"He was working with them?!"
"Yup," Terzin confirmed, remembering that Martin had left the Keep by then.
"Ah. Damn me!" He looked furious. "He rode off from the Keep, that way. I saw him! I convinced the gnolls to let him pass!"
"You couldn't have known, that's what a spy is all about. Interestingly enough, one of their wizards is from our home town. We just fought him a couple months ago and drove him off."
"One of the nethermancers. There are five... things," Robin said carefully. "Down in one of the lower levels."
"Some form of evil spirit," Terzin said. "That's where we lost Harrick."
"I think it's unlikely that Harrick will be coming back as a nether dead," Martin assured them. "If his god took him directly...."
"I am fairly sure Mathelwyn wouldn't stand for that sort of thing," she agreed. Small comfort.
"In any case, the gnolls launched their attack...."
"What happened to the two wizards?" Robin asked.
"Did any dwarven zombies come out?" Terzin asked.
"No, not that we saw."
"Maybe they don't make good zombies," Robin said.
"Well, somebody took 'em," Jared pointed out.
Terzin added, "We found the cave, the other side of the cave, the one we originally found that was full of zombies."
"I heard from Sabine that Harrick had flattened it?"
"Yes, and it was in a flattened condition. It connected with this. And we found your cooper's daughter."
Martin turned to Arpad. "What has happened to you, young lady?"
"Mendel kidnapped me, brought me here, handed me over to I assume they would be the members of the cult. The members of the cult gave me to this Derek guy, who decided I would make a good apprentice. Apparently I have a talent for it."
"We have many of the cult's records," Terzin told Martin. "Names, places. It will be edifying reading material, I'm sure."
"We sacked their bedroom," Robin explained briefly.
Brother Martin nodded. "You should probably head back to the Keep. I'm trying to arrange things here as much as possible."
"Are they going to be staying here, with so few of them left?" Robin looked back up the depopulated valley.
"So few of them?"
"The other Winterkin."
"The gnolls themselves with their women number around fifty. There are about a dozen, eighteen bugbear women and children. The goblins may be gone, and the hobgoblins are also dead. The kobolds appear to have been utterly unhurt by this. The situation here is very much in flux. There are probably one or more members of the nethermantic cult still in their caves somewhere. Honestly, I did not go in with the gnolls. They went in, said they saw nothing. They left, after losing a couple of men to a ceiling that collapsed on them as they entered."
"Yeah, we saw that," Terzin said.
"Who knows what's still in there. We don't know if all of the bandits are accounted for. No one has gone into their cave yet either. No one has the manpower. The gnolls are unwilling to do it, because they are in a situation of tactical superiority. The rest of the Winterkin have all been hurt, apparently there is some interclan warfare, or at least rivalry, and the gnolls now hold the trump card over the bugbears, and everyone else is gone."
"If there are bandits left, they're not going to be able to do anything with such small numbers, they'll probably dribble on back to the Keep."
Robin requested a small conclave among the four of them. "Guys, I'm thinking that what we're going to have to do is get this information to the Countess and have them send up specialists in dealing with this kind of thing, to make sure that cave gets shut down. I don't know, really experienced priests of Gabriel."
"I concur," Dubricus said. "And there are still many people who are potential threats, who are unaccounted for. The wizards, that armored gentleman who might yet be in their caves somewhere, you know we couldn't have encountered their head priests. Not to mention Mendel."
"And Derek." She was beginning to conceive a deeply personal desire to see him impaled on her sword. The cult itself was faceless and unknown; he was not.
"I take it he has something to do with events in your hometown you have not fully divulged to me?"
"He used to be our town surgeon," Terzin explained.
"Secretly a nethermancer," Robin added.
"He killed one of our reeves."
"That's very serious indeed."
"We should be getting back," Terzin sighed. They rejoined Martin and Arpad.
"Bring this young woman with you, move at your best possible speed," Martin advised. "Like I said, I'm going to try to arrange things here. My hope is to be able to, with the respect the gnolls have for me, and that the bugbears had for Harrick... actually." He looked at Jared. "Could you stay? From what I've garnered from the bugbears, they have a certain higher degree of respect for you than for any of the others. I don't know if it's your stature, or something that happened that I'm unaware of...."
Dubricus started laughing, pitched slightly higher than usual by the dawning realization that most of them were still alive. "It's probably something you don't know about."
"I'm not sure it's respect, but... okay," Jared said.
"Are you sure? You're in pretty bad shape." Robin was worried.
"Well, let me take a look at you." Martin looked him over.
"What do you need him for?" Terzin asked while the healer did what he could about Jared's wounds.
"There is currently a tenuous situation of attempting to codify the direction this valley is going to take under Winterkin control," Martin explained. "I need someone with me. The gnolls respect me, because I've already helped save one of their leaders, and I directed them to this situation. I need someone who the surviving bugbears respect, so that we can have an equal voice on both sides. If Harrick were still alive, I would ask him to stay. Barring him, Jared is the best that I can find. No offense."
"None taken. I might as well."
"Excellent. I'll meet the rest of you back at the Keep as soon as I can."
Jared got to spend the rest of the day among a bunch of Winterkin and Brother Martin, not understanding a word of what was going on around him. Martin did explain some of it. The new bugbear shaman and the gnolls seemed to have some kind of dispute over the valley's future and how to divide up the caves, the spoils, and the labor ahead. The bugbear cattle were also an issue; they no longer had sufficient numbers to tend them all, but were unwilling to give up any of their livestock. The main question was whether or not the gnolls were going to dominate the bugbears, or if some new balance could be achieved. Martin preferred balance; for one thing, he did not want either tribe turning their attention toward the Keep in search of new enemies. Upon occasion he ended up making statements to the effect that the Keep would prefer to see a balanced, organized society they could communicate with, and that they were not without their own resources to make sure this took shape. Upon which he would glance at Jared.
| Top |
Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al