We tromped around for another hour, with little luck. We did not lose the trail, but we did not find any caves, either. Just a few more twincats, ambushing us from the treetops and then running off before we could retaliate.
“Why do not they stay and fight?” I muttered after the fourth such attack.
“They really are like cats,” Roark explained. “They are smart enough to know they cannot actually kill big things like us. They are not fighting for food, they are fighting for territory. Trying to make it too dangerous or annoying for us to stay.”
Interesting. “Anything else you noticed about these things?”
“Prehensile tails,” he answered immediately. “I have heard of such a thing, but never actually seen it. The lack of whiskers is also odd—normal cats use them for pretty much everything, you know. Either their hearing or smell must be very good.”
“Well, they do have double the normal number of ears and noses.”
“Maybe. I suppose I should not be trying to read too much into monsters that apparently just appeared, whole cloth, out of thin air without any warning. At least the dire beasts make some sort of sense.”
I shrugged. “I do not know, they mostly make sense. Even the sinhearts seem simple enough.” Then I thought about it, and was again reminded that the sinhearts were relatively low on the scale of strange. “…perhaps that is not the best example.”
He chuckled, for the first time since we reached Grandsbriar. “Yes, we—”
“Shh!” Harold hissed from up ahead. “Someone is here!”
We all instantly fell silent, with each one of us picking a large tree or bush and moving behind it for cover. The archer’s words were clear: Someone was coming, not something. It appeared that we had found the bandits.
Moments later, this was confirmed.
A party of three men, only slightly younger than myself, tromped through the forest. They were dressed in old and ragged leather armor, not the newer monster leather Grandsbriar’s hunters boasted. Their swords were new enough, though, sinblades clearly stolen from their kills. They were not as shiny as Jack’s but they were certainly still sharp enough, and they had dire-weight bracers that they had either made or stolen from the villagers.
They also had crossbows.
The weapons were slung across their backs, bolts notched and ready to be shot at a moment’s notice. While that was a dangerous practice, I knew from experience how long it could take to reload a crossbow. In this situation, it was far better to risk accidentally shooting yourself in the rear than to risk not being ready when a monster rushed you.
They were probably originally mercenaries, conscripts selling their superior weapons like the Genose crossbowmen. But England had its own corps of loyal and well-trained soldiers armed with crossbows. We had little need to hire outsiders. Presumably, they then had no other choice but to turn their weapons against merchant caravans.
It was a sad tale, and one far too common for my liking, but there was nothing we could do to change their fate now. Our only choice was to fight. Maybe capture these two instead of killing them, get some intelligence out of them…
Then Vale stepped out of cover, empty hands raised non-threateningly. “Hello!”
Intelligence, it appeared, was something we sorely lacked.
The bandits had their bows out and pointed at my blond subordinate before I could even blink, confirming my theory about their origins. Using a crossbow was simple enough, but it took actual training to be that good with them.
“Who are you?” the one in the front demanded. “You from Grandsbriar?” His eyes flickered to Vale’s sinblade, still sheathed at his side, and his dire-weight bracers. “Leave the blade and wristbands, and you can go unharmed.”
Vale shrugged. “Sure, we could do that. Or, you could take me to your boss, allowing me to discuss an alliance between yourselves and the villagers or New Grandsbriar.”
They just stared at him.
He grinned. “Is that a yes?”
The leader shook his head—not to say no, just to clear his head. “What? I do not even—what? Grandsbriar kicked us out of our homes in the Hellpit. It might not have been comfortable, but it was ours. And now—”
“You are bandits,” Vale interrupted. “I am sure they have a long list of grievances against you.” He shrugged. “I would not know. I did not ask. See, I am from London. A couple young hunters showed up a few weeks asking for help fighting monsters.”
The bandits all chuckled. “And the king sent one man.”
“He was not going to send an army on what sounded like the ravings of a madman,” Vale replied, while carefully not confirming or correcting the part about ‘one man.’ “Though I suspect if I am not back soon enough, he might send a larger party to investigate.”
