He continued to question them regarding the numbers of their "troops," and eventually looked down at the table and said, "Caves." The earth in the box molded itself into a neat three-dimensional representation of the landscape. "You have been there most recently; is this accurate?"
They looked it over and pointed out a few missing details, explained who lived in which cave, and about the bandit hideout in the woods. The elemental in the table could even turn transparent, they saw, and map the interiors of those caves they knew by following the armiger's tracing finger.
"Sabine?" he said eventually.
"Gather the men from the guard. I'll be addressing them shortly."
"How many men do you have?" Terzin asked.
"If we were to strip ourselves bare, there would be another twelve swords. The strength of this place is in its defensibility. We could hold out for months if need be with the people that we have, we've done it in the past. But when it comes to mounting an armed force, things are a little different."
"Sir, is there any way we could send for help from the south?" Robin asked diffidently. "If our attempt here fails, there will be very little standing in their way."
"Some report at least should be sent," her cousin agreed.
"You had mentioned that you didn't believe the cult or the bandits are directly going to attack here?" Devereau asked.
"We do not know what their aim is," Robin shook her head.
"We have no evidence that they're going to attack here," Harrick clarified.
"At the moment they seem to be building up their strength, but for what we don't know."
Harrick studied the map. "Would this show the swamps south and east of the Shy Tower?"
"It wouldn't show the water," Devereau told him. "Why?"
"There's something out there, but we haven't had a chance to look into it, I don't know if it's related or not." That torch in the night....
"This will only show what I have told it to show; these are all places that I have either been to or received creditable information on." The trackless waste of the swamps was unmappable. Before Sabine could leave on her errand, the armiger asked her, "Also, is Cobb in acceptable condition?"
"Have him head south, best possible speed. Get to the nearest of the villages, transfer a message that there is a battle coming here." She nodded and went out. "Why don't you go clean yourselves up, get together with the rest of the guard, and we will speak again later."
As they filed out, Brother Martin said, "If I may, I'd like to speak with you for a moment privately, sir."
"I can spare you a moment."
"What would he want to talk to him about in private?" Dubricus wondered once they were outside. "He wasn't even there!"
They returned to the inn, had something to eat, and put themselves back together, insofar as that was possible. Crossbows, they were all finding, hurt. A lot.
"So how do you think that went?" Terzin asked.
"As well as could be expected, I suppose," Harrick replied.
"Actually, he reacted fairly calmly to us doing this diplomacy for him. Not like we had a choice, got to take these opportunities where you get them."
"I'm not disagreeing."
"Besides," Dubricus added, "we didn't actually say that we'd made a deal for the whole Keep, merely that we'd made a deal for us."
"We strongly implied it," Terzin said.
"The fact that we were hoping to come back and get reinforcements...." Robin mentioned.
"...Was sort of stupid, since we knew they didn't have anybody here," Harrick sighed.
Terzin was more optimistic. "Six guys is six guys, they've got some armor and spears on them."
"True. Maybe we could give them crossbows and they could beat the crap out of us."
They realized that it actually wasn't a bad idea. The first half, at least.
Jess came over to their table. "So, Sabine's telling everyone from the guard that thethat Devereau's going to be talking to them. What happened out there, what's going on?"
"Let him tell everybody at once," Robin replied. "It'll be easier."
"But c'mon, I gotta know!" she implored.
"You'll learn soon enough," Terzin told her, putting on his best air of hardened adventure. "It will be a grim thing."
"I still have Flame Bolt racked," Harrick reminded him, a bit tired of theatrics.
"Hmph." Jess stalked off huffily as it became clear that they weren't talking.
When the time came, they joined the small cluster of guards and the much larger cluster of curious Keepfolk who had gathered to hear Devereau speak, including Mendel, his wagons nearby as if he was prepared to leave immediately. Jedael, they noticed, was not present. The armiger climbed the small platform slowly, leaning heavily on his cane, and surveyed the motley crowd.
"Greetings, one and all," he began. "I have just received some grim tidings."
The adventurers did their best to look grim. Under the circumstances, it wasn't hard.
"All of you are aware, I am sure, to one extent or another, of the existence of Winterkin in the woods to the north of us. They have been there for some time, and while they are occasionally troublesome, they are not anything that we would consider a severe threat. Apparently, circumstances have changed."
"Those stinkin' Winterkin!" someone yelled. "That's it, they're"
Devereau raised a hand. "No. I'm sorry, but whatever threats are coming down upon us, it is not from those who worship the gods of winter. It is from those who worship the gods that shall not be named."
A stunned hush fell over the crowd.
"According to Terzin and his companions"
Terzin appeared to grow a couple of inches.
"who many of you, I'm sure, have gotten to know in the week that they've been staying here, are intrepid adventurers who have been exploring the realms about the Keep and dealing with such threats that exist. They have, to the best of our knowledge, already dealt with an infestation of harpies that may have cost the lives of several caravans that have passed through, and most recently a cadre of dwarvish mercenaries, who were most certainly preying upon the caravans that are the very lifeblood of this community. But it appears that things are worse than that. There is at least one, if not a cult, of those who worship the nether gods, living within the caves and recruiting those humans and potentially those dwarves who can be twisted to those perverse rites, who are systematically slaughtering the Winterkin who live up there in order to use their bodies as weapons that will eventually be thrown headlong against this keep."
Terzin looked for Mouse, who didn't look suspiciously unhappy or happy.
"However, as grave and grim as these tidings are, the situation is not as bad as it could be. Due to the daring of Terzin and his companions, we have learned of the existence of this threat, hopefully in time to counter it. They have also managed to arrange an alliance between several of the warring tribes of Winterkin...."
A puzzled murmur from the crowd. Terzin scowled.
"...As well as themselves, that there might be a sufficient force to counter this cult before it can extend its dark grip any further. They have spoken to me and informed me of the existence of the threat, and I have decided to allocate such resources as we can to aid in this assault."
"I realize that this might be putting those of us within this Keep in additional danger. That we are dealing with something before it becomes a direct threat to us. We will not strip ourselves bare, there will be defenses left here. The noncombatants will stay here as well. The walls of the Keep are still thick. I have already sent messengers down south, in hopes of contacting any of the local barons, so that they might provide assistance, most specifically someone is already on their way to the town ruled over by the Countess Anne, that she might lend aid.
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