Where the Wind Blows Wild: Part Six
Corbin didn't like the idea of going back to Marius's house. That hadn't gone well the last two times, and he had no hope that the third time would be the charm. But they needed to figure out what he was up to. All day yesterday, they'd talked back and forth, but what it always came back to was that they needed more proof, and his house would be the place to get that. Kell thought it might be extortion. Kanrik thought it was smuggling, and maybe some banditry – Corbin hoped he was right. Smugglers and bandits were the sort of people the Master Thief might be able to scare.
Though Corbin and Kell were also the sort of people the Master Thief was easily able to scare. Hannah was fine – she was too small to really be scary, and she was cheerful and interested, spending most of the previous day talking with Svar and Magjan more than she talked with them. But Kanrik... eek.
Dad had warned them about working with other people. Now and then, you couldn't avoid it. But you couldn't really trust them. Not the way that you could trust family. You had to be very careful. Even when they weren't malicious, like that moron they'd had with them in the Neovian catacombs when they went to find Khijik, they tended to get in the way and blunder things up.
Now that he thought of it, maybe Arnsian had been the reason that the Monster Hunters had that rule. Granddad had refused to even say Arnsian's name after they parted ways.
He and Kell ate their bowl of kista quietly – after they finished breakfast, they were going back down the mountain to Brilforge. Khijik leaned over them, his body language needing no translation. Corbin ruffled his hair and let him get to the kista. Poor little guy. He'd been so disoriented after he'd gotten turned into Scarlet. Svar and Magjan still weren't sure what had done it. Sometimes there was just magic on the wind, or it might have been a prank some Dark Faerie had left lying around for the nasty fun of it. As far as Corbin knew, there were no creatures that shape-shifted without magic involved, which was for the best. Tracking down monsters was hard enough.
Magjan was as industrious as ever – with only a day to work, she had taken some cloth and made hooded coats for them all. They were rough work, but that made them look just like any of the itinerant traders or pets-of-all-trades that wandered in the mountains. Magjan patted Hannah's head. "Little coat. Smaller than Khijik – young ones grow too fast. Keep warm."
Hannah smiled up at the big Stone Shepherd. "Well, I'm done growing."
Kanrik drawled, "She keeps me around to get things off tall shelves for her."
Corbin put on his own coat – despite the rough, thick-woven look of the grey-and-brown fabric, it was actually rather soft and comfortable, and he could tell it would be warm. He took Magjan's big hand. "Thank you very much, ma'am."
She nodded once. "Wind blows wild. Small ones not safe, not strong."
Kanrik put on his own coat and immediately lowered the hood until his eyes were shadowed. It did make him look scarier – he probably wasn't all that much older than Corbin, and with his unruly light hair showing he looked it. Hannah wrapped herself in hers, and then Kell picked his up. They had some more food in their packs as well, even though Corbin expected that Celestina would let them hide out at her place. Though he doubted she'd like the Master Thief tagging along behind them. At least Hannah was almost like a highly unconventional scholar – she might get along with Celestina well enough to make up for her companion.
Khijik tugged at Corbin's sleeve. Once more, his intent was unmistakable – as were Svar's chiding words in his own tongue. The big Stone Shepherd shook his head. "Wants to come. Last time away, magic and trouble. Not happening."
Corbin said, "We'll come up here to tell you what happened, whether this goes well or not. If things go really bad, we can send Celestina here to warn you to move quickly. We'll make sure you don't end up with Masila and Marius on your doorstep."
Svar nodded. "Thankful. Will watch."
They shouldered their packs and left – the sky was clearer this morning, but the wind was still strong. Corbin winced as dirt from the path was whipped up into his face. It stung. Kanrik said, "If anyone asks us what we're up to, let me do the talking."
Hannah piped up, "We don't have anything to sell, and we clearly don't have money to buy. We're looking for work! Maybe we were miners up in the heights, but the vein went dry. There are enough stories like that that no one would question another."
Kell said, "Who put you in charge?"
Kanrik drew his knife and glared at Kell – Corbin quickly moved so he was standing in between his younger brother and the Master Thief. "Knock it off. We're supposed to be on the same side here."
