By Brian Flood
Chapter 9 - Decisions, Decisions
Along the East Way
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Midmorning, 16th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
“Well Cob,” Tirondalin begins in response, “Our most clever Amiel here has pointed out that the Caves are not the only answer, and that the pursuit of a bandit camp would yield better results in our quest to resolve these murders.”
He smiles at his female counterpart as he says this, obviously impressed by her clear, precise thinking. It is not long before the smile disappears however. “Unfortunately, it has complicated the matter. The caves exist – at least on the map – whereas a brigand camp, well, where do we start?” he asks with a shrug of the shoulders.
A pensive silence gives a hint to the half-elf's indecision. “I would like to go to the ‘Caves. They shan’t take us too long and we can determine if there is anything of any intelligence there. I am running on a trail of thought that says we are being too simple in our conclusions – perhaps man and gnoll are cooperating, and what better place to stage operations but from a place everyone fears? If nothing, we return to the Keep and report to Jadale. Anyone disagree?” The query hangs heavy, contrasting the cool forest air.
Alain looks to the rest of the group. “I don’t have a preference either way,” he says. “Cave or camp, we are just making guess at this point aren't we? Although, if we do continue on to the caves, we should send Cob back now; he has already been extraordinarily brave to come this far, and I would hate to see him put in additional danger. As far as heading back to the Keep, I’m against that. I don’t think I could look Jadale in the eye if I came back after accomplishing so little.”
Tiron nods at Alain’s words. “I see your point about Cob. As it is we – as a group – that elected to bring him, I believe it should be we – as a group – who decide whether or not to send him back.”
“So,” the half-elf announces, “we have two groups choices ahead of us. First, we must decide whether to go follow these tracks, OR proceed on to the ‘Caves OR to search to the south of the river for a bandit base of some sort.”
“Second,” he continues, “we must decide whether or not to take Cob with us on our decided course.”
The party leader looks around the group and makes eye contact with each member. “I need to hear your feelings on this. As the leader, I will abstain from voting; that way, we will go with whatever the most of you – out of seven – elect to do. What are your feelings on this?”
Tiron proceeds to ask each member in turn.
“I don't care wich way we go,” Declan says shortly, “as long as we don’t waste the chuffin’ afternoon decidin’ wich way ter go. ‘owever, right, in ‘opes of makin’ things clearer, let me state the followin' two facts: One, we know where the caves are. Cave don’t cop up and disappear so they will likely stay there.”
“Two,” he continues, “Do we ‘ave any clues as ter wich way the bandits went – or even where they came from, then? Can one of the bloomin’ trackin’ types ‘ave a look in the woods and spot if any clue present themselves, then, eh? Oh i know it's been a wile, but check any way.”
Tiron gives Declan a quizzical look. “Good mage,” he begins, “perhaps you were…distracted again when Amiel and I announced our discoveries. We have found four sets of tracks; one has already been identified as Cob’s. Another is a set humanoid tracks arriving from the northwest. There is also a set of booted prints arriving from the north and a second set of boots – both coming and going, apparently – that enter and then depart this place from the direction of the trail. As for other clues, Alain has found that single, Cormyrean gold lion.”
“Are you feeling alright?” the half-elf finishes, a concerned look on his face.
Declan colors, and shrugs, not replying, “I wuz distracted. Sorry. I be shutting up now.”
The half-elf shrugs. “No offense intended, dear mage. Amiel, your thoughts?” he asks.
“I’ve just thought of something,” responds Amiel, scratching her head thoughtfully. “Whoever made those tracks that went back to the trail actually may have USED the trail. Does that not seem significant? The humanoids and bandits would hardly follow the trail. They’d be skulking in the woods trying to stay out of sight. It would have to be someone ‘normal’ – seeming with a legitimate reason for being out here. Say a farmer or a traveler.”
Her eyes narrow as she follows her train of thought to a conclusion. “Such a person could EASILY live and work at the Keep. And that same someone has visited this site before us and cleaned up the bodies...” she says with her voice trailing off.
“The questions then are, why and where did they take the bodies?” Amiel looks around at her companions, “Any comments on THAT theory, friends?” she asks, her voice suddenly doubtful.
“Hmmph!” exclaims the ranger to her own question, before anyone has a chance to reply. “I guess that this only deepens the mystery. Our prey should be whoever killed the merchants, rather than who disposed of their bodies. The chance that the two acts could be linked is remote given the time difference between the two acts. I say we investigate the ‘Caves. But let’s travel as far as possible via the trail. Salik and I will scout ahead again,” she offers with a shrug.
“I think, though, that we have to VERY careful of the everyone in the Keep from now on,” she says strongly. “My instincts tell me that someone there knows more than they are letting on. Think about it: what an ideal place to mastermind and conduct undercover operations. As soon as there’s trouble, everyone is going to point to the ‘Caves or the bandits or the filthy humanoids. But were any suspicious directed to the Keep itself?”
She puts her hands on her hips, “I have to agree with Malk, even though I didn’t at first; collecting dead bodies can only mean one thing. Necromancy....Hmmm....did anyone run into any necromancers lazing about at the Keep?” she asks half- jokingly. But only half.
Salik thinks about it for a while and then pensively voices his opinion. “Well, seeing as we really have no idea where to go at the moment, I guess one place is as good as the other. I vote we go to the ‘Caves. I think they’d make an ideal hideout for bandits, as everyone is afraid of them already. And as for Cob, well let’s ask him...it’s his decision, after all. Cob?”
Cob shrugs in reply. “I ain’t real excited about goin’ to them ‘Caves,” he responds. “But if that is where ya’ll are paying me to go, well, I reckon I oughta go where you tell me.”
Malk looks across at Cob and says, “I think you should come with us to the Caves, then. On your own out here, you could just as easily end up as these others were - however or whatever state they are now in.”
Velgardrin shrugs his shoulders and adds, “I be likin’ the ‘Caves more than the forest, but I agree that maybe the ‘Caves is what we're supposed to think. This removin’ o’ the dead don’t be seemin’ like a normal bandit act ter me. It sends a little chill up me spine and makes me want ter get revenge on those what done it yet I wants ta be watchin’ me back at the same time.” As he speaks, his right hand eases to the head of his axe as he checks it almost automatically.
Declan nods, “I didn't think of that, right? Velgardrin is right. Right. No bandit would waste ‘is time carryin’ off the bodies. Something bigger else is gahn on ‘ere. Wot, I’m afraid, we ain’t gonna like right much.”
Tiron digests Declan’s comments and nods grimly in return. “We shall have to see about some hidden plot here. But, we will get no closer to the truth by standing here and debating our options. Listening to you all, it would seem Alain and Declan have no druthers to either the ‘Caves or a foray south of the river. Amiel, Salik, and Velgardrin would prefer to investigate the ‘Caves first.”
“What about you, Baulin?” the half-elf asks, directing his attention to the dwarven warrior. Then, almost immediately, he looks over to Malk. “Or you, Malk? Both of you have been quite silent during this discussion. I would value your input. What is your preference for our next course of action?”
“I vote for the Caves as the most likely solving of this problem,” decides Malk.
Then, he looks around at the rest and adds, “Though I agree with Declan we might not like it much.”
He straightens his young shoulders and consciously makes himself appear more confident. A bright tune starts quietly to whistle under his breath as he settles his pack more comfortably, showing he is ready to set off wherever the group decides to go.
The decision made by group vote, the rest of the party picks up their packs, as well. After all are ready, Tiron signals for the scouts – Amiel and Salik – to lead the group.
The small band of adventurers makes its way back to the bypass trail and then turns east, heading toward the Caves of Chaos.
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