"Actually, if you hadn't left, I had some money on you," Harrick recalled with a mild look at Robin.
"Back then you had three bits to your name."
"It would have been more if you'd stayed and won the toad wrestling."
"Nah, Sabrina'd probably win it again."
"And so you heard tale of this place from somewhere and decided to come visit it?" Dubricus would not be dissuaded from his questions.
"Once it became relatively obvious we weren't going to be staying around the town any longer, the armiger in our town gave us the name of this place and said that perhaps we could do some good up here," Harrick explained, mostly truthfully.
"Ah. I understand. Well, then, so far it seems as if you have done a great deal of good, will you be staying here indefinitely?"
"At least for a while."
"Indefinite would be the word, since we don't know how long we're staying," Robin smiled. "Probably until we run out of things to do, or Terzin runs out of things to steal."
"So, years," Jared jibed.
"Why do you perpetually refer to him as a thief?" Dubricus wore that familiar confused look. "He seems like a stalwart, upstanding individual to me."
"Thank you, Dubricus," Terzin smirked.
"It's our pet name, from when we were kids," his cousin sighed. No point in disillusioning their companion too forcibly. Terzin probably wouldn't take any of his stuff, anyway.
They kept watch throughout the night, using the old giant-fungus room as their headquarters; nothing happened. Harrick read his books of Elemental lore and riddles for sphinxes, just in case. In the morning they killed a few more of the dwindling sturge population and looked out into the valley, which would remain shadowed until well into the day. No sign of kobolds now. Harrick wondered how one would go about opening negotiations with another orc tribe; his upbringing had left him largely ignorant of Winterkin culture.
They decided to start by getting the lay of the land, got moving and climbed the ridge above their cave. At the highest point, Terzin climbed a big old tree while Robin looked around on the ground to get an idea of the local traffic. He could see the smudge of smoke that was the Keep on the horizon, and used it in his reckoning. In the next valley directly to the north, he spotted a large cleared space, pens, and the distant figures of grazing animals. No buildings, just pasturage. To the southwest, another large clearing. No movement there, but some kind of half-buried construction or mound. Off in the western distance, due north of the Keep, a third clearing.
Robin found more than she had expected. There were small, light kobold tracks; larger prints wearing poor-to-middling boots that were probably other Winterkin; humans wearing city-made boots, presumably bandits; hoofprints of goats and cattle, accompanied by orcish tracks; and the prints of something that had to be at least twelve feet tall and seemed to be carrying a club. A giant? No lizardman tracks, anyway.
"Let's check on the one with the cattle first," Terzin suggested.
"You want to do that one first? Why don't we check the buried one," Harrick countered. "The one with the cattle is going to guarantee a brangle of one sort or another."
"Well, actually I suspect they all will, but yes."
"I guarantee that if we show up and they think we're raiding their cattle herds, it's going to go downhill fast."
"Cattle herds?" Dubricus seemed puzzled. "Winterkin are nomadic, they do lead herds from place to place, that could well be theirs."
"That's a good thought. I was thinking," Terzin went on, "if you were a bandit, you'd want something more hidden."
"Yep," Harrick agreed.
"If they have settlements, why would they be down here, too?"
"Why not?" As Martin had explained to them, the Winter Gods would not allow their followers to dwell in built shelters for any length of time. Even the caves would be a stretch, but permissible. Perhaps they had originally intended to stay there only for a short time, but now found themselves surrounded on all sides by the Republic and the Kingdoms. Here in this valley, they had lived ever since the Winter, bothering few and bothered by fewer. Except, now, by the bandits, it seemed.
Dubricus asked, "So what is our plan?"
"To the southwest," Terzin proclaimed.
"Okay. I think we're going to have a lot more luck in this valley if we do it after sundown," Harrick added.
"You think there will be more motion?"
"We could stay by the side of the trail and whack people as they walk by," Terzin suggested.
"Realistically, if we tried to get ahold of anybody now, it would be a couple hours after dinner time, walking into somebody's house and trying to talk to them," Harrick translated in human terms. "We're going to bed, leave us alone."
They followed some of the shod human tracks. After a short distance the trail split into several, none of which headed toward the clearing, no doubt using a less direct approach route. Robin noted the occasional kobold track, and wondered what they were doing out there.
It didn't take long to reach the cleared area. The thing Terzin had spotted turned out to resemble the entrance to a mine; heavily braced timber construction leading down into some sort of excavation.
Robin circled the meadow to reconnoiter and found a clear trail leading from the southern edge of the clearing into the mine, or whatever it was. It had seen considerable travel recently, the users either heavy or heavily laden, and many of them wore no shoes. Slaves? Either a small group going back and forth many times, or a much larger cluster of people. They'd spent enough time in the Keep environs for her to roughly calculate their location now, and where the trail would come out on the roadvery near the place where they had found the graves. This did not make her happy. She returned to the others and told them what she had found.
"This is looking like something we can't handle just by the five of us," she observed.
"It's probably just the bandits," Dubricus shrugged.
"The question becomes, are there forty bandits, or fourteen," Harrick said pertinently.
"The group that you encountered before, how many did you see?"
They had seen three, and heard the sounds of at least two more. "That could just be a patrol group, though," Terzin noted.
"There's at least one way to find how many there are," Harrick grinned. "Lob a Flame Gout through that hole and see how many come out. Admittedly, it's going to do for most of their stuff...."
"And any prisoners that they might have," Robin reminded him.
"Y'know, this group doesn't seem really interested in taking prisoners, I have to point out."
"They didn't kill you," Dubricus pointed out.
"They didn't kill us, and there are a lot of unshod tracks in there," she agreed.
"They didn't kill us, but if there were only five of them there they wouldn't have been able to," the orc sniffed. They might have considered the chain mail enough of a profit, bandits not generally being interested in working harder than they had to. There was no one in sight at the moment, anyway.
"If there was a way we could keep an eye on the place..." Robin muttered.
"Well, there's one way we could keep an eye on this place," Harrick replied.
"Yeah, sit out here in the woods and watch," Terzin chimed in.
"Okay, there's two ways."
"What's the other?" Dubricus wanted to know.
"The kobolds are keeping an eye on this place."
"We can talk to the kobolds?" Terzin caught his idea.
"Well, maybe not you...." Jared qualified.
"That's true," Robin agreed. "If they're willing to talk to us...."
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