"That's very interesting, Dubricus," she glanced at the others. "We don't have any firm plans at the moment.... You seem to have a very impressive education."
"As I said, my father was insistent on a broad education."
"Often very useful, I hear."
"I had heard of the troubles up here, the potential for bandits, and I thought, 'That's where I need to go! There is adventure there.' It is almost as if it were calling me," he said in a hushed voice.
"I see," she said again, at a bit of a loss.
"So you are planning on going, then?" he pressed
"At some point," Harrick said blandly.
"To the caves?"
"Quite possibly," Robin admitted.
"When I had heard originally that there had been bizarre reptilian creatures up here, I thought, 'Yes!' but then I found out they were all dead, which made it less likely."
"Not to mention the fact that they were south of here," Harrick told him.
"You've heard of them, too? Yes, some of them said, in the swamps just to the south of here, they had problems about twelve years ago. Now, with the bandits and other things, it's an opportunity to prove my worth, to show my mettle to the world, hopefully increase my skills and my base of knowledge, and, one can only hope," he looked earnestly around the table, "gain fast friends in the doing."
They all blinked at this enthusiastic performance.
"Anything's possible in this world, I suppose," Robin said dubiously.
"I certainly hope so."
"Well," Harrick said, coming to a decision. "Tomorrow morning, just after dawn."
"That soon, then?" He slapped his hands together. "Excellent. I won't tell anyone," he whispered. "I'll see you then. Outside the building, or over by the gate?"
"At the gate."
They gave bemused farewells. He rose gracefully and pushed his chair back in to the table, then departed.
"So we leave tonight, right?" Jared asked.
"I haven't decided yet if he's a plant from the bandits, or somebody else," Harrick replied.
"He ain't normal."
"That would be pretty odd strategy for bandits, I would think," Robin said. "He's certainly... different."
"I never said they were good," the orc shrugged.
"He's a little creepy," the fisherman observed.
"So who do you suppose his father is?" she wondered.
"Oh, probably the duchess' seneschal, with our luck," Harrick muttered. "Boy, his father must have really not been expecting or happy about that pregnancy." Dubricus, for pity's sake.
"I suppose we can take him with us. Can't be that dangerous."
The woman with the tattoo was there again, paying the group no particular attention. Jess brought her a sandwich and a drink, and she ate standing.
"You know, when I grow up I hope I can be as antisocial as that," Harrick remarked.
"Really. Good start," Robin replied.
Bright and early the next pre-dawn, they headed for the stable only to pass Dubricus, already at the gate, with Francis there and haltered along with Dubricus' mount, a nice-looking animal. Jared was determined not to trust the man, and this didn't ease his suspicion. He decided to bring up the rear as they traveled.
"Good morning, Dubricus," Robin said.
"Good morning," he whispered.
"We're going to have to wake them up so they can let us out, you know."
"They're ready for us, I've been here for... a little while."
"Well, let me just pack up the mule."
"Weather's due to be good today," he said anxiously.
In a few minutes all was ready. They had a rough idea in mind of where they were going, figuring to check out the rumored site of the Shy Tower, then head up to the caves, which were not all that far from the Keep.
Once the Keep was out of sight Dubricus whispered, "We're in dangerous territory now." He was so alert he was practically vibrating.
"You can scout ahead," Robin invited.
"Do you really think I should scout ahead?" he sounded intrigued.
"Well, you have the horse and all, so if you see anything you can hurry right back to us and let us know."
"Good plan. If anything happens, you'll be informed." He spurred ahead.
"I can't believe you just did that to him," Harrick remarked.
"I figured you'd thank me."
"There's no point in kicking cripples."
"He seemed excited," she shrugged.
"Yes, he did. I hope we hear the ambush in time."
After a couple hours they reached a point where the road was almost washed out by the nearby river. They could see the hill where the Shy Tower was supposed to be; there was nothing there, although there was a fog coming off the river that did odd things to the shadows.
Dubricus rode back. "The road up ahead has been washed out by the river," he reported quietly. "Not completely, we should be able to ford it without much difficulty. I was able to find signs of a path that leads up into the woods and around, I think some people, especially with wagons, have taken it. I'd like to know which direction you think we should go?"
They walked up to check it out. The ruts were clear where the caravans had been forced to detour around the muddy washout. Dubricus rode across and scanned the woods. The others splashed along after him, then took their bearings and struck out toward the empty Tower hill.
It was fairly steep and very unsettling. The fog that had burned off everywhere else clung close around the top of the hill. They could only see about fifteen feet in any direction. Jared tripped and almost fell.
It was a thigh bone at his feet, and the rest of the skeleton scattered around. The rib cage and skull had been shattered, not by teeth, and the bones were perfectly clean, as if they had been boiled. It was hard to tell how long they had been there, but they guessed no more than a few months. It was fairly dry, and there wasn't much vegetation, though they could smell the swamps to the south.
"What's happened to this poor fellow?" Dubricus asked.
"Appears he suffered from a terminal case of dead, then stewed," Harrick replied.
There seemed to be a shadow off to the right, but it turned into a trick of the light as the fog continued to lift. They spread out a little to search and found a few bits and pennies in scattered coin, a badly dented shield, chunks of what might once have been leather armor, and pieces of several animal skeletons, including an entire horse. Jared, Terzin, and Dubricus went off in one direction for a more thorough search while Robin and Harrick took the other side.
No sign of a tower. A lot of white chips that might have been crushed bone. More animal skeletonsa few sturges, some varmints.
"Well, I guess it is shy," Robin sighed when they regrouped.
"It's possible this is just a trick of the light," Dubricus suggested.
"I doubt it," Jared muttered.
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