“And what, that is it?” one of the other bandits asked. “They send you here to negotiate with us, and we are all supposed to just hold hands and let bygones be bygones?” He snorted in derision. “I thought Grandsbriar was better than that, but they are just a bunch of naïve townies in the end.”
“Actually, they sent me here to eliminate you by any means necessary.”
The leader frowned. “One man cannot fight all of us.”
“I never said I was alone.”
The rest of us took that as our cue, and stepped out of cover, weapons ready. I moved to cover Vale with my shield, while Norn slipped his scythe around the leader’s neck from behind, keeping his axe in reserve.
“You could have told us you were planning on doing this,” I told Vale pointedly.
He grinned. “did not I? I thought I said we should try negotiating.”
“And I thought I told you we needed to retain the element of surprise.”
The blond did not stop grinning. “Surprise.”
I rolled my eyes and turned my attention to the leader of the bandit trio. He did not exactly look comfortable with the blade of a scythe tickling his jugular, but he was not going to do anything stupid.
He was a tall, willowy man with brown hair, who looked like he had been a scribe’s assistant before taking up a more martial profession. He did have the thick, strong arms of a veteran crossbowman, however, and his eyes were sharp. I needed to be careful not to underestimate him.
“What is your name?”
“Captain Kewen,” he responded as calmly as possible. “And you?”
“Sir Wreth,” I replied without hesitation. Next to me, Vale nodded in appreciation. He was the one who had taught me that small measures of trust, like sharing names, was a good way of establishing a working relationship. “I am not going to insult your loyalty or intelligence by asking you for troop information or anything like that. I just want to know this: Would your leader be amenable to negotiating an alliance?”
“Assuming you are not the leader,” Vale interjected.
“He is not,” Harold, Norn, Roark, Jack, and I all said at the same time.
Vale looked between the five of us, surprised. “Uh, all right. I suppose that makes sense to you…career soldier types.” He shrugged at the bandit captain. “I am sort of an…independent contractor. Not used to a chain of command.”
Kewen stared at him, bewildered. “…what does that mean?”
“It means he was in prison for relieving rich, lonely women of their valuables until I recruited him,” I noted dryly. “That was five years ago, and he still has not gotten used to being in an actual army.”
“…right.” The bandit looked like he was searching for a way out, but could not find one. “Uh, anyway, about your question. I am not sure how the general will feel about negotiating an alliance. I mean, he might, but I just do not know exactly his feelings on—”
“Captain,” Vale interrupted. “Let me get right to the point. Would this general of yours be willing to meet with us in person, and not kill us? Location does not matter. In the forest, outside the forest…”
Kewen thought for a moment. “…yes. Yes he would, actually.” He nodded to himself. “In fact, I think I can take you to him now. I will lead you to our camp.”
Harold blinked in surprise. “Seriously? Just like that?”
“He will have every possible advantage in his own camp,” I pointed out. “And if he does not like our suggestions, he will kill us. Simple as that.”
The bandit captain grinned. “Well? Do we have a bargain?”
I sighed, and sheathed my sword. The others reluctantly followed suit. “We have a deal. Though you will forgive me for saying that if you betray us—”
“Kill us all, I understand,” Kewen interrupted flippantly, rubbing his neck as if to make absolutely certain that it was still in one piece. He indicated the direction they had been heading before with a jerk of his head. “Come on. It should not be an hour.”
Following the three bandits through the Hellwood was a trying experience. They were not doing anything suspicious, but we could not help but act on edge around them. It did not help that twincats attacked twice, forcing us to fight side by side with them. Kewen almost cut off Jack’s hand by accident, missing by a hair, and she took it rather personally.
We managed to calm her down and move on, but now the swordswoman was understandably suspicious of the criminals. I suspected if they toed over the line once more, she would kill them without so much as thinking about asking me if it was a good idea.
Thankfully, before we were attacked again, we stopped in the middle of a small clearing, with a rather pleasant little stream running down the middle. “We are here,” Captain Kewen declared, and promptly sat down on a nearby boulder.
