"I can't go with you," he shook his head regretfully, glancing back at the longhouse where his wife held sway.
"If we bring back friends, it'll be because we're dead," I murmured.
"Tell you what, we promise that if we bring back friends, we'll try to bring them back over this way."
"You didn't hear me say that that could be a lot of fun," he grinned.
"At no point would you ever say anything like that," she agreed.
I nodded solemnly. "Especially not where your wife could hear it."
"Are you likely to inherit?" Artos asked suddenly.
"Me?" I was taken aback. "God, I hope not." I'm really rather fond of my older sibs.
"Shoot. Seemed like you've got a good head on your shoulders."
"Why, thank you."
"So, mines?" Conner said glumly.
"We haven't come up with any good plans yet," Meara noted. "We haven't even come up with a great plan."
"We haven't come up with a plan," Gannon pointed out.
Go and look and see what was there, seemed to be the whole of it. Meara held a brief ceremony and blessed the lot of us, for whatever good that might do. We set out on foot once more into the swamp, where Gudrun had kindly left out a causeway to cross the river. Conner kept an arrow ready as we walked, whistling softly.
It was still dark there. The moon was out again. We saw no green fire. We passed the previous night's battlefield; Gannon stumbled over a sword, and we began finding the odd bit of debris on the ground. No crow or goblin bodies, but the occasional bone and shattered bits of brass, copper, and bronze. No steel or more esoteric items.
As we walked, Conner wondered, "Why aren't the goblins just heading in the other direction around the walls, and then back down through, rather that trying to cross over the swamp?" He was thinking about the ones we had encountered before reaching the valley.
"They're stupid?" Gannon hazarded.
"They may be trying to get rid of Emer," I guessed. If as it seemed his ghost represented opposition to whatever the mine-people were trying to do, eliminating him or keeping him occupied might be as or more worthwhile to them than simply moving around him.
"Well obviously some of them got past," Conner said.
"Emer may be preventing them? Maybe with phantom armies like the one you saw," Llweder suggested.
"Oh, they weren't phantoms," was the feeling reply. "See the big bones?"
"I'm thinking that some of them may actually be going around," Meara offered.
"Which is where we ran into the ones from ten, twelve days ago?"
"Yes, because that extends five miles in," she gestured at the darkness around them. "One of the things I would like to do is see what's five miles in, see where it stops."
"Have a good time," he wished her.
"Not on this side, I'd rather do it on the daylight side."
"For a mage, you're not particularly curious...."
"I'm very curious. I am fully expecting that you will write back and I'll be able to find out what happened," he said cheerfully.
"Here, have a sword, it might be useful," she handed him one of the bronze weapons.
"I have one."
"I'm not talking about for battle, we could actually enchant this into a bane weapon."
Pause. "Do I have to carry it?"
With the mages bickering and collecting the occasional specimen of darkside flora, we continued on past the druids' grove, moving more cautiously now. About a half a mile away we got a view of the mine, which to no one's surprise appeared to be in operation. A mountain of ore had been piled outside it. Smoke came from underground chimneys. Orcish slave laborers were hard at work, handling the deadly iron for their goblin overseers.
Goblins enslaving orcs?
Conner trained his eagle's eyes on the moonlit scene. "Those may not be goblins." Their build was wrong too solid, too tall. "Stocky goblins? Definitely orcs out there, though." He squinted, inhaled sharply. "We have more problems than we thought, guys. Those are not goblins; those are Fae." No one bothered to ask which court. "As Fae go, they're not overly tough, but nonetheless, they're Fae. And the odds of my walking up to them and going, 'Hey, brother!' is really...."
Whatever people they belonged to, there were only half a dozen of them, and many more orcs in chains. Also a mountain of iron, which had been diverted from its presumed purpose of holding Balor captive.
"So we could slip down there and beat them to death with their own iron?" Llweder mused. "It would be difficult, but the irony would be delicious."
"No, I'm actually thinking the best thing for us to do now," Conner took a deep breath, "is cause a I never thought I'd say this a jailbreak of the orcs, get them to help us destroy the evil."
"How about we get a jailbreak of the orcs and let them wreak mayhem and weaken our enemy forces?" Meara suggested.
"Comes roughly to the same thing."
"Yes, but one of them involves us trying to convince them that they're on our side, and the other one just involves us slipping the chains and standing back."
"She's right," Llweder concluded.
It might not be a good or great plan, as previously noted, but it was a plan. We did some more scouting around, checked over the valley ridge to make sure an army wasn't lurking there to swoop down on us if things got noisy. There wasn't one, nor was there any evidence of giants, ogres, or anything of a size to have thrown that spear through the druid all those years ago. There might be goblins lurking in the forest. Meara reminded the other two that a big pile of iron nearby was going to affect any spells cast in the neighborhood.
"Maybe the goblins we were fighting were poseurs," Llweder speculated. "They knew about the cool not-goblins up here and just wanted to be like them."
"Yeah, I think that might be where they might have seen it and went, 'Hey man, we rule,'" Conner nodded.
"'We could collect tolls with this.'"
"We seriously need to stop them from doing whatever it is they're doing," Conner concluded.
"Well, no shit," I retorted, anxious to get on with it.
"Whoa, sarcastic royalty," he muttered, getting me back for twigging him earlier about his attitude. "Who'd have thunk it. I'll apologize for my behavior later, but I'm just a little tense right now!"
A chorus of "Shh!" came back at him as his voice rose.
Enough talking. Gannon went sneaking off to free the orcs.
"What are you doing?" Conner asked him, watching him go, plainly visible.
"And what made you think you should do that?"
"Gannon, I hate to break it to you, but you're an accountant. Why don't you count the orcs for us," he suggested kindly.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al