Now it was Justin's turn to think. "I don't like the thought of using them. Can't you track the wizard?"
"Not if he's well shielded. I'm exactly what a rogue wizard would expect the authorities to send. Young mages, just blooming, that is something he won't think to block. Probably." he sighed and looked around his comfortable apartments. "Send for me as soon as you've dealt with your bandits. I believe I may be called to do some mediating in the country, rather close to your boys." he sighed again. "Apprentices. I'm too old for apprentices. So don't you dare get them killed."
Elizabeth said the same thing. "Bad enough you run off with those two women," she snickered and kissed the top of his head as she walked by. "Now you're using these two boys for bait. You just watch out you don't do something you'll really regret having to remember forever."
Justin caught her around the waist on her next pass and pulled her onto his lap. "I think they're more like hound puppies that instinctively track down a bear, not, not really bait. I just need to put a leash on them so they don't get killed doing it."
"Well, make sure you've got some really good mastiffs along with you, I worry about bears, you know."
"Yes, ma'am, I'll be good." he grinned, "I'll call up the wild hunt and try to get Reggie killed again." Vicount Reginald had made the mistake of thinking Elizabeth was . . . available; a commoner hanging around the young bloods, what else? Justin had only beaten him bloody, to his considerable regret. Reggie had wisely declined to challenge him to a duel. "You should have seen the pack of bloods that came when I called."
"Ha! Unhand me you brute, I'm burning your dinner. I don't _want_ to see any of them, since they're so bad that both you and my father call them that."
"I think he used to include me with their number."
"I know he did." she grinned at him, the most beautiful woman in the world.
He reluctantly released her, and wondered again if he had made a mistake selling Benifent House. His father had bared the door and refused his common bride entry. His threat to disinherit Justin had turned out to be only a threat. Justin had gone to the Reading of the Will with considerable expectation of a humiliating experience in front of all his cousins. But his Father had never gotten around to actually signing a new will. His oldest cousin had sued on the strength of eighteen new wills written out per Lord Jason's instructions, but never signed. The judge had tossed the case quickly. So Justin had sold the cousin the house. He and Elizabeth had been deliriously happy here, living on his own income, and neither had wanted the fuss of a large mansion. He'd bought this house with money inherited from his maternal Grandfather, and so he'd invested the proceeds from Benifent House. Along with most of the income from leased property from his Father. And then there was the mansion in Ridgetop, half the size of Benifent House, but lacking the bad memories. And the 'little' house down on the South Coast. All in all he was richer than three quarters of the bloods that looked down on him. Poor sots. This house was in a nice neighborhood, had a small stable and large garden, plenty of room for children if the gods sent them any, and a very nice suite for the General, on those few occasions he left the army camp. Thank the Gatherer for bountiful blessings.
Elizabeth had both a maid and a cook, and a gardener and a stable boy, but she'd sent them all off tonight, and it was just the two of them. He hugged her again as she set dishes before him. "I am the most fortunate of men. Smart, too."
"Smart enough to end up with his dinner in his lap?"
"Smart enough to not buy a house in Jefford _before_ the bandits are caught."
"So I won't show up on your doorstep? Very wise, my dear husband, but you underestimate my wisdom. Look for a nice farm, with a big enough barn that you can put up your troops as they come through, or the Peacemaker forefend, the wild hunt. You can build Honeerius a house across the fields, where his apprentices won't be wanting to run away all the time."
"Ah. I love a woman who plans ahead. I will look over the prospects, with Honeerius in mind." He sighed regretfully. "I'm going to have to leave in the morning."
"Do you have a name?" Lord Justin asked the larger boy.
The boy eyed him suspiciously. "Daren Smithson, from South Shore."
Ah, a nice little village on Peacemaker Lake. "And Marius? I don't believe I caught your family name?"
The pretty boy, now changed into a charmingly grubby urchin, stared back blackly, then finally, grudgingly. "L'angelica."
