Once we got back to the Hellpit and had passed through the annoying security measures on the big cave, we were quickly escorted to the mayor, who was sitting in the same office as before, filling out paperwork.
Miss Orange looked up as we came in. “Well, none of you are dead. That is good news.”
“We made a deal with them,” I grunted, not in the mood for idle banter.
To my surprise, the acting mayor nodded. We had not told anything to anyone as we came in. “I expected as much. Either way would have been fine, but it is nice to finish things without bloodshed. What are the terms?”
“They are living in trees. Send your workers to harvest some lumber, machine it, and give them half. They will leave you alone.” I shrugged. “Once that is done, you can negotiate for a bit more, like a real alliance.”
“Excellent. Anything else?”
“They gave us a bit of info on the monsters in the area,” Harold added. “Nothing new, though they did confirm that we would be facing dire squirrels, worms, and apple dragons. Found a new type of precipitate; avoid caves.”
“do not forget the knifegaunt,” Roark muttered.
“And avoid the thing that looks like a weak old man,” the archer finished.
The plump woman nodded again. “I would like some more detail, but I can get it from Frank later. For now, Harold, please report to Mister Meckle and tell him everything you know about the dangers of the Hellwood.” Harold nodded and left swiftly. “As for the rest of you…” She turned her gaze on me. “Anything you wished to ask?”
“A couple,” I admitted. “Not too important, though. Top of the list: Jack mentioned you managed to tame beasts of burden of some kind, but she did not know any details. Care to elaborate on that point?”
Miss Orange smiled broadly. “Ahh…yes. I forgot about Jacqueline’s relationship with Emily. Yes, I do have access to some beasts of burden, to haul our carts.” She stood up, her chair scraping on the stone floor. “I would love to take you to them now.”
“Uh, all right.” We had not even had a chance to sit down. “Lead the way.”
She did, with her two guards shadowing her like puppies, as usual. We walked out the door, down the hallway, past dormitories and storehouses and the barracks, to a distant corner of the caves that was not as well-cleaned as the rest. There were not even carpets on the floor, so our every step echoed against the rock walls.
Just as I was starting to get a bad feeling about the situation, like she was taking us somewhere hidden and out of the way to kill us, the acting mayor declared “We are here!” in a surprisingly cheery voice.
‘Here’ turned out to be a rather wide cave, twenty or thirty yards wide and deep. Most of the floor space was partitioned off by a waist-high steel fence. With the large number of stalagmites or stalactites (whichever was the one that comes out of the floor), it almost looked like they were farming rocks.
That, of course, was incorrect.
The field was filled with…wisps, small green wisps of light, spiraling around wooden posts staked into the ground here and there. Each post only had a single light, except possibly for one in the back corner that I could not see very well. Even so, there had to be hundreds of them, spaced evenly around the field, and it created a rather beautiful emerald glow.
I did not know what I was looking at, but Jack did.
“You are breeding leaf-dancers?” the swordswoman asked. “Really?”
I glanced at the livestock handler. “Please tell me that is not related to bone-dancers.”
“Same general species,” Miss Orange admitted. “But while bone-dancers animate bones, leaf-dancers animate wood and plant matter. We have found that if they bind to a cart, they can make it move on their own.”
“They are dangerous,” Jack warned. “Only way to stop them is fire.”
“We are well aware of the risks. However, they have proven amenable to domestication very quickly. This is only the second generation, and they have become used to staying on the stakes. We barely even need the fence any more.”
“Now, I do not know much about animal husbandry,” I admitted. “But I know a few things about training dogs. You need to feed them, to give them treats in order to point them in the direction you want. Do these things even eat?”
“Yes, actually. They eat stone.”
I blinked. “…they eat what?”
She pointed at one of the nearby posts. I peered closed, and realized that the stone dipped slightly around the post, as if it had been scooped out by a spoon. A quick glance confirmed that the rest of the posts looked about the same.
“That is why bone-dancers stick to rocky areas,” Jack explained, reminding me of what they had mentioned when I first heard of the things, back when we were first setting out from Old Grandsbriar.
“So…that is it?” I asked. “You use these to haul your carts over to the Hellwood, cut down some trees under guard, haul it back to be cut, haul half back to the bandits for the deal, and…” I shrugged. “Everything is fine all around?”
“Close,” Miss Orange admitted. “But not quite. There is still the rather large problem to the north, you may recall.”
I nodded. “The sinheart war camp. Of course.”
“Now, we might be able to handle them on our own. But it would take you two weeks to return to London, and even if your king sends reinforcements, it would be another week for them to get here on horseback—and I highly recommend not using horses.”
“Yes,” I said with an apologetic smile at Jack. “We are aware of that problem.”
The acting mayor nodded as well. “So we would be looking at a wait of a month or two, at least, likely far more. I do not know how long it will take the monsters to finish their fortress, but they are working disturbingly fast.”
“We did put a dent in their numbers, though,” Norn pointed out. “That will slow them down more than a little, right?”
“The new moon is tomorrow night,” she warned. “That is when sinhearts spawn, over at the old abbey. They will have new workers to replace the ones you killed within a few days, and we will not be able to cut them down fast enough.”
“Then what do you suggest?” I asked. “Clearly you have some idea in mind.”
“We need to annihilate the war camp tonight,” she answered swiftly. “Before they get their reinforcements. Kill every sinheart there, rip the frame of the fortress out of the ground. Not only will it set their plans back significantly, it will also boost our own production, once we have scavenged their tools and materials.”
“Bold,” I murmured, the wheels of my strategic mind already beginning to turn. “But it could work.” I looked up. “Not just the six of us, though. We are going to need more men for something of this scale.”
The plump woman nodded. “You will have half of Theo’s guards and half of Nathan’s hunters,” she promised. “Once that is done, Charles will send his apprentices to supervise Leo’s boys as they remove the camp.”
“And Charles and Leo are…”
“Charles Yaberstein, the blacksmith, and Chief Explorer Leonidas Varn.”
“All right.” I nodded. “I think I can work with that. Where are Hunter Mallern and Captain Gaven? we will need to get to discussing strategy and tactics right away in order to make this whole thing work.”
Miss Orange looked mildly annoyed, but not at me.”