As we spoke, we neared the Hellpit, and a few details became more clear. The ‘wall’ around the town was man-made, but it was just a short line of stones about a foot tall, more a marker around the entire pit than an actual bulwark. On the other hand, there were also a few paths through the pit, roads swept clear of gravel and dirt, exposing the mostly smooth rock underneath.
There were no signs though, nothing to distinguish one cave from the other besides whether or not it had a path leading up to it. I made a mental note to remember to ask if that was an intentional method of hiding, or if they just had not gotten around to it yet.
There were still the pits I had seen from the hilltop, though. Vertical—or near vertical—holes in the ground too deep to explore immediately. Those were the ones cordoned off by wooden fences staked into the ground, painted bright yellow, red, and other such colors.
Nathan Mallern led us to one of the caves carved into the hillside. I could not tell the difference between it and any of the others, but it was approximately in the center of the Hellpit, and the hunter certainly walked like he knew where he was going.
As we approached the cave, a woman stepped out, flanked by a pair of large burly men with sinblades drawn. She was a short, plump woman, overshadowed by her guards in size. But only in size.
She had an energy and charisma about her. One look at her told me that she was a no-nonsense type, used to taking charge of difficult situations and being obeyed. And if she was not obeyed, she would make you regret it.
I stopped several feet away from her and nodded. “You must be Miss Orange. Jack and Harold mentioned you. Or is it Mayor Orange now?”
“Still just Miss Orange,” she snapped, her voice rich and strong. “We never did get around to appointing a mayor after Grandsbriar. Speaking of which…” Her gaze turned to Jack. “Jacqueline. Report.”
Rather than complaining about the use of her feminine name, the swordswoman woman just snapped to attention, back straight as an arrow. “Trip out was uneventful. Ran into three dire men the first day, then nothing. After reaching London, the king assigned Sir Wreth and his three subordinates—from left to right, Roark, Vale, and Norn—to return with us. Nothing worth noting until we reached the town.”
Orange’s eyes were narrow. “What did you find at the town?”
“We arrived at night, and noted the lack of a guard. Once we entered the town, we went to the forge, which was cold, and then the church. That is where we found Father Mallern, dead, with his throat ripped out.”
The acting mayor did not even blink. “Yes, Azin and Photor mentioned that. But having his throat ripped out seems odd. Did you figure out what killed him?”
The swordswoman shook her head. “No. All we can assume is that it was not a monster, considering the lack of destruction of the chapel.” She coughed, suddenly a little anxious. “Well…destruction beyond what Professor Haber had left behind.”
Orange’s mouth quirked upwards, ever so slightly. “I imagine. Continue.”
“We found the hole in the wall the morning after, while surveying the town. Sir Wreth was attacked by sinhearts, but we eliminated them all. After packing up as many supplies as we could carry, including Father Mallern’s journals, we set out early. We ran into a dire wolf—I still have the heart—and, a few hours ago, found the war camp just north of here. We decided to attack from the rear, but were overwhelmed. Mister Mallern and his hunters saved us.”
“Yes…” Orange’s eyes narrowed. “An interesting story. I am sure Don will be quite happy with that heart. And there are still more questions regarding Tom’s death. But for now, my only remaining question is this: What made you think it was a good idea for six people to attack a war camp of several hundred sinhearts by yourselves?”
I coughed, drawing her attention to me, and smiled politely. “That would be me. I saw that they had quite a bit of flammable building material, so I decided it would be best to destroy as much of it as possible. Not to mention killing as many sinhearts as possible in the process.”
The portly woman looked me up and down, her eyes lingering briefly at the sinblade sheathed at my side. “I do not know much about you, Sir Wreth. And I suppose I should thank you for the damage you did to our enemies. But that was a very stupid move, and it is a miracle you were not all slaughtered.”
“I had only faced a half dozen of the monsters at once in the village,” I explained. “I underestimated the threat.” I bowed again. “I am sorry for putting your hunters in danger. They have been incredibly helpful to us these past few days. I can only imagine how valuable they have been to you over the past year.”
She nodded. “Yes, you are right. They are our best hunters, and have saved more lives than I can count. But they are still alive, so I will have to accept your apology.” She turned and headed back into the cave. “Come with me.”
The six of us who had left Grandsbriar followed her, while the rest of the hunters dispersed, presumably to report back to the captain of the guard or whoever was in charge of keeping an eye on that war camp.
Once we entered Miss Orange’s cave, we quickly came across a large barrier, some ten or twenty yards in. There were no lights—probably to keep the cave from being seen as anything unique from the outside—and it was just a featureless wooden wall, built fifteen feet wide and tall to completely fill the gullet of the cave, and prevent any passage. There was a small wooden door in the center, heavily reinforced with iron bands.
One of the guards pounded on the door three times, then stepped back without saying a word. After a moment, I heard a small slit open, though I did not see it anywhere. A voice called out in a bored tone.
“Who is there?”
“Rebecca Orange,” the woman in question enunciated calmly and clearly. “With eight others.”
“All right, all right…” The slit closed with a small noise, followed by the door opening.
The passage beyond was dark as the grave. It made me uneasy.
“Jacqueline, please go first,” Miss Orange said with the firm tone of an order. “Make it clear that your friends from London have nothing to worry about.”
I shuffled on my feet, slightly embarrassed to realize she had noticed.
The swordswoman, on the other hand, obeyed without question, stepping into the dark corridor as easily as…as easily as walking through a door, I suppose. I did not know why I was so scared.
Then the door slammed shut behind her with a rather final-sounding thud.
Ah, yes. That was why.
Still, there were no screams or other sounds to indicate anything untoward was happening on the other side of the door, and less than a minute later, it swung open again, revealing the dark and empty passage behind.
