Terin sat back in the hard chair, sighed and tried to rub the growing headache from his brow. Training or no training, you didn’t turn farmboys and soldiers into draftsmen overnight, and using whittled sticks of colored clay on a hillside in the rain wasn’t the best way to get something you were going to be able to read a month later.
Terin picked up one particular journal he’d set aside earlier, and leafed through it. Even with a second time through, it was simply remarkable in it’s ability to astound. He stopped at one page covered with sketches, and gazed at it intently for all of a minute. Then, he turned the book upside down. No, it was still impossible to make out. It could be a wolf… or it could be a duck. Or perhaps it was a wolf riding a duck?
With a snort of disgust, he tossed the offending book back on the pile, and thought about what he’d learned.
The first thing that came through from the journals was that the valley was still easy enough to get into, it was getting out again that was the problem.
There were many ways into the valley, at least seven seperate game trails that Terin had noted, three lumbering paths cleared well enough to take a loaded carts’ wheels during the dry season, and the main trade route connecting the valley to the rest of the main Doneghal lands that was corduroyed not just to the mouth of the valley, but continued on the entire length, all the way to the southernmost part where Clan MacQuarrie was steaded.
As remote as the valley was from the central Doneghal trade routes, someone that lived there clearly had current influence in or around court. No amount of money would be able to get that big a road project completed without the willing use of part of the Doneghal Militia, and that took pull in high places. Whoever the benefactor was, though, wasn’t part of or even near to His Grace’s inner circle, or there would have been much more information forthcoming since the discovery of the heavy orc presence there. Interesting, but anything to be discovered along that trail lay too far away to do any good tonight.
There were more than fifteen full highland clans making camp in the eastern ridgelines, and they’d brought all of their herds and families with them. That wasn’t a war party; it might be even more sign of what the Duke had spoke of, increasing bonding and building of teamwork and trust between clans. It might even be a major gathering of the clans to form some kind of official bond or choose a leader from all of the tribes.
With that many young orcs about eager to prove their bravery, there should be plenty of bodies to blockade the valley entrance. That’s not what they were doing, though, and it bothered Terin because it was out of character. The orcs had posted only a few small groups of sentries on watch, each group as strong as a company or more, in isolated areas on or near high rock formations with good lines of sight. The orcs stayed out of sight, their presence hidden from travelers entering the valley, giving the impression that all was still normal. With the lines of sight they possessed, they could move to intercept anyone trying to leave the valley with ease, and in great numbers.
One of the earliest scout teams had found that out the hard way, riding along the main trade road into the valley to get the news from the local steadholders, but getting ambushed when they tried to leave after finding Clan Treadwell’s structures burned to the ground. Some of the team had managed to survive the ambush by charging as one into the teeth of the attack, and fighting their way through the orcs and past into the wilderness. The ones that stayed off the trails and worked their way back all agreed that there had been no sign of the orcs at all before the first volley of darts came raining down.
To Terin, the fact that any of the team got past gave him more to think about. Highland orcs were well skilled at setting ambushes. They had honed those skills against the ever wary hunting parties that sought to root them out in the mountains above Madrigal, and he knew that the usual method of orc ambush alongside a trail from a closed canyon would have been to form at two sides of a bend in the trail, and then emplant a forest of sharpened stakes just in front of their positions, dug down low enough to stay strong against the weight of a charger tying to break through. The stakes would be concealed with whatever bushes or snow may be at hand. Too many Madrigal patrols had found themselves surprised by a rain of sharp steel darts piercing man and horse alike, and charged the foe in attempt to break through and past only to ride their horses to death, stuck floundering within reach of axe and maul.
If they weren’t changing the terrain around the entrance to the valley, and they weren’t making their presence known by flooding the area with sentries, than there must be some reason for it. Orcs weren’t stupid. Far from it. Especially the highlanders.
Terin didn’t have enough information yet to make a decision as to motive, but from what he’d read, a solid plan of entry would be to leave the mountains back to the first main crossroads that would lead to the southern trade routes. From there, a fast ride might take them within striking distance of the valley entrance in only two weeks, far better time than a scout movement mission could do. There were several small settlements in Doneghal proper prior to reaching the valley, there would be ample opportunity to stable the horses for the return trip. Terin wasn’t concerned with scouting all the terrain in between to aid future mountain missions; all he needed to do was get into the valley as soon as possible, before the situation had a chance to break.
From there, Terin could see many options. The best information was on incursions down the middle of the valley, and then scouting the eastern ridgelines and upper reaches. Looking over the journals, though, it looked like the orcs had very effective sentry systems set up along the eastern ridgelines, the areas of access closest to their own camps. For the scouting run Terin intended, he’d need to catch the orcs completely unaware, so that there would be no possible reason for the elf to conceal itself, or to act other than typical. A large part of this mission would be to gauge intention and analyze goals from base actions, and to accomplish it, the target had to feel safe and without cause to be on guard.
