Chapter 13, Part 5 – Conclusion
“Be Careful,” Marta said.
Bonetapper launched himself off the rock and flew up toward the entrance to the cave. Once he was there he did a quick swoop past the opening, then again. On the third pass the landed on the lip of the entrance and looked into the darkness. After a few moments he called down to them. “No one in sight, but it does go back some distance. There’s a rope ladder anchored here.”
“Throw it down, if you can,” Marta said.
There was some rustling and squawks of complaint which drifted down, but not the ladder.
“Give me a minute. I’m only a raven and this thing is heavy.”
“Stand clear of the edge,” Marta said. “Man.”
“Got it,” said a less harsh and croaky voice from above. “Coming down now.”
The rope ladder rolled off the edge of the cave. It didn’t quite reach the top of the rockfall, but close enough to grasp. “I’d really like to be a raven again,” said the voice. “This feels very strange and uncomfortable.”
“Done,” Marta said. In another moment Bonetapper flew out of the cave.
“I know he’s really a man,” Sela said. “And yet….”
Marta shrugged. “A raven was the form my mother chose for him, and in that form he’s been the most useful to me. He’s had the chance to rid himself of it before, and yet here he is. Sometimes I think he’s simply a better raven than he ever was a man. Sometimes I think he knows it, too.”
Kian spoke to Loken who then shed his helmet and hauberk. He belted his sword back in place before he took hold of the rope ladder and started to climb up.
“Bonetapper, watch the cave. Warn us if anyone shows themselves,” Marta said.
The raven flew back to the lip of the cave and perched there. “Still clear,” he said.
Kian sighed. “I can see the advantages of having such a one for a scout.”
“I can see the advantages of having a bodyguard who is not easily flummoxed by such things as witches and talking ravens,” Prince Dolan said. Marta thought he was trying not to smile.
“I’m from Lythos, originally,” Kian said. “Such—forgive me—unusual things were not so unusual there, at least by reputation. Though I have to admit that I don’t think I believed even half of what I heard until now.”
“Once you accept the notion of a talking raven, the walls do tend to come down,” Prince Dolan said.
Loken reached the entrance to the cave and pulled himself over the edge. He pulled his sword and disappeared into the darkness while Bonetapper kept watch at the entrance. Loken soon reappeared at the entrance and called down to them.
“Sir Kian? Highness? I think you’re going to want to see this.”
Kian followed Loken’s example and removed his armor before following up the ladder, Prince Dolan close behind.
“If they think I’m staying here….” Sela muttered before following them up the ladder, though she kept her mailshirt on. Marta sighed and climbed up next. She joined the others near the cave’s entrance.
The cave was not a cave as Marta knew them. Instead of the rounded tunnel and stalactites she knew, the cave was angular with a lot of sharp edges and fissures in the walls, but there was no sign of any tool marks. A few natural alcoves were used to store weapons, including supplies of arrows, but there were no supplies of food nor any sleeping or toilet arrangements that Marta could see.
“Whatever cataclysm created the overhang likely created the cave at the same time,” Dolan said. “Or at least the falling rock over the pass revealed this entrance.”
“Which we—or any other traveler—could not see from the ground. Convenient for the bandits,” Kian said. “But how did they discover it in the first place?”
“I think I’ve found the answer to that,” Loken said. “Follow me.”
They fell in line with the scout as he continued down the tunnel. For a little while the gloom was almost complete as the light coming from the entrance began to fade, but then the light began to grow again from the opposite direction.
So it proved, but it was rather more than that. When they stood at the opposite opening they stood on a ledge with a cut-rock stairway leading down into a canyon, almost a little valley nestled among the high peaks and ridges of the mountains. There was a small clear stream fed by a waterfall, and numerous pine and even a few beech and maple, some of which had been cut down to create crude but serviceable cabins. They approached the bandit camp with swords drawn, but the cabins were empty, save for cooking supplies, stored foodstuffs, and bedding.
“We counted four and certainly no more than five brigands,” Loken said. “What I see here suggests the same.”
Bonetapper had followed them through the cave rather than going ahead, but now he appeared overhead, flying in slow circles around the valley. Finally he turned back toward them and Marta signaled him to descend.
“Did you find them?” she asked.
“Yes. Near the north wall,” the raven said. “But there’s something else.”
“What is it?”
“Mistress, with all due respect and deference, I think it would be better if you saw this for yourself.”
Marta frowned but started off in the direction Bonetapper indicated, and the others followed her past a line of trees where a pit had been dug from the earth of the valley floor. Marta was the first to peer down into it but the bottom was covered by a layer of dirt. Beside the pit was a mound of earth with three shovels sticking out of it. She sniffed the air over the pit and confirmed Bonetapper’s assessment—the smell was faint but unmistakeable. Bonetapper landed on her shoulder.
“Their garbage pit…so to speak,” he said.
“The bodies were buried here,” she said, as Prince Dolan, Sela, and the others reached them.
“They left room for more bodies,” Sela said. “Each covered over by another layer of earth. You could dispose of maybe twenty more people here before you’d need a new pit, and no one would ever find them.”
“If we were to search the rubble in the pass I’m thinking we would have found the remains of a block and tackle,” Kian said. “All they needed to do was remove the evidence from the pass and wait for their next mark. If we hadn’t come along they could have kept going for years, but from the look of things they haven’t been in operation that long.”
“So why did I need to see this for myself?” Marta asked the raven.
“Not this. Him,” Bonetapper said. He launched himself from her shoulder and flitted toward something she hadn’t noticed before—an iron cage hanging from a maple tree branch at the edge of the woods. It was not empty.
“Together again,” Bonetapper said.
Sela shook her head. “Oh, no. That can’t be….”
There was a man sitting in the cage, a man she, Bonetapper, and Sela all recognized.
Marta sighed. “Longfeather.”
He stood up. “Lady Marta? What are you doing here?”
“I would ask the same of you, but I don’t think I need to,” Marta said. “Longfeather, did you ever meet a poor choice that you weren’t willing to make? I was just curious.”
“You should have let me kill him,” Sela said.
Marta smiled. “No rush. There are a few hours in the day yet.”
((Chapter 13 — Conclusion))
©2015 Richard Parks