Ah, prostitute's child. No wonder he'd picked up the clues so quickly and assumed the worst of Justin's approach. "You said you were from Hastingsburg . . . Ah, Kestlia Estate?" The boy's grey eyes went cold and hard. Knowing about Madam Kestlia's very, very discreet bordello for the Noble, the rich, the bored and, umm, those with odd tastes, wasn't going to earn him any points, even though he'd never set foot inside it. It was mildly famous, or rather infamous among the young bloods. That cold look brought out a resemblance to some of the worst of the bloods. His father would be an Easterner, with that coloring. The Marchites, father or son, or dear old Reggie, no, actually, Reggie and the rest of the young bloods were too young to be the boy's father. Thank the Gatherer. Hmph, he'd just think of the boy's father as some young idiot from the East on his Grand Tour, someone he'd never met.
"Spotted any bandits from up here?" he trotted out his excuse for climbing the hill.
"We haven't seen anyone on the path or in this little valley." Marius told him, then looked over his shoulder. "There've been people coming and going further west, but they all looked like farmers.
Well that was quick. "Nice, umm floor. Are you actually think of living out here?"
He had to admit that in a week the boys had made surprising progress. _I certainly never chopped down a tree_. Not to mention the six squirrel skins on crude stretchers, and the wall of the low building repaired with stones and mud. "You're going to need slate for the roof."
"Figured thatch would do." Daren told him.
"It gets too windy for thatch." Justin said. "Maybe shingles." He pointed out at the burn, "Check those half burned trunks. If you can find one of that's cedar and pretty straight grained, you can split shingles off it. I'll bring a splitting wedge along on my next trip, but I'll want it back."
They both continued to watch him carefully, untrusting. He sighed and remounted Red. "I'll bring some cement along, too. Haul some sand up from the stream and you can use it instead of mud."
He headed down the winding path through the trees. The boys had cut back the worst of the overgrowth, so they must come and go regularly. Well, of course they did. There wasn't any water up on the ridge. The Sergeant and a pair of troopers had stayed down on the main trail, taking a midday break. Poor Red. He dismounted again, and this time loosened the girth.
"They haven't seen any one in the valley. Let's backtrack the two we chased down here, see if we can figure out where the rest split off." At least half the bandits had escaped, possibly just by getting off the path and out of the way of the wild hunt and standing there under a glamour. The two they'd caught here had perhaps not trusted the glamour to save them, or perhaps they'd gotten too close to the little wizards. Justin had certainly been surprised. He had been so sure they were so far ahead of him, on such fast horses that he'd nearly given up the chase. Only to nearly run over them, so near the boys. Gods, Honeerius is right. Which meant the bandits' wizard might be quite strong and well trained. Not good.
He walked Red down to the stream in the bottom of the valley for a drink. Old Harry's Nag was staked out, hock deep in grass. She didn't look quite so bony any more. "Hay. If they even think about staying here during the winter, I'll have to get some hay up here." he muttered. If the boys had been up and down the path, maybe the glamour had been dispelled, and he could find out which of these twisty little valleys led to the bandit encampment.
"Seems like a decent sort." Daren watched the horse out of sight. "Maybe he thinks we're criminals, look outs for the bandits or something."
"I don't think so. He picked us up at the Crossroads, and brought us up here himself. I wonder why?"
"Thought you'd figured that out."
"Yes, but he really doesn't seem lustful. He wants something. I just don't know what."
Marius turned back to the heap of stones and then looked up. They'd left a couple feet of the floor open. "I'm going to wait and see if he brings any cement, before I do the chimney." and turned back to help with the new ladder they were making.
"Good idea. Want to explore further up the valley?"
"Yeah. Let's go." Marius grabbed his quarterstaff, and stuck the bandit's long dagger through his belt. Daren strapped on the sword belt. Neither had considered the weight of the weapons as sufficient reason to leave them behind. The winding path behind the tower was a longer but easier way to get to and from the tower, so they skidded and thumped directly down the old burn. They left Flowers where she was and headed up the path. The next valley over was heavily forested and basically uninteresting, as they'd already discovered. The series of small valleys were lined up roughly north to south, a combined effect of erosion and north south faults along the face of the Divider Mountain Range.
Following the small river up the cascades of the further ridge, yet another north-south oriented oval valley greeted them, bright green grass and scattered stunted trees. Their little river formed here, with small streams pouring off the high eastern cliffs.
"I read a story once," Marius said, "that had secret caves hidden behind waterfalls."
"Yes. And monsters, of course. What good is a treasure without monsters?"
"Too easy." Daren nodded approvingly. "Without monsters it would have been found ages ago." He scanned the cliff edge. "Let's try the big one in the middle."