After spotting horse, hound and human tracks in the abandoned village, the party proceeds with more caution. As they continue along the roadway, they note the horsemen came and went the same way. "Could be good, could be bad," muttered Durego. "Maybe Lord Thambar is just beefing up patrols."
"If he's still in charge," answeres Grendor.
The party passes the crossed spears hung with kobold skulls they've seen before and sees the undergrowth and saplings around these markers have been hacked back and cleared. "Like someone wants to be sure those are seen," says Ohwatoo. "That's a good sign."
"Good how?" asks Maro.
"They're a warning to intruders. I think Thambar must be working to secure this border."
As the party continues along the road, the trees get thicker. After stopping for a midday meal, they press on, cautiously, hoping to make the ford before nightfall. They're about half a mile (they think) from the river when Mordikarr raises a warning hand. He stands still for a minute, then whispers to Rawon, who nods. The two scouts come back to the rest of the party. "Listen," says Rawon.
Everyone quiets down and strains their ears. Finally, Maro whispers, "Is that someone chopping down a tree?"
"More than one," says Mordikarr. "Voices too. People."
"Let's get closer and see what we can see," Raúguey tests the edge of the Sword of Bees.
The group creeps forward at a snail's pace. The sounds get clearer and louder. It's obvious that there are several someones working in the woods. The scouts call a halt just below a ridgeline. "Let us look over. We should be able to see the bridge and ruins from here." The pair creeps up the hill and peers over. They spend a good five minutes watching the scene below, then Rawon taps Mordikarr and points at something. The wild man squints, then nods. They whisper back and forth a bit then drop back down off the ridge, making little effort to move quietly.
"What is it?" asks Strom.
"Looks like Thambar the Prudent, Lord of Hembard Wilds, Defender of Highcliff Keep, Recognized Lord of the Peerage of the Kingdom of Jal, Meisterburger of Auslaug, Hustwood, and Brekkevale is going to be adding a new title to his name," says Rawon. "Come see."
The group moves up to the ridgeline. The far side has been almost stripped bare of trees and undergrowth. The old ruined mill by the river is gone, replaced by a squarish wooden building. The old stone bridge pilings have new wooden planks and railings. A muddy strip of ground forms a road through a mass of tents and crude huts. The west end of the road ends near a large barn, a fenced corral, and an open-sided structure. A column of smoke and the sound of hammers marks this as a smithy. A few people, including several in armor, are out and walking along the road, and a larger group is cutting trees in the woods southeast of the tent-village.
On the far side of the river, a wooden palisade flanked by a small stone structure guards the bridge. The trees have been cleared here too, and the party can just see a narrow dirt road curving away through the woods beyond the fort. A wagon is just coming into view. The flag of the Hembard Wilds flies above the palisade, and several people in armor are near the open gate.
"Well, this is unexpected," says Dagmarten.