"As you are no doubt aware, the long shadow of politics has once again made our lives difficult. Due to the absence of a worthy heir, you are stuck with a poor armiger for your ruler in these lands, as no baron has yet been chosen. We have no troops here, because there is another war being fought in the south. We have only what we are able to eke out for ourselves. Yet, in our defense, mere eking out might be enough. We must act, and act quickly, with every resource that we have. In war there is no room for half-measures. We must act soon, before the opposition can seize the initiative. If we are fortunate, we will take them by surprise now. Those of you who are willing to go, please contact Sabine. Those of you who are members of the guard, Sabine will be speaking to you as to which of you will be staying in defense and which of you will be traveling forward.
"Since they have already forged something of an alliance with the Winterkin, Terzin and his companions will be traveling back up to the caves as soon as they are physically able in order to organize the assault as best as possible. We will take these cultists by surprise, we will defeat them. Hopefully, we will have the better part of a week for everyone to heal, to organize and to prepare. During that time, I wish that everyone here not mention this to anyone who is not from within the walls of this Keep, and to ensure that we are moving with speed and silence. Go about your duties, and hope that the summer gods smile on us."
Terzin waited for Sabine to have a free moment. "What are you armed with?" he asked.
"Hardened leather armor, shield, spear, sword," she recited.
"We've got six crossbows that we took off the dwarves."
"Those would be of incredible use."
"That's what I figured. We'll make sure to get those into your hands so they can start practicing with them. What else.... There's a pawnbroker in town, Mouse. Has anyone looked at his stores? This is an emergency, things could be requisitioned."
"I'll speak with him," she promised patiently.
Mendel was waiting when Terzin stepped away. "Sabine, we were about ready to go? We're perfectly willing to carry a message further south."
She sighed. "You have two armed men with you, they could be very helpful."
"I will need two armed men!"
"He's right," Terzin agreed reluctantly. "If he goes alone he might never make it through."
"What are you carrying with you this time?" she asked.
"Furs. Buried underneath that, dwarvish metal supplies. I can leave some stock here, but honestly it would take too long for your smith to forge anything. No completed weapons."
"Damn. Not even a sword?"
He shrugged. "Swords aren't profitable to me. Metal stock's easier to carry, less expensive for me to buy, and I sell it at a higher profit margin. I'll be heading down toward the Badger River, picking up the barges down there. It's the fastest way to get further information about this down to people who might be able to help you."
"Very well. We'll be opening up the gates later. You and your men can leave then."
"Are you sure he can be trusted?" Terzin asked when Mendel had gone.
Sabine gave him a look. "Is there anyone you are not suspicious of?"
After a moment of thought he replied honestly, "My cousin."
"If he is not to be trusted, then we will have a viper inside the Keep."
"That's why I'm asking."
"If he is to be trusted, then he will get a message out. I don't see as we have any other choice. I certainly can't lock him up."
"No reason, without any evidence. Just asking."
"I am thinking that we should not count on taking these people by surprise," Robin was saying to the others. "We've been tromping back and forth there for days, we wiped out their dwarves...."
"They're likely to notice that soon." A horrible expression of dawning realization crossed Harrick's face. "Did we do something to make sure their dwarves couldn't get back up again?"
"Crud." An identical look settled on Terzin. In the urgency of the fight and of getting their hurt comrades to safety, they had forgotten something crucial.
"It's only been a few hours," Robin said uncertainly.
"Great, you head back," Harrick muttered, still feeling his wounds keenly. "I'm glad to hear that you're feeling all spiffy, so you run back and decapitate all the bodies, 'kay?"
"Dubricus and I can go. I'm serious," she added.
"Take Martin, take one of the other men...." Terzin looked around. "Don't go by yourself. You, come with us. What's your name, soldier?" he asked the man he had grabbed.
"Reese," the startled man replied.
"Get your equipment, we've got a mission. Sabine, I need this guy."
She gave him a slightly astonished look and indicated that he should step aside with her. "What?" she demanded.
"We left the dwarf corpses."
"Corpses, nethermancer," Robin explained succinctly.
Sabine understood. "You are in no condition to go anywhere," she told Terzin regardless.
"Right, which is why we need him."
Robin nodded. "I'm going, Dubricus will go, and one more just to be on the safe side."
"Reese, go with them," Sabine ordered. "Third!"
The tattooed woman turned around.
"I need you to go with them."
She walked over and nodded silently to the adventurers.
The four of them prepared to depart immediately, which meant finding Robin a new shield. Terzin dug up a bottle of the rawest alcohol he could find and gave it to her for use in burning the bodies. An hour past noon, the gates opened for the exodus. The four on their grim mission headed north at the fastest pace they could sustain. Mendel and his men (and his two women) drove off to the south, rather slowly it seemed.
Glancing back as they rounded the first curve, Robin saw another figure slipping out through the gate just before it closed. It appeared to be a man wearing a robe. She stopped, but there was no sign of the figure coming down the road; he might have gone into the woods.
"What's the matter?"
"Someone left the Keep behind us," she told Dubricus. "Not sure who. When we get back I'll see if I can find his trail."
"Things are not looking well to be secret from the beginning," he muttered.
"Things haven't been looking well for a week now," Robin laughed. "Let's go."
"This would be so much faster if I had my horse."
"For you, yes."
Reese didn't talk much about himself, but over the course of the journey revealed his past as an old campaigner who had served three years in the King's armies before retiring to life as a cobbler. With Third, they didn't even bother asking questions. The tattooed woman maintained near total silence for the duration of the hike.
It was an hour before sunset when they neared the battle site. Robin looked at the sky, blinked several times, looked at the road. Somehow a journey which should have taken a couple of hours at their pace had taken the better part of the day.
"Is there a problem?" Dubricus asked.
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