Tipper’s singing woke him from a troubled dream. She was on the roof and by the time she had come down Adwin had two bowls of leftovers ready for breakfast. Folks were gathering outside the keep and they quickly ate before joining them.
Lef and his wife were there as were another eleven men and three women. They were lightly armoured and armed with a wide variety of light weapons and tools for the most part. Lef had a long bow and large quiver of arrows, Milla carried a heavy looking maul.
Lef’s clear voice rose above the murmur of conversation. “Does anyone know if we are expecting anyone else?”
A youth, maybe a year younger than Adwin spoke up. “The Omdin twins said they’d meet us at Lark’s homestead.”
A middle aged woman said, “Most my kin are going to range out around the village, to make sure things are safe here.”
Lef nodded, “Alright then, lets be about it.” With a wave of his arm he lead the villagers down the west road.
A bit before mid morning they arrived at Lark’s homestead where Andisal, Del, Lark and another half dozen armed people were waiting for them. Most of the others looked like relations of Lark.
Lark greeted the newcomers, offered water and asked if there was anything else they might need. One of Lark’s sons, a few years off from being a man was insisting he should go with them. Andisal told the youth that he should stay and be ready to protect the homestead, that he could wait for a message and then run it to the village when the time came.
He seemed somewhat mollified and with little encouragement went to find a good lookout spot elsewhere on the property.
She then gathered everyone around, “The best we can guess; Teller’s wagon is a hard days march from here. There seems to have been at least eight bandits, maybe more. There were three other folk on the road, they passed through the village early yesterday. I’m suggesting we move in two groups. First group will be myself and anyone capable of tracking and able to travel fast for the day…” She looked around, a boy and a girl of similar look stepped forward, the Omdin twins Adwin guessed, as they had been here when he and the others had arrived. He glanced at Tipper, she gave a nod, and the two of them also stepped forward.
Tipper said, “We’ll have to leave most of our gear here, if Lark is alright with that.”
Lark spoke up, “Not a problem, I’ll show you where to put it.”
Andisal continued as they followed Lark over to his barn. “The rest of you will follow Del and Lef, try to make good time, but don’t show up tired. There may be a fight at the end of the day.”
Adwin kept his small water skin, staff, knife and his armour with a couple pieces of dried goat meat stuffed in his small pouch, along with his coins. Andisal had them moving right away, her long strides unhindered by the heavier armour she wore, after a while the twins jogged ahead. Andisal reminded them to stay in sight of each other and to check back regularly. So it went, they did not stop for more than a moment or two, they ate on the move and they kept quiet amongst themselves. Birds flitted around them, insects buzzed and a distant herd caused the ground to shake though they never moved close enough to see more than a raised cloud of dust and birds in the wake of the disturbance. Likely large deer or bison, numbering in the thousands. The day was clear and bright, both moons were in the sky by late afternoon, Masri a large white disk, just past full, high in the sky while Kallen’s smaller green smudge was near the horizon. A warm gentle breeze blew from the east.
Up ahead they could see circling birds, likely where the wagon would be. Both twins came back, confirming the wagon was in fact up ahead. The young woman asked, “Did you see our marker about six yat back?”
“Aye” Andisal said and Adwin gave a nod.
“The three horsemen that passed through Lekas yesterday morning. Camped there last night I figured. Seems unlikely they were involved.”
The others agreed. After another couple moments Andisal urged them onward, “It’s not going to be any better putting it off, the animals have likely made a mess of the bodies anyway.”
Sure enough, when they reached the wagon, there was one dead mule and, as best they could tell, three dead humans. The crows that remained still picked at the nearly stripped corpses or at the goods in the wagon. Before the crows or likely during the crows’ feasting, it looked like dogs had been through and maybe two or three pseudo-vultures. Limbs had been torn free, the eyes and innards eaten first and the remains of the corpses were covered with ants, flies and other insects. Adwin felt his bile rise and moved away to spit up, thankfully there was not much in his stomach.
“They took the two women, three mules and whatever else they could carry away.” Andisal looked very angry. She glanced at the low sun and shook her head.
Tipper spoke up, “Adwin and I can scout the road ahead, there’s likely a secondary trail somewhere nearby. If you guys can look around the area here, just to make sure they didn’t cut across country. We’ll be back before sunset.”
One of the twins said, “There’s a rock formation north of the road, less than two yat from here, be careful on the approach, it would be a good spot for some of the bandits to be. Lookouts and such.”
Andisal nodded looking at the moons.”There will be plenty enough light tonight.”
Adwin took the north side of the road, Tipper the south and they moved at a modest pace, following the tracks of the mules along the road. They crested a rise in the land as the plains gradually dropped away to the northwest. The mules’ tracks and those of half a dozen men cut off from the road heading into the grass to the north. Further west, not far from the road, was a jumble of large boulders. A trail cut northward from the stones and in the distance they could see a wispy column of smoke blowing southwest, its source lost to sight due to the lay of the land.
Tipper slowly crouched down and then lay in the grass, Adwin followed her example. In a low voice she said, “My guess is they have a couple people in those rocks, or usually do, at any rate. Their camp is likely where the smoke is. There’s not much light left, but I want you to stroll along the road over to the rocks, as though you might be looking for a place to camp. I’ll be hiding in the grass and cover you should there be trouble.”
He thought about it for a moment then said, with a nod,”Sure, I’ll wait here a bit so you can get into a better position.”
She held her hand up measuring the sun’s distance to the horizon. “Give me two fingers to move around so I can get the sun out of my eyes.”
He looked at her, “Don’t get dead. It’d make for a lonely trip.”
She smiled, “Likewise.”
He held his own hand to the sun as she moved away. When the time came he moved back down to the road then stood up and walked west, the sun in his eyes. After a moment the rocks came back into view. It took a bit of focus to walk naturally, he wanted to hold his staff at the ready, but that seemed like an obvious tell.
He walked past the pile of large rocks, it seemed like a natural formation, despite its odd placement. Nothing more exciting than a couple of birds could be seen and then he noted a pathway along the western border and found a camp in the space between two of the rocks.
Staying further back than seemed natural, he proclaimed, “Well, seems I found a nice spot to camp.” He walked around to the north end of the boulders and still no sight or sound of trouble. When he came around again to the supposed camp he investigated cautiously. This time he held his staff in a two handed grip and looked into the hollow between rocks.
It was in fact a modest camp for a person or two, but there was enough space to crawl up into the centre of the formation which was roomier and partially finished with a platform and rickety roof. Three narrow poles and a ladder were amongst the hideout’s furnishings as were a couple bedrolls, a pile of wood, dried dung and basin to catch water. Part of the top of the structure was exposed to the sky and there was a narrow access point in the north face of the boulders so that one could crawl out onto the lower inclined rocks.
Adwin carefully navigated the outside of the pile and gazed north to the area of the suspected bandit camp. The fading light and long shadows across the plains made it impossible to see what was over there. Tipper joined him on the rocks after a few moments.
“Sure looks like this is part of their operation.” She commented.
“Yeah. Did you see the poles and the ladder?”
“Well I guess we should head back and report to Andisal.”
“I’m thinking you can probably handle that. I’m going to scout the approach to our suspected bandit camp, just to make sure.”
He did not really like that idea, but she was already moving, having jumped off the rocks and jogged off. He watched her for a moment or two and, with a sigh and a shake of his head he turned and slid down the south facing of the boulders then headed back towards the wagon. Hopefully the others would all be gathered.