Spacer Chapter 6 51
  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Earthdawn-ish | Chapter 6 |



    He nodded and told Jared, "On the up side, we're going to go meet their chief." He didn't translate the rest; no sense making him nervous. The trio trooped down from the ridgeline toward the bugbears' cave.
    Terzin watched this little drama tensely. It didn't look as bad as it might have, but... he strained to hear the other one moving, located him in the brush parallel to the small party moving into the cave.
    "Stay way behind me," he whispered to Robin. "Wait until we all get in the cave."
    "You're going in there?!"
    "I'm going to get as close as possible." He moved stealthily after them, keeping the crossbowman between himself and the other three. Near the cave, the path had been laid out to take all advantage of the natural cover. Once the three had reached that point, the bugbear with the crossbow departed and headed back up toward the ridge, moving in a nearly silent sprint back to his guard post and passing about five feet from Terzin.
    Having scoped out the entrance, Terzin slunk back to join her for a murmured conference, then moved down the slope again. He could see the cave mouth, and she could just barely see his position, ready to move if something indicated trouble. And then they waited, wondering how long they should do so, and if there would be any way to tell if they were needed.
    Harrick and Jared were led through the brush to the cave entrance. An area directly before the mouth had been carefully cleared. It held a woven blanket with three knives laid on it, their positions indicating that the bugbears were truly interested in talking. Good. They passed into the cave, the bugbear walking in front of them, apparently unconcerned.
    Their course made an immediate turn to the left and down, into a room where several more bugbears were roasting hunks of meat over braziers, using their swords as spits. They looked at the first bugbear as if he'd just dragged in something half-rotten.
    "Who is this?" one of them asked.
    "They were waiting on our trail. They wanted to talk."
    A wrinkled nose. "He's bathed recently. He must have been raised by them. Were you?" he asked Harrick directly.
    "There are families south of here," was his unperturbed reply.
    "You and your tuskless friend sit down."
    "Have a seat," he translated. He and Jared sat, dwarfed by the looming bugbears. Their guide returned up the stairs and disappeared. Harrick put on his best follower-of-Mathelwyn impassive look. The bugbears for the most part radiated contempt for their guests, and yet there was an odd undercurrent of hope; the valley situation must be pretty bad. They even offered the two some of the meat. The smoke was thicker than Jared would have liked, but Harrick felt quite at home. Eventually their guide reappeared.
    "Come with me."
    They followed him up the stairs, around a couple of turns and through a door. The bugbear went first, bowing his head as he entered. Layers of hides lined the floors, walls, even the ceiling to trap the warmth. Two braziers gave off considerable heat, more smoke, and very little light. Two bugbears awaited them on fur-covered stools.
    The first, occupying the lower stool, was a female warrior, slightly older than Harrick. The other was the oldest Harrick had ever seen, probably nearing sixty. A scar ran down the side of his face, and one eye was clouded over. The tusk on that side had been snapped in half lengthwise, the scar continuing down his neck. Both had their heads shaved except for a central ridge of stiff hairs. The old male sipped from a wooden mug, set it back down, and motioned for his guests to sit on the heaps of furs. Their escort stepped out of the room and closed the door.
    "Harrick." For one so old, his voice was strong, his tone neutral.
    "You're from the Keep."
    He nodded.
    "Fighting bandits?"
    A long silence as the bugbear studied them both. "Why have you come to us?"
    Harrick answered honestly, "Bugbears are the most likely to talk. Things didn't go well in our initial meeting with the goblins. I'm not sure if the kobolds are working with the bandits or not."
    A snort. "Kobolds work for no one."
    "Other than themselves...."
    "I am convinced, not even that," the bugbear said cryptically. "How long have you been in this area?"
    "Week or so."
    More thoughtful silence. "Are you in a position of authority at the Keep?"
    "For certain things," he hedged.
    "Your friend's people, they are ruining this place. And now it seems they are drawing down the attention of new forces. Otherwise why would they have sent you, as a translator? I assume that he is in a position of authority?" He glanced disdainfully at Jared, who hadn't comprehended a word of the conversation.
    "Only as much as I'm in a position of authority. The fact that I'm here as a translator is either luck or the gods, your call."
    "I don't believe in luck." Silence.
    "When we were sent, we didn't know you were up here," Harrick volunteered to fill it.
    "We've lived here for a long time. The entirety of my life, my father's life before that. Originally, we merely camped here. Then when they claimed the area surrounding us, we could no longer return home. The gods have frowned upon us for that, brought more of them." He paused, then asked, "Are you a summer or a winter?"
    The bugbear chief spat harshly to one side. "At least you're honest. There are those here who are neither, but worship gods regardless. Do you know what I am speaking of?"
    "The old ones, or the ones beyond death?" Not that there was much doubt.
    "They reach their hands beyond death and bring back our own people."
    "Yes, I know what you mean."
    "There used to be many of your direct brethren. There was a small clan of them in one of the caves. They've been wiped out, to serve as soldiers. Diggers. Then they were launched against the gnolls, who managed to get free—we have not seen them since.
    "I know where their cave is, which one they're hiding in." His voice grew in quiet intensity. "We will send men in to destroy it. If we do not act, they will kill us all."

    Terzin heard a grunt, then a crash from inside the cave. He glanced back at Robin and waved to indicate that she should hold her position, then ghosted up to the cave mouth and looked inside. Another grunt, a whistling crack, and a scream. The sounds were coming from the right-hand hall. He moved with absolute silence. A stair led darkly down to his left, another hall to his right. The cracking sound came again, this time followed by a whimper.

    All the while Harrick and the old bugbear carried on their incomprehensible chat, Jared had been aware of the other bugbear's eyes on him, appraising him as a potential opponent before dismissing his worth. He ignored her as best he could and wondered what was going on.
    "How many forces can you gather?" the chief asked Harrick.
    "Immediately? There's five of us. How many of them are there?"
    "They have dozens. They've taken and used several of the caves. I don't know why, there was a man in full metal armor here last week."
    "Full metal?!" That stuff cost a fortune.

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