“A tad melodramatic, do not you think?” Vale asked. “I mean, do not get me wrong, I appreciate a good show as much as anyone, but this is going to take a while. It seems unnecessarily complex.”
“It is a security precaution,” Norn pointed out, even as Miss Orange opened her mouth to answer my blond subordinate. “Not sure why they are going to such efforts, though. This would work great against human enemies, but I doubt sinhearts would even notice.”
“You are right,” the acting mayor admitted. “On all counts. This is not to keep monsters out.” She shrugged. “Well, the wall is, but the security procedure is for mortal men.” She waved her hand. “But we have spent too much time out here as it is. I will explain the rest inside. Sir Wreth, why do not you go next.”
‘Because I do not want to’ would not have been a very good answer, so I just nodded and stepped through the doorway. As expected, it slammed shut behind me, albeit with less of an echo than I was expecting. Perhaps the walls of the corridor were padded to reduce sound?
But after a moment, a door on the other end of the hallway opened, flooding it with light. I blinked, clearing my vision, and slowly realized that the dark corridor I was in was only five feet long. I was scared for nothing.
All right, the archers pointing ready arrows at me were a little disturbing, but I knew how to deal with that.
I raised my hands up, showing them that I was unarmed, and slowly stepped forward into the light. The guards stepped back at the same pace, giving me room to walk forward while keeping their weapons pointed at me.
Once I was out of the corridor, the door closed behind me. The guards looked me over for a moment, nodded, and indicated that I should go join Jack a few feet farther down the tunnel. I did so, and they went back to watching the door.
The tunnel in front of me was not very interesting—just dull gray rock. There was a sharp turn in the cave about twenty feet ahead, which I could not see beyond. I could hear a dull murmur coming from the other side, but I did not think it was a good idea to wander off, so I turned back to see what the barricade looked from this side.
It was about the same—just smooth, strong wood—with the exception of about half a dozen levers here and there of varying shape and size. Those were probably what they used to control the doors and so on, an assumption that was proven right as a bored young man pulled one, opening the door on our side and letting Roark through.
“This is humiliating, slow, and unnecessary,” he grunted when he walked over and joined us. Once again, I noticed that he was staying away from Jack as much as possible. “Sir Wreth, as a knight of the realm, you outrank everyone here.”
“I am not sure my knighthood allows me to usurp control of a village,” I noted dryly.
“But they still do not have a mayor. You can declare martial law and—”
“Roark,” I interrupted firmly. “These people have survived for a year in a situation where we would not have last a day. They have more than earned the right to govern themselves and decide their own fates. We were not sent here as the vanguard of a conquering army.”
The ranger made a tch noise and looked away, unable to formulate a better response.
I just gave Jack a pained smile, but at least she had the grace not to say anything.
One by one, the rest of the party came through, with Miss Orange second last, and her bodyguard after her. Roark was right, it was slow, but we had suffered through far worse than half an hour of overly strict security precautions.
The acting mayor led us around the corner of the cave, away from the security checkpoint.
The first thing we noticed was that it quickly widened into a full cavern, thirty yards wide.
The second thing we noticed was how beautiful it was.
The villagers had only been here for two days or so, and yet they had already succeeded in turning a drab gray cave into a bright, colorful home. Lanterns hung from the rock formations in the ceiling, which were themselves wrapped with garlands of flowers. The walls were covered in family banners, while the floors boasted luxurious carpets.
It was absolutely breathtaking. After almost two weeks of scrambling about in the wild, I felt as though I had walked into a tavern in the capital.
‘Tavern’ definitely was the right word. That was the only place I ever saw the kind of color, warmth, and energy that was present here, with the minstrel playing a jaunty tune in the corner only underlining that. It even had a bar, carved roughly from the very rock and stone.
And the people were drunk.
There were not too many, all things considered. No more than two dozen or so. But that was two dozen more laughing, chatting, dancing people than I had seen since leaving London. There was a constant sense of movement, life and light, with drunken patrons randomly jumping up on stone tables and dancing, while waiters sashayed through the crowd handing out frothing mugs of ale and small plates of food.
I looked at the party. Orange and her bodyguards were as professional as ever, but Norn and Harold seemed ready to jump into the festivities. Jack and Roark looked like the rambunctious crowd had personally offended them in some way.
Vale, of course, looked like he had just found his home away from home.
“Beer and women!” he cried, trying to shrug off his pack and join in the dancing. I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, and his broad grin faded slightly. “Uh…I suppose this is not the best time, is it, Sir Wreth?”
“Not quite,” I confirmed. I patted him again and smiled. “But I will make you a deal. Clear a way through the crowd for us, and once we are done speaking with Miss Orange, you can come back here and…” I grinned. “Gather information.”
He roared with laughter. “A challenge! And one that does not involve killing anyone!” He winked at Norn, who just rolled his eyes with a smile on his face. “This, it seems, is truly something only I can do.” Then he was off, the crowd parting before him with only a few swift words to each individual.
The acting mayor stepped up next to me. “Is he always like this?” she asked quietly. I should not have been able to hear her over the music and carousing, but she pitched her voice just perfectly to cut through the noise.
I shrugged. “Not always. But he is never been the best fighter of us, and the fact that we were not able to give him any monstrous weapons when we set out from the village has made him feel useless. He is just showing off, that is all.”
“All right,” she mused. “I suppose I have to trust you know what you are doing.” She swept her hand forward, indicating that the way was clear. “Though the drunks will not stay tamed forever.”
“Ladies first,” I insisted. She rolled her eyes and stepped forward, her bodyguards just two steps behind like a pair of large shadows.