Terzin prepared to go, but was convinced to delay his departure until Harrick could cast the spell, around midday. It helped somehelped everyone in the Keep, actuallybut could not perform the same miracle the healing potion had. He was still far from top condition, but he had to go regardless. He dressed in dark clothing, darkened his face and hands, made sure he wasn't carrying anything that would jingle. Then he went out through a window in the armiger's part of the Keep, rapelled down the wall, and headed through the woods with more speed than silence until he was well away.
Suddenly aware of the enveloping quiet of the forest and the nearness of the bandit precincts, he slowed and began to move more cautiously. Good thing, too, for as he worked his careful way around the clearing with the zombie-guarded hoard, he heard movement ahead of him. He eased under cover and peered ahead to see five bandits walking there.
One of them made a soft shushing sound and held up a hand to stop the rest of them.
Terzin stopped breathing.
The leader took a couple of steps forward, a short bow in his hands. He nocked an arrow and drew slowly, took aim in Terzin's general direction.
"What are you" another bandit began to ask.
He loosed. The arrow stuck in a tree a short distance away, impaling a squirrel. The bandit leader walked within three feet of Terzin in retrieving it, tossed the small corpse aside carelessly. It landed on Terzin's back. He didn't twitch, thinking, I am a rock. I have met an evil wizard who transformed me into stone. It seemed to work; they didn't see him.
"You're pretty good with that thing," one of the men admired the shot.
"Best you're ever going to meet. Right, let's get going."
"So why do they have us going out here anyway?"
"I don't know, they're afraid someone's going to be coming up from the Keep. We're just supposed to keep an eye on the road, send someone back in case anything happens."
"Now when they say back, do they mean through the...?" another asked.
"Fastest route," their leader confirmed. "Those are the orders."
Terzin risked the noise of raising an eyebrow. He remained otherwise still until they were well out of sight. Then he carefully removed the squirrel and placed it on the ground.
He reached the valley head and looked around; no signs of battle, at least. He headed for the bugbears' cave and presented himself to the guard at the entrance, startling him badly.
"Hruggek," was the only word he knew that might be of use.
The bugbear muttered something ["Your psychotic friend is not with you, is he?"] and stepped farther in, waving to one of his comrades. The two of them spoke for a moment, then gestured for Terzin to follow. More bugbear grumbling at Hruggek's door. The chief was getting out of bed as the door opened, belting a fur robe around himself.
The female bugbear in the bed also dressed and left the room. The guard closed the door, leaving the two of them alone.
"The situation is growing critical," Terzin said without preamble. "We reached the Keep and were arranging help, but they know of it."
"The Keep knows of it?" He had, after all, just been awakened from his day's rest.
"Our enemies know of it. There were spies within the Keep; unfortunately, they got out."
Hruggek spat on the floor and poured himself a goblet of something.
"There is some good news. On the way back to the Keep we found the dwarves, or rather they found us, and in a pitched battle we managed to kill them all. Although they did retrieve the corpses, so we'll probably be seeing them again. But we got all their armor and crossbows and such."
The bugbear sighed. "What is your name?"
"Terzin, when I get woken up in the middle of the day, I know that it is never going to be good news. And yet every day of my life I have hoped. You, too, have failed me."
Terzin plowed ahead. "There is some good news. The Keep are assembling what forces they have, in order to reinforce us. Plus they've sent for help from the south."
"How long will that help take? And do we have assurances from them that that help will not include wiping out every Winterkin in the caves?"
"Yes," he answered promptly. "You have my word and the word of my psychotic friend as well. And Harrick."
"Well, if I can't trust your psychotic friend... my daughter is healing nicely."
"Glad to hear it. Unfortunately we were badly wounded by the dwarves. Are you and the goblins all mustered?"
Hruggek blinked. "Could you say that again?"
"Are we a condiment?"
Terzin was reminded that Rell was not Hruggek's native language. "Are you all gathered together?" he tried again. "Any word perhaps from the gnolls?"
"No. My men have not found them yet, and I will have to call them back in if battle is due. When will these forces from the Keep be coming?"
Hruggek repeated that thoughtfully. He looked grim. "If they know that we are coming, then there is no more time to prepare."
"Do you think it might be a good idea to temporarily move into our cave, inasmuch as they might not be expecting it? If they try a sneak attack here and we're not here, that's an advantage for our side."
Hruggek decided that it would serve to shelter the noncombatant women and children of the tribe. He sent a couple of bugbears to make sure the place was safe; Terzin went with them to show them around. No one seemed to be watching the place, and nothing had changed in their absence. When the three had reported back, the bugbear women began moving down in ones and twos, sticking to the underbrush. No one would expect them to be up and about during the day.
Terzin wandered around the woods for a while, hoping to find some sign of the gnolls, but they were not to be found. He did find, curled up amid the roots of a large pine tree, the leucrotta, sound asleep. He retreated again, very carefully. Back at the cave there was nothing to do but fret. He was going to get a lot of practice.
The rest of the group re-equipped themselves from the Keep's thin store of spare weapons. They didn't have anything to replace Dubricus' saber, but he armed himself as best he could with a fencing foil and knife. Jared, feeling much recovered, picked out a heavy mace and swung it thoughtfully, nodded approvingly. Robin contented herself with a new longsword.
They debated the worth of waiting another day to heal before heading out, and decided to leave in the morning. Time was too short. That evening they attended a tactical meeting with Devereau, who had been mulling over the terrain and the available forces, and rued his inability to accompany them. The Keep's little crossbow corps would do their best to keep the bandits pinned in their cave, making the odds better for the bugbears, who would be attacking the cult directly. Sabine was in charge of the Keep men, with Reese as her second. Third would be going as well.
It was never a matter for discussion whether the adventurers would be assaulting the main cave, it was just assumed.
"I had an extended conversation with Asher, the cooper whose daughter has gone missing. According to what Mendel has said, she had been taken to ensure that he would comply with what they were requesting, and that she is being kept somewhere at the caves. As harsh as this may sound, her life is not a priority," Devereau told them somberly. "We don't know whether or not Mendel was lying; she might not be there at all. I am not going to ask anyone to risk their lives in order to rescue someone who might not even be present. But be aware, if she is there, any reasonable attempt to rescue her will be looked upon with great favor."
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