Clearly, he was trying to play a joke. I just rolled my eyes. “Up or down?”
He blinked at me. “I am sorry?”
“Is the camp up in the trees or down in the caves?” I looked up, shading my eyes against the glare of the sun peeking through the gap in the treetops. “I do not see anything, but bandits do not usually last long if they are not at least a little good at hiding.”
“I do not see any caves, either,” Norn noted, scanning the ground, especially the rocky area near the stream. “That would be a bit harder to hide than some tree houses, I think. It looks like they are up there somewhere.”
Kewen sighed. “You lot are no fun at all.” He put his fingers in his mouth and whistled.
Dozens of men, armed and armored similarly to the three we had captured, swiftly rappelled down the trees on clever rope pulley systems. Each and every one of them had a crossbow pointed straight at us, but I could not bring myself to feel threatened. I had charged a sinheart war camp. As ill-advised a maneuver as that had proven, it was hard to think of anything more frightening.
“Kewen,” a loud voice called from above. I still could not see anything past the glare of the sun, but I could tell that it was coming from roughly in front of us, at the top of the biggest oak in the grove. “Why did you bring Grandsbriar hunters here?”
“They are not from Grandsbriar,” the captain called back. “Not all of them, at least.” He jerked a thumb at me. “This guy says he is a knight from London. Wants to discuss an alliance between us and the townies.”
There were a few murmurs of discontent among the bandits at that pronouncement, but they did not attack, yell at us, or do much of anything. They just kept their weapons level, waiting for their general’s order.
After a moment, he gave it.
“Bring them up.”
Once again, I was struck by the military efficiency of this small army of mercenaries. Most bandit leaders would face at least a few yells and catcalls as their subordinates made their feelings on an unpopular order clear. These simply stepped back and pulled down another rope pulley from the big tree, this one with knots tied into it to allow us to use it easier.
We went up one by one, the bandits glaring daggers at us but doing nothing worse. They did not even try to take our weapons, which I found mildly disturbing. It always felt a little off when someone was confident enough that they did not bother disarming you.
The bandits’ ‘tree house,’ as Norn had called it, was about as sturdy as you would expect, considering they had only had two days to build it. Rather than square and solid planks of wood, the floor was made of irregularly-shaped branches, crudely lashed together with rope. Railings were few and far between, and all the beds appeared to be simple hammocks.
The general’s quarters were the most luxurious, but that really was not saying much. He had simply chosen a spot on the largest tree with three or four big, sturdy limbs at about the same level, and nailed carefully-sized branches scavenged from other trees. I wondered where he got the nails, but did not think about it too much. Probably stole them from some caravan or another.
The general himself was a strong-bodied man. Not huge, simply a little bit taller than average. He had a presence about him, though, underlined by his extremely muscular physique and the pair of sinheart axes sitting next to him.
He had managed to drag a chair up the tree, a solid stone throne that was more like a few blocks of stone fitted together than anything truly crafted. He lounged in it like a king, which I suppose he was. This was clearly not a man to trifle with.
I nodded in greeting. “Hello, I am—”
“Sir Nicholas Wreth, Knight of the Realm,” he interrupted. I froze, shocked. “Proud servant of His Majesty, the King of England. Thirty-two years old last summer, husband to a loving wife, father to two beautiful children, and veteran of…” he paused for a moment, thinking. “…six wars?”
I swallowed. “Ten, actually. At least, that was when I stopped counting. And one more child since you left. Another girl.”
The man grinned like a shark. “Funny see you here, Nicky.”
“It is been a while, Gregor,” I admitted diplomatically.
Gregor’s bandits and my subordinates were all too shocked to say anything. Well, except for Vale. He stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Sir, if you would not mind…enlightening the rest of us as to the nature of your relationship with this man?” He managed a pained smile. “If we should jump off the tree house, start with that.”
I sighed. “This is Gregor Pell—General Gregor Pell now, I suppose.” I frowned at the man. “How legitimate is that title, Gregor? Is it something you stole, or merely something else you pretended to steal?”
