"This situation is just increasingly complex. And I can tell you, from the time I've spent in the Keep, no offense to the people who are in charge of it but you must have noticed that its forces are not overwhelming. Its defenses are solid, but they lack knights, men, soldiers." Dubricus shook his head.
"Yes," Harrick agreed.
"One of the tasks we were given was just to identify threats, not necessarily take care of them if they were beyond our capacity," Terzin noted.
Harrick sighed silently, seeing Dubricus' look of intense interest following this remark. "This is true, however, there's a lot more information to be gained; the orcs have a lot more, the kobolds have much better information on these people...."
"Why don't we talk to them first," Robin suggested, anxious to be doing something. "At least find out how many bandits there are. If it turns out there are five bandits and twenty-five undead, we at least know what we're dealing with."
In agreement at last, they retraced their steps to the valley. The sun had just reached its zenith.
"Think you can possibly find the kobold cave?" Harrick asked Robin.
"Yes. Terzin, which way were they going?" The entire valley floor was a sea of trails, but his memory of the previous night gave her a starting point, and it wasn't hard to find the kobold cave. There was a wrinkle, however: the kobold tracks were thoroughly intermixed with the tracks they assumed to belong to the bandits. There were also some shod tracks with a very short stride. Dwarves.
Perhaps they should not consider the kobolds a source of information after all. The bandit tracks did not lead directly to the kobold cave, instead heading off toward another opening near the back of the valley, but the mixture did not look promising. They all had the distinct impression that they were being watched.
Robin looked at Harrick. "This is kind of your show from this point." None of the rest of them had any real knowledge of what they could expect from the various tribes, or how to go about approaching them.
"Let's go up and wait for sundown. I have a feeling the night life around here is going to be interesting."
They returned to "their" cave to rest and plan for the coming night.
Inevitably: "You were... 'tasked'?"
"Thanks, Terzin," Robin muttered.
Terzin had his own ideas about how to deal with his earlier slip-up. He took Dubricus aside and matter-of-factly drew his sword. "When I say 'tasked,' I mean that we, as adventurers, feel compelled to do certain things. As far as you're concerned, that's all I said. If you ever say I said anything else, I'll kill you in a second." He sheathed the sword as Dubricus stared at him, dumbfounded.
"Oh," he said after a moment.
The others exchanged a forbearing glance and decided not to get involved. Robin spent much of the afternoon making friends with his horse, which seemed to like her. Dubricus was happy to take his mind off Terzin's threat and increase her education in matters equine.
"Once you've known Terzin for a while, you just kind of start to ignore his behavior," she told him; it wouldn't do to have the man scared of them. He didn't look particularly comforted.
Evening fell; Harrick concealed himself in the brush to observe the comings and goings. Early on he noted a half dozen goblins heading out into the woods, armed with spears; a hunting party, perhaps, moving furtively. The kobold cave remained quiet, as did the bandit cave.
After a half hour or so, he heard something very large moving toward him. Thirteen feet high, it had two heads, and it moved steadily up the canyon toward the ridge they had climbed that morning. It held a club in one hand, a rock in the other. Harrick kept very still. It stopped about fifteen feet from him, both heads moving slowly, then looked directly at him. It saw that he was unarmed, no threat and not big enough to make a decent meal, and kept on trundling up the hill, to his everlasting relief. A sturge landed on one of the necks and tried to peck at it. A huge hand closed over it. The ettin popped the sturge into its mouth and continued on its way.
He spotted some activity around the kobold cave a while later, but they disappeared again, and were too far away for him to see what the little sneaks were up to.
There was light coming from one cave again, high up on the east wall, and he kept an eye on it as the night grew darker; it was one of their unknown elements. Finally, three or four beings emerged and climbed the hill, heading out of the valley. Not human, not dwarves, not kobolds. They looked like they were heading off toward the cattle pens Terzin had spotted from the ridge. Bugbears, probably.
He reported his findings to the others. "We've got a couple options. The kobolds are out and about, we could probably do that, but we're iffy on whether or not they're working with the humans."
"They might just be scavenging after them," Robin suggested.
Harrick agreed. "That would in fact really be within the kobold personality. We could probably talk to the goblins, they're pretty much against the bandits as far as we know, but our initial meeting was rather tense. The cave where we saw the light last night, a bunch of guys came out and went straight up. I couldn't see them, but it looks like they're heading for the cattle pens. If they're keeping cattle, they're probably either goblins or bugbears more than likely. Kobolds couldn't keep cattle, let's be real, gnolls wouldn't. And we haven't at least shot any of them, so I'm thinking that might in fact be our best bet."
Harrick and Jared moved up the valley wall toward the trail the bugbearsif so they proved to behad taken between their cave and the ridgeline. Suspecting that a direct approach might be perceived as a threat, they settled down in a visible spot where anyone who passed by would be sure to notice them. Hopefully, they would talk first, shoot later. Terzin and Robin hid in the shadows where they could see their comrades and provide assistance if necessary, Terzin fretting about the amount of noise she was making. Dubricus remained in the cave to guard their equipment.
Most of a tense hour passed by. Disaster could fall at any moment. Then Harrick heard a faint noise behind him.
"Get out," someone said irritably in Harran. "You know the rules, you know the area, get out."
"I don't know the rules; I'm not with the others," he answered.
"Turn around. Slowly."
"Turn around," he translated for Jared. "Slowly. Don't look any more threatening than you have to."
Two bugbears confronted them from some distance away. One held a crossbow pointed in their direction.
"I told you he was human," one remarked to the other, then ordered, "Start explaining, quickly."
"We're not with the bandits, either," Harrick said hurriedly, seeing what conclusion they had leaped to.
"You're not from the tribe that was here. They were all wiped out. You're wearing Summerkin clothes," the bugbear observed. "Who are you?"
"Why are you here?"
"Hunting bandits," he said carefully.
"You're from the Keep?" The last word came out like a curse in Harran.
"Currently," was his cautious reply.
The one with the crossbow stepped backwards into the brush and vanished. The other one walked towards them. "Follow me. We're going to go talk to our chief. If you try anything, you'll sprout a crossbow bolt. See that?" He tipped his head toward where his comrade had disappeared. "That was a dwarvish under-over crossbow. We took it off one of their bandits. There's one for each of you in it. If the chief doesn't like what you have to say, you'll probably be let go, and your friend will be killed in order to teach you a lesson. Understand?"
| Top |
Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al