild Self-improvement Course 101.
So, they tied the furious Stove to a tree off the path. Stove was apoplectic about the lack of risk assessment of his situation. They had tethered him to a tree without any consideration of predators that might be passing and fancy a bit of tied-up donkey. When the three slipped off into the undergrowth, he began to gnaw at the tether to break free in case some wandering wolf or bear should chance by. Stove had had enough. If he was going to remain a donkey then he needed better and safer employment. An owner that at least cared if he was going to be eaten by wild animals or rampaging monsters. After 15 minutes he got himself free and followed the trio deeper into the woods.
Darkon, Egil and Graphen were blindly unaware of Stove's anger and desire for revenge as they crept slowly and quietly along the side of the path. There were signs of recent travel. Ruts of cart wheels and fresh horse dung.
"l once saw a master tracker tell how recently an animal had paned by tasting the dung. He was also able to tell what the animal had eaten and thus it’s travel history," said Graphen quietly fingering the dung." However, I belong to the tradition that believes in minimalist information and that the broader social history is unnecessary to the finding of the quarry. And anyways I'm never going to eat dung.”
Egil nodded sagely and Darkon smiled. He wondered who really ate shit and if they did, would they really own up to it. He thought it was perhaps one of those jokes that Master Artificers played on their apprentices to make them look stupid such as sending them to the local outfitters to buy a left-handed screwdriver or tartan paint. When he made his observation, Graphon became angry saying that Darkon really didn’t understand the complexities and art in tracking and if he was that much of a cynic it would be best to leave adventuring to real men and return to his daddy's farm.
This began another argument, that only ended when two men holding spears asked them what they were doing here. None of the trio had heard their approach and were caught with their pants down.
In Egil’s case this was literal rather than metaphorical. His rising anxiety had put pressure on his bladder and he had chosen this moment to have a pee, The two men looked on with wry amusement. The tall one with the rather nasty scar running down his face from forehead to chin. said
"Are you Draco's boys? We've been expecting you for the last two days"
Darkon, who might be a lot of things, and in particular not a very good leader, was actually reasonably quick witted and managed to both reply and sound convincing, "Yeah, Sorry we're late. Got held up by a troll at a bridge. Got here as soon as we could”.
"Ok, sounds a good fireside story," said the Scarface, "but for now the Boss will be glad you're here, we've been waiting to get the stuff back to Santos."
So, some hours later the trio found themselves perched precariously on top of covered wagons in a caravan bound for Santos.
Stove watched from a distance and thought 'bastards. They would have left me to die in that forest. That's it. I'm off on my own. I don't need them!’
The distant howl of a wolf rapidly changed his mind and he trotted after the caravan in what amounted to a run for a donkey