The bandits tightened their grips on their crossbows. My party’s hands went to their own weapons. No one knew what to do.
But the bandit king just continued grinning. “Oh, I earned this one. Got it off a Scottish Baron when I killed his previous general.” He shrugged. “He thought plying me with gifts and titles would make me work for him. It did not.”
“Sir,” Vale murmured. “About that jumping…”
“Gregor and I…knew each other,” I explained. “A long time ago. Friends, even, for a very long time, almost since childhood. The short version is we had a falling out. Most of our friends took my side, including the king himself.”
He smirked. “But not all our friends took your side.”
“No,” I said thickly. “Not all.”
He waved his hand. “But none of that is important right now. You came here to negotiate with us, to find some sort of peaceful solution to our mutual differences. So why do not we figure out what both sides need, and move on from there.”
“It is obvious what you need,” I noted. “Building materials. New Grandsbriar is low on supplies as well, but I strongly suspect they at least have some form of sawmill.” I turned to Harold. “Unless they hauled all that cut lumber from the old village?”
He shook his head. “Mister Meckle runs the sawmill.”
I nodded and turned back to Gregor. “There, that is a start. Grandsbriar provides you with enough lumber, nails, and so on to turn this” I waved my hand, encapsulating the tree house. “Into an actual home. In exchange, you stop raiding them.”
The bandit leader grinned. “I am impressed, Nicky. That seems almost fair.”
“It is fair,” I insisted.
Vale placed his hand on my shoulder, forcing me to calm down. He turned to Gregor. “If you can agree to the lumber trade, then we can move on to discussions of a more advanced alliance. What else do you need?”
“Oh, plenty of things,” he admitted genially. “But Let us start with the easy ones. Information.” He held up with arm and tapped the dire-weight bracer there. “These things are a miracle, and they are not the only strangely magical item we have found on the townies. Where did you get them? The sinhearts, at least, do not wear them.”
Harold opened his mouth to answer. Vale held up his hand to stop him without even looking at him.
“Now we know what you want. It is time to discuss what you can offer in exchange.”
Gregor’s eyes narrowed, and his hand slipped down to his sinaxe. “You are in no position to make demands, little man.” The bandits surrounding us shuffled, just a little, reminding us that they were still there and still armed.
“Killing us will not get you your information,” Vale pointed out. “Or your materials. Unless you are willing to drag all the lumber from Old Grandsbriar yourself, you need us.” He shrugged. “I suppose you could simply move into the village, but the sinhearts have proven willing to use giants against the wall before. They will do so again.”
The man who had led us here, Captain Kewen, stepped up. “True, but the townies cannot really do that either. All their animals went dire. Nothing to pull the carts. They cannot drag that stuff over fifty miles of grasslands by hand. Especially not when being attacked by monsters the whole way.”
“Miss Orange managed to domesticate some monsters,” Jack noted.
Everyone—us, the bandits, everyone—turned to stare at her.
“…when were you going to mention that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Right now.”
Gregor scratched his chin. “So the villagers have beasts of burden now? That alone is extremely valuable.” He smiled at the girl—though I doubted he realized she was of the female persuasion. “And since we cannot just steal these creatures, as they no doubt require a rather specific training and care regimen, we have something worth trading services for.” He spread his hands wide. “What do you want? Protection? That would be the most obvious, I should think.”
“That is one option,” Vale admitted. “I believe a more permanent alliance would be best, however.”
The bandit king sighed. “Look, I appreciate you trying to end this without violence. And in most respects, you have already succeeded on that. There is no need to try and reconcile mortal enemies.”
“There is always need to reconcile mortal enemies,” Vale insisted. “Do you know how many wars throughout human history have been caused by people just refusing to let go of old grudges? Especially now that there are monsters running around, this has to stop.”
“You have got quite a subordinate here, Nicky,” Gregor said with a chuckle. “I did not think you went for the naïve optimist types.” He grinned again. “do not tell me you are going soft in your old age?”
