"I might agree with him on that, but I'm going to take the time to drown a few of them anyway," Robin muttered.
"That's entirely possible, we might have to talk to them, see if at some point it would be allowable to roast some of them alive. They want us back before dawn," he added, glancing back at the cave mouth.
"Well, we have a lot less packing to do," Jared observed philosophically.
"There's nothing left here worth stealing, we might as well just leave it," Harrick laughed. "I can replace these books." The kobolds hadn't found his portable library interesting, at least so far.
"At least now we know where that hole goes," Robin sighed.
"Eventually, with enough hot and cold, you can make stone crack, you know."
"We'll keep that in mind."
The five of them prepared to depart.
"Dubricus, do you want a second knife?" Harrick asked him. Not sure what good it would do, but it certainly couldn't hurt in the test to come.
"Yes," he whispered, evidently still in considerable pain.
Back at the bugbear cave, the chief's daughter met them at the entrance, having returned from her errand to the goblins. She gave Harrick a slight nod and Jared that measuring, confident look, as if to make sure that he knew she did not consider him a threat. The rest of them didn't even rate the look.
She led them into the large room where they had waited before seeing the chief. The braziers had been cleared away, and the place was packed with bugbears of all ages and both sexes. The chief was not present. There was a definite aura of anticipation.
"Oh look," the daughter remarked for the gathering's benefit, watching their party file in. "Their little cow is wearing armor and a sword. How cute."
Harrick decided not to translate that, as the other bugbears guffawed. Jared and the Bufons wore somewhat grim expressions; Dubricus was obviously far out of his element and somewhat woozy from the knock on the head.
"Nice knowing you guys," Jared murmured, looking around at the ring of tusked faces.
"No, Jared you can do this," Terzin replied with a confident smile. "Kind of have to, otherwise we're all dead."
A square in the center of the room was clear of people, except for the chief's daughter. There was no one guarding them, and the passage was clear behind them. The message was obvious: run away if you want to.
While the visitors wondered if they would gain measurably by just jumping into the fray, the bugbear's leader said in Harran, "My father has spoken. These people, if they prove themselves worthy, are to be our allies against those who make use of our dead." Spear banged on shields. "But we are not sure that they are worthy. They are... human. Scholars. Cows. So they will have to be tested, in turn, to see whether or not any of them are worthy to guard our backs, our lives, in this assault."
They're obviously under a delusion as to who's going to be leading this charge, Harrick noted but did not say aloud.
"Then there is the question of what they owe." The mass of bugbears parted to reveal a handful of goblins. "Are these they?"
"Yes, I recognize them," one said. "They broke into our home, killed our people."
"What will it take to satisfy you?"
"Gold will do. We'll discuss that after the tests, if any of them are still standing."
The goblins returned to their place in the crowd, hidden by the much larger bugbears.
"In order to succeed in this, we are going to need strength, stealth, skill," the chief's daughter went on. "Does it look as if any of them possess these qualities?" The assembly hooted derisively.
No time like the present. Harrick took a step forward and said, "So, do you have any more besides those two human prisoners, downstairs to the left, past the two women who aren't particularly observant, behind the barred door?"
Bugbear jaws dropped.
"Or will that handle the 'stealth' problem?"
She recovered well. "Really. Point out the guards for me."
Harrick translated for Terzin, who pointed twice. "These two were the women. This one was guarding the door out there."
"You may step back," she judged, apparently unruffled. The tone of the room changed slightly; the bugbears were taking this seriously now. "Fine. One at least, will serve. What about that one?" She pointed scornfully at Dubricus.
He stepped forward, moving steadily through sheer force of will.
"What would this little thing do?"
"Knives," he said softly to Harrick when the question had been translated. "Tell her, knives. Have her pick one." Harrick did so.
She looked around and chose a combatant for Dubricus, one of the smaller warriors, which made him only a bit more than Jared's size. Another bugbear threw him a knife, which he tossed from hand to hand casually.
Dubricus drew both of his, spun them theatrically. They burst into flame. "All right." Everyone in the room took a startled step back.
His opponent, secure in his much greater reach and strength, attacked all out. Dubricus went on the defensive and pretty much stayed there, lashed out once and managed to force the bugbear back a step. They were both moving very quickly and the light was poor; for maybe a minute they wove around one another in a dangerous dance, until it seemed that Dubricus' head wound had begun to tell. He stood as if winded, bleeding slightly from the nicks the bugbear had inflicted. The bugbear saw his chance to end this and slashed in fiercely.
Dubricus ducked back, the other's blade slicing the front of his shirt, and hooked his arm around the bugbear's. He could meet its strength for only a fraction of a second, but that was all it took to drive home his blade. The bugbear collapsed on the floor, bleeding badly, with Dubricus' second knife blazing at his throat.
The bugbear dropped his weapon. Dubricus released him and stepped back, the flames dying. Terzin whooped. Dubricus walked calmly back toward the group and muttered, "Catch me." They grabbed him before he could stagger. "There's a reason why I took all those classes in getting the hell out of the way."
"Ah, Dubricus, from this day forward, you shall be known by your actual name," Terzin assured him with a fond pat on the shoulder.
Robin stepped forward, volunteering to go next. It was pretty obvious that no one was interested in her as an opponent; no glory to be gained in victory over a human cow. The leader, not so sanguine after Dubricus' upset, chose one of her warriors from the crowd, no fooling around this time. He carried a weighted staff like a threshing stick, about as long and heavy and a sword, but edgeless. Someone tossed her a similar weapon, and she handed her swordbelt off to her cousin. Obviously, they weren't supposed to kill each other.
The fight lasted ten seconds. The first five consisted of her and the bugbear sizing one another up, he with visible contempt, her more cautiously. They charged at nearly the same moment, generating a roar from the crowd. She caught most of his first, two-handed blow on her shield, landed a sharp attack of her own that doubled him over, put her full body weight behind a shield slam that staggered him briefly to one knee, and brought the staff up against his head.
That was it. The one Dubricus had wounded dragged him, unconscious, off to one side of the room. The crowd seemed to be changing allegiance.
"Mighty dangerous cows where that comes from," Harrick muttered, having taken advantage of the respite before his own test to change the spells he had on hand.
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