Hannah nodded – she seemed to be on the same page as Corbin. "Please, Kanrik. Save it for Masila." Then she added, "But you two are lousy at stories." She mimicked, "'We just wanted to see a genuine Arnsian sculpture.' Please. That's worse than, 'Oh, I just happened to stop by.' Or 'I just happened to overhear you say...' It's in the details! You need just enough details to sound convincing, but without so many that you sound rehearsed."
Kell muttered, "Yes, ma'am." Then he tilted an ear. "Do you hear that?"
Corbin listened, as well. "Sounds like wood creaking. A caravan?"
They weren't so far from the main road at this point, though they were still a ways above Brilforge. Corbin walked over to the nearest rise and looked down at the road.
There was a big caravan there – six wagons, four Uni work teams pulling each wagon, and a large number of other Neopians around, many of them tall, heavily muscled, and heavily armed, others with heavy packs. He'd seen caravans looking like that before. He said, "Mine traders. Bringing ore down out of the mountains."
Kanrik had caught up to them. "Twenty men-at-arms that I can see, in addition to all the other haulers. Mercenaries, it looks like – a rough bunch. Has to be gold or silver. Iron and tin don't need that much guarding."
Gold or silver. A big old caravan of precious metal. Corbin had an idea come to him. "Look at that. Money on wheels. Do you think Marius or Masila would be able to resist? Especially Masila."
Kanrik rubbed the scar on the right side of his muzzle. "Definitely not Masila. And I doubt she's here alone. She never is. If she has any bandits or ruffians she's managed to get on her side – she has to, because she needs to be able to give Marius a good reason not to hunt her down. Ah. I see."
Kell said, "I don't. What's the crazy plan this time?"
Corbin said, "Join up with the caravan. It's a perfect crowd for us to camouflage ourselves in, and we can just about guarantee either Marius or Masila will come prowling around when they stop in Brilforge, and they'll have to – a group that size will easily take all day to go that far." And it would be a lot less dangerous than trying to get back into Marius's manor.
Kanrik nodded slowly. "That could work. That could work well. And it'll be easier than sneaking around by ourselves – no one looks at individual workers in a group like this. Looks like they've stopped so the Unis can get a chance to get out of their harnesses – let me do the talking. Trail behind me and try to look hard-working."
Kanrik put back his hood, and subtly adjusted his posture. Kell snorted. Hannah widened her blue eyes. She said, "We're siblings, trying to keep ourselves together, but the last mine we were hired at went dry with less than a wagonload of gold to its credit. We know the business – we just need to find a boss who does, as well."
Kanrik nodded. "You want to be Miranda again?"
She nodded in return. "You can't be Kells since we've already got Kell. Why don't you be Arston, like you were on Krawk Island?"
Corbin recognized that particular duet – he and Kell always had to get their story straight before they came to a new place. But these two had taken it to an entirely new level, tossing out stories and throwing around new names as if it were nothing.
They were stopped as they reached the road by a tall striped Ruki. He asked, scowling, "You folks have any business here?"
Kanrik said, "You're an ore caravan?"
The Ruki's scowl grew deeper. "Aye. Taking gold on the long run down to Altador. And it matters to you?"
Kanrik said, "Aye. I'm Arston. These are my siblings, Corbin, Kell, and Miranda. We were at a mine up north on Aerie Peak, but the vein's gone dry. We know the ore business – you need any hands?"
The Ruki looked them over. "Three and a half of you?"
Hannah squared her shoulders. "I'm as hard a worker as you could ask."
The Ruki was clearly some sort of foreman. Corbin waited, hoping the plan would work. Finally, he nodded. "Aye. Just until we hit the lowlands, mind you. We'll have less need of hands then when the teams can haul more."
A Uni standing not too far away muttered, "Haul more my tail. You've about broken our backs, Grig."
Grig snapped, "Stop your whining. Go work for Niccolo if you think he'll pay you half what I do. You three and a half, go to Everard, over there – tall Lupe. He'll tell you what you ought to be hauling. And look lively or you can take your raggedy selves right back where you came from!"
Kell muttered as they passed Grig, "Charming." Corbin elbowed his brother. Now was not the time!
Then Kanrik said in an undertone, "Hope you're happy, Corbin."
Corbin was confused at the accusation in Kanrik's tone. "What? It's a good plan! It's the perfect trap for one of those two!"
Kanrik nodded. "I'll give you that.
"But we've put ourselves inside with the bait."
To be continued...