“Stop dodging the question,” I snapped. “Permanent alliance. Yes or no.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “…perhaps. I would have to see proof of Grandsbriar’s commitment, however. Bring us one load of lumber, and we can discuss further deals.”
“Does this mean that you will not attack our foresters who come here to collect the lumber?” Harold asked skeptically. “That is the main thing we are worried about, I hope you understand. The Hellwood is our closest source as well.”
Gregor raised an eyebrow. “The Hellwood? Is that what you are calling this place?” He shrugged. “Well, whatever. The answer to your question is yes. We will not attack your workers. Later, we can work out some sort of mutual protection, but for the moment that is all I can offer.”
Vale bowed. “Then that is all we can ask. We will go now.” He turned to leave.
I stopped him, and glared at the bandit king. “Wait. We still need information.”
“What kind of information?”
“The hazards of the Hellwood. We already know about the twincats, but we have only seen a few scattered signs of the dire trees. We have not actually run into anything else. What do the workers have to look out for?”
“Mister Jaspar,” Gregor called. “Bring out the monster book.”
A small, thin man, no more than five and a half feet tall and twenty-five years old, pushed through the ring of crossbowmen still surrounding us. He was not wearing the old leather armor of the rest of the bandits, but rather a patched robe like what you would see on a monk.
He pulled out a large leather-bound tome and flipped to the middle. “Creatures related to or near the forest south of the crater known as the Hellpit,” he read aloud. He flipped a page. “Specifically those that may attack those living in or near the trees.”
“Yes,” I managed patiently. “Those. What are we looking at?”
The scribe did not look up from his book. “Dire beasts include dire sparrows, dire squirrels, dire worms, and apple dragons—those are creatures born from dire apple trees. The trees themselves do not uproot.”
I glanced at Harold and Jack. They did not seem surprised by any of this, so I had to assume they recognized all the names. “All right, is there anything that Grandsbriar would not know about? Like the twincats.”
He blinked at me for a moment, before nodding slowly. “Ah, the two-headed false cat. Yes, ‘twincat’ does roll of the tongue quite a bit better.” He wrote something in the book with a pencil. “They are not dire cats—I assume you figured that out already. They are precipitates, and the small ones you have seen so far are just the scouts. The ones guarding the dens are the size of lions, and the kings are even bigger.”
“Wonderful,” Norn muttered behind me. “A freaking Cerberus cat.”
“Where do these things nest?” Harold asked. “So we can avoid it.”
“Caves,” Mister Jaspar said simply. He turned the page in the book. “Now, other precipitates…ah, the screaming tree. It looks like a normal tree with strange, wind-chime like growths in the branches. If you cut it down, it screams loud enough to alert half the forest.”
“You are forgetting something important,” Gregor reminded his scribe gently. “Tell them about the thing that killed Duane.”
The scribe nodded calmly, but I noticed that many of the other bandits still encircling us blanched at mention of the event. Either way, Jaspar flipped farther, to near the back of the book, and began reading.
“At first glance, the creature appears to be a small, shriveled man, five feet tall at most and clad in humble robes. It has pale white skin, wrinkled with age, and its back is bent with infirmity. It hobbles around on a short walking stick, while in its other hand it holds an unlit candle, as if lighting the way in front of it.
“While it can be mistaken for an elderly human, doing so is a grave mistake. Once within arm’s reach, the creature drops its walking stick and pulls a large, triangular knife from its robes. Three privates witnessed it kill Lieutenant Duane Hesk, that small blade moving faster than the eye can see.
“It appears, however, that its slow walking pace is not feigned. The privates were able to escape simply by running away. When they returned with a larger force, the creature—as well as the lieutenant’s body—was gone.”
The scribe clapped the book shut.
“We have been calling it a knifegaunt,” Gregor explained. “We saw another one—or the same one—earlier today.” He waved his hand. “Five men shot it in the face, it deflected their bolts like it was not even a bother. Five bolts at once just…cut down mid-flight. Your workers see one of these things, you run.”