"Are you going to tell us we have to let these guys go as part of your agreement?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"We're not going to be happy with that...."
"From the looks of it and the way they've been talking, the guys in the upper cave are evil, these are just guys with spears."
"Do you know what we do to guys with spears?"
A tusked grin. "Yeah. Otherwise, they get the idea that they can be the people at the top of the chain."
"What are they talking about?" a bandit asked nervously.
"You'll find out," Robin smiled, although she had no better grasp on the language than he did.
"Look, there's nothing else we can tell you!"
Meanwhile, Harrick was saying, "Leave them alone 'til we get this settled, one way or the other?"
"We'll see how useful their information is," the bugbear sniffed. "If it turns out to be handy, we'll bring them out to the middle of the woods with one knife. If it turns out to be lies, things will go differently."
Harrick informed the prisoners of this offer.
"Everything we said was the truth!"
"Before this is over, we're going to want a layout of your cave from you."
Instant acquiescence, followed by hesitation. "You're not going to ask us to fight our old buddies, are you?"
"No, I'm not going to hand you a sharp pointy object and potentially put you at my back," the orc said pleasantly.
The bandits gave them a decent verbal sketch of their hideout, while Harrick wondered how they could find the gnolls, or more likely be found by them, preferably without getting killed by those master hunters. He also wondered wistfully if there was a cave of elemental fire to go with the water cave, but according to the valley dwellers there was not.
Their forces came to about ten bugbears who could be spared to fight, the six surviving male hobgoblins from the otherwise extinct tribe, five of the goblins, and the five adventurers. Against thirty bandits, eight dwarves, and the gods alone knew how many zombies and other humans might be in the upper cave, that didn't sound good. There was the ettin, who could sometimes be guided, but he wasn't exactly dependable. They needed the gnolls, and wondered if they could get anyone from the Keep to join them; pity there were so few capable fighters there.
The group went to see Hruggek, the bugbear chief, and laid out their rough plan. Harrick proposed a quick side trip to collapse the ceiling where the zombies were guarding the loot, and whateveror whoeverelse might be down there. Hruggek was concerned that this act might serve to alert the enemy to the coming attack.
The gnolls also were a sticking point. The bugbears were unwilling to send men out into the forest for fear they would be picked off by bandits. Harrick pointed out that the adventurers would probably be either killed on sight or simply avoided.
Hruggek sighed. "I will send my people out to try and contact the gnolls, tell them what we have arranged. Hopefully, some of the gnolls will agree that this is something that need to be done."
"I think we can let the bandits' clearing camp wait," Robin thought out loud.
"When you are fighting a hydra, find the head that is real. Kill that head," Hruggek said firmly.
"It's either in the caves in that clearing, or in the upper cave there," Harrick replied. "Either they're guarding the real head in that clearing, or the real head's up there, and I don't know which at the moment."
"I think it is there," with that emphasis that always denoted the cave. "That is where they started; in the course of my life, that is where they came from. One strike against that, as soon as we can."
Straight up the middle it would be.
They had a couple of days before the bugbear scouts could return from gnoll-hunting; they decided to make a quick trip back to the Keep, resupply, update the Armiger and round up any assistance they could find there. Dubricus needed a new sword, and Jared was weaponless as well.
Dubricus, for his part, seemed to have gotten over his emotional distress, and had used his time during the day to neatly pack up what remained of their belongings. Also to spike shut the secret door.
They slept, exhausted, for a night, Jared with the healing stone tied to him, and moved out at high speed the morning following their testing by the bugbears. Their companion seemed to have returned to his usual self; a shade less exuberant, perhaps, as they trudged down the valley.
"Ah, well. Poor kid," Robin commiserated. She could guess why he was feeling so down, though she also had to wonder about anyone who would send him up here, by himself and clearly lacking in a couple of survival skills, to look into all the dangers the Keep had reported.
"No, it was merely the... I understand why," he stressed, "and I understand that you had been sworn to secrecy. I believe what the king did was to make sure that there was no chance of anyone responsible for this discovering what was happening. All of us were separately sworn to secrecy. I had foolishly assumed that I was... being singled out." He sighed unhappily.
"You may have been. We're not sure what the connections are at the upper level, here," Terzin pointed out. "You may have been singled out by someone who had never talked to our Countess."
"No doubt, but the king gave the orders originally. Everyone laughed at me because I kept needing to go out and explore the caves. They didn't understand, that the king had told me to go out and explore the caves." He sighed.
"You can't let the bastards get you down."
"And I appreciate you letting me travel with you," Dubricus added. "However, please don't threaten me any more."
"You can understand my position...!"
"Yes, I can." He smiled.
"I let it slip, had to try to correct the error. So I won't kill you."
Once they reached the woods, Terzin lagged back again to make sure they were not followed, a silent shadow.
They would soon owe their lives to his wariness.
As they moved down the path parallel to the Goblinwater, he saw something crouched in the brush. It was a dwarf, with a crossbow in his hands.
Terzin nocked, drew, loosed, and shouted, "DUCK!" in rapid succession. The hasty arrow stuck in a tree, having grazed his target's head, and the startled dwarf's crossbow bolt went high and wide.
Without that instant to prepare they would have had no chance at all. Strings twanged on both sides of the road as the ambush was discovered. Harrick took a bolt through his arm and staggered but kept his feet, dove under cover and cast Earth Blend. Another pierced Jared's chain mail. Dubricus got a nasty cut from a passing bolt. Two struck Robin, one of them badly.
Terzin and the dwarf faced each other across about ten feet of open woodland. He loosed a second arrow and nailed the crossbow directly down the channel, shattering the weapon in the dwarf's hand.
There was no time to do anything but try to take cover. A dwarf barked something in Dra'ka. Two of them fired on Jared, but the angle was too wide and his armor deflected the bolts. Dubricus dropped to the ground and barely avoided being hit. One stuck in Robin's shield as another bolt zipped past her. Two dwarves turned their attention to where they had seen Harrick vanish. A bolt hit the ground a few feet to his right; the second tore a hole through the hood of his cloak. That was all right; now he knew where they were.
Dubricus realized that his weapons were all but useless in this battle, went into a brief sprint and laid his hands on Robin for a moment before he hit the ground again. Leaves curled over her shield, the magic adding to its strength.
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