The Tor Baldwin side, with it’s seemingly sheer lower reaches being so clearly unsuitable for any kind of settling, grazing or timbering, had been left mostly alone as a source of interest for the scout teams. It would have been part of their movement orders, but likely had a lower priority that the eastern reaches. There had been some attempts to see if the valley entrance could be flanked that way, but the two scout teams that had mentioned it showed attempted routes well within what Terin considered a conservative line of attack. It looked like, either from choice or skill level, they had limited themselves to low level bouldering ascents, and hadn’t attempted any free climbing or attempts to make a top lead climb at all. From some of the base sketches they’d made from that approach, there could be at least one upper ridge route that would make for easy travel within what Terin thought he could easily handle. It made for a place to start, and appealed to Terin’s natural instinct to come from an unexpected direction… which normally meant the direction only an idiot would choose to try. With the first true smile of the evening, Terin reflected that he was just the idiot for the job.
With the beginnings of an approach in mind, Terin decided that he’d learned all he could from the scout journals. Pushing away from the table, Terin stood and moved his attention on to the next item to check on; Redwulf’s condition and readiness for the trip ahead.
Terin was more worried than he wanted to admit about Redwulf. He’d studied what he could see when he had the chance, and to his eyes while Redwulf may have held the posture of a man, his fine features were more than just a fur covered person. The joints in his legs where Terin could see them twisted underneath, and the pads and claw tips on his hands spoke of very poor mountaineering potential. Terin had a sudden image flash into his thoughts; Redwulf, trying to climb with the aid of a rope, and being unable to grasp it in his half canine, half human paws. It suddenly occured to Terin that he hadn’t specifically noticed if Redwulf had functional thumbs now, or not.
With sudden consternation, Terin stood up to find his way out of the scout center.
Just at that moment, the crude wooden door was pushed open from the outside, and a tall, blond man in excellently tailored scout uniform was framed in the light of the oil lanterns.
Terin looked the newcomer over, shifting his shoulders within his tunic in an intentional movement meant to ease any stiffness and prepare for action, if it became necessary. It was just one of the affectations Terin liked to use to fool an observer into thinking Terin had combat tells.
The newcomer wore a scouts’ uniform of light brown tunic over dark brown rough-spun trousers, tucked into knee high cross-tied heavy boots. Unlike a normal scout, this one wore rank tabs of silver crossed swords on his high collar, marking him as a Captain, and a captain of scouts in this place meant here was the scout master come to visit the intruder to his domain.
What led Terin to add false tells on first meeting was the false smile the captain turned his way.
Terin inclined his head slightly in greeting, and smiled in a neutral, noncommital way. “Good evening, captain. I was just on my way out, but I’m glad of the opportunity to thank you personally for the assistance your corporal provided for me earlier. Thanks to his efficiency, and that of your excellent management of the scout system here, I’ve learned all I could have hoped and more about the area I’m headed tomorrow. You have my thanks.”
The man straightened up a little and entered the room, but the false smile remained fixed on his face. Here was a man that had something on his mind, and what i might say matters little, for he’s got some kind of script worked out.
“I’m glad that we scouts were able to be of service to you, Baron. I wouldn’t want anything to hinder your mission on the morrow.”
Terin’s smile didn’t change, but this told him that he faced one of the officers that wanted nothing more than for Terin to die alone on a mountain somewhere. That made this encounter an easy one, because he didn’t need any difficulties preventing him from leaving on time in the morning. It was far too early to deviate from the plan just eyet.
“I certainly appreciate your assistance, captain. My apologies for the discourtesy of using your bare rank, but when I spoke with His Grace earlier and was assigned my task, he did not mention to me your name. Might I know it, that I may thank you properly?”
The captain noticeably shifted posture just a bit, straightening up unconsciously when reminded of his rank and his ties to his liege lord, Duke Arneghast. This told Terin that he faced someone that had no training or skill at concealing his intentions through body language.
“Of course, Baron. I hope you don’t think me rude for not offering you my name on arrival. As you can imagine, your fame has preceded you, and I have heard so much about you already that I feel almost as though we know each other very well. My name is Curtis, of the Morgan line. My father is Cuspis, Lord Morgan of Glendenshire. As you guessed, I am the scout master for His Grace’s forward scouts.”
Terin mentally sighed to himself, as the cocky young snot let a sneer creep ever more noticeably into his voice. The baron had a mission of importance, it’s true, and would avoid trouble if possible, but there were limits to the insult he was prepared to tolerate within his hearing.
The captain entered the room further, not crowding Terin but circling a little past to see what lay on the table. Picking up one of the discarded journals, Curtis leafed through it briefly, before dropping it on the pile.
“So, you’re planning to venture out into what they call the Valley of Bitter Tears, baron. That’s very good to hear. And very surprising, too. Somehow, when I first heard that banners proclaiming the presence of the Bleeding Bear clan were reported there, I thought that, with your legendary blood enemy finally uncovered, you would be in a rush to flee even farther north in search of a new Duchy to hide in.”
The captain leaned forward, close enough to Terin that he could smell the decaying garlic on his breath. “Of course, I hear that you’ve found a likely lad with the Imperial Scout bloodline to do your fighting for you. It’s not every man that would set out to redeem his honor with a fey blooded bodyguard to shield him from harm.”
Returning to a standing position, shifting slightly in what was clearly a balanced stance intended for defense, Curtis added, “But then, that is perfectly in keeping with all that I’d heard about you. And if things don’t turn out quite the way you’d expect, well, you’re experienced in how to pass through orc lines unnoticed, aren’t you? Just as long as you’ve got a skinning knife to hand.”
With that, the captain’s false smile gave way to the more honest sneer that looked far more natural to him.