The bandit passed out a few times, but whenever he did they were able to get him awake again and go on extracting information. They learnt his name, who was leading the small outfit, when the others would be back and some other tidbits that Veronica thought would be useful. Once they’d quizzed him enough, she bounced the flat of the blade off the nerve endings again, leaving the man to scream and pass out.
Ed ran his hand over his shaved head. He hadn’t done anything like this before. “Do they teach you that when you’re becoming a panemancer?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, standing up and looking around the cavern a final time, “you tend to just pick it up as you go along. What should we do with him?”
“Kill him. The others will know we mean business when they come back and see him like this.”
Veronica nodded and bent down again, shoving the bread knife into the man’s throat, withdrawing it and then wiping it clean as he gurgled. “Onward?”
“Onward,” agreed Ed.
They’d learnt it wasn’t far to the boss’ cavern, and that he’d most likely be asleep by now. The other men weren’t due back until dawn at the earliest and, as Ed had suspected, they really weren’t that interested in being bandits anyway, they just didn’t have anything else going for them. The tortured man had called them desperate. Without hope.
Easy to convince them to do something else then, reasoned Ed.
They’d walked for another few minutes when Ed stopped. “Why would they even spread their little cave complex so far apart?” he asked, “it seems like a really bad idea. You have to spend a significant amount of time walking anywhere, can’t react quickly to things going on in other parts of the cave and can’t hear anything that’s going on elsewhere.”
“Maybe that’s exactly why it is spread out. If I was a bandit king, I wouldn’t want to have to listen to the grunts and snores of my underlings all night.”
“I suppose, but it still seems remarkably convenient.”
“I mean for us, not them.”
“Oh. Yeah. Look, are you going to just stand there and talk or are we actually going to finish this tonight?”
“We’ll finisht it. I just thought of another thing though.”
“Brilliant. It can’t wait until we’re actually on the move again, can it?”
“I’d rather deal with it now.”
“Hurry up then.”
“What is it that you’re after down here? I’m here because of a genuine compulsion to help the people of nearby villages; as a caseusmancer, it’s my sworn duty, but panemancers don’t take any oath like that. You’re allowed to be greedy and selfish. What’s brought you down here?”
“Just because the creed says I don’t have to help people, doesn’t mean I don’t want to helahahahaha. Yeah, OK. I’m here because the bandit managed to steal a panemancy scroll from one of the churches they raided. Anything the church locks up relating to panemancy tends to stay locked up, so it could be something interesting.”
“Perhaps if you demonstrated a little more responsibility with your craft, panemancers would gain the same access to church records as caseusmancers.”
“Yeah. I can’t wait to spend three years in a backwater village consisting of nothing but cheap hovels because I have to help with the plague that’s wiped out their wheat and caused a famine. It sounds thrilling and like a great use of my skills and training.”
“We should move on.”
“Wait, a caseusmancer suggesting action instead of simply waiting to see what happens? I’m shocked.”
“It is, though I was surprised to find one of you down here.”
They continued walking, both silent for a while until Ed spoke up again. “If you’re so unconcerned with other people, why did you make sure I wasn’t simply going to slaughter them before we set off?”
“I’m not a monster. Just because I don’t want to sacrifice years of my life to stop some peasants going hungry, doesn’t mean I enjoy seeing people suffer and die. I’ve been sent out with real psychopaths before, people who rejoiced in killing. It was never a shared interest and it always caused tension. I’m not squeamish about doing what needs to be done when the situation demands it, but I’m not going to do more than I think is necessary.” She held the torch up and looked Ed in the eye.
“Well, from what I’ve seen, you’ve been doing fine.”
“It’s nice that you feel the need to approve my actions.”
“Sorry, I just thought -”
“I don’t care, OK? Let’s find the bastard and we can both get out of here.”
They dropped into silence once more, not even their footfalls echoing off the chamber walls. When they saw light reflecting off a damp patch of rock up ahead, they stopped.
“Want to creep up and take a look?” Veronica asked. Ed nodded, and they both began making their way forwards.
Around the corner, they could see the bandit leader asleep in a cot. His clothes lay tumbled in a pile on a nearby chair and his armour and weapons hung on a crudely constructed dummy at the foot of his bed. The room was lit by a candle burning on top of a chest of drawers. It was furnished with some rugs, rotting in the damp, but didn’t look too different to the rest of the caves.
“Easier than I thought,” said Veronica, “think you can pull your rock to cheese to rock trick on a bit of cave above him?”
Ed nodded. “Now?” he asked.
“No time like the present.”
Ed mumbled a few words and a slab of halloumi the size of a gravestone slowly slid out of the cave ceiling, then rapidly dropped towards the bandit leader’s head. Half way through the air it changed back into rock and impacted with a crunch. The cot fell apart, the body lying on top of the wreckage spasming.
A brief search of the room revealed the scroll Veronica had heard about. She smiled upon reading it and stuffed it in her satchel. “I was right,” she said, “it’s useful.”
Ed had helped her search but couldn’t shake the idea that he was now rather useless. His job was done; he felt like a tag-along. And now he was being ditched.
“You’ll want to wait around for the others to return?” Veronica said, already heading back out of the cavern.
“Of course. It’s why I came.”
“Good luck. I don’t suppose you’ll need it when they see the bodies though.”
“I think I should be fine.”
They kept walking and reached the opening that the group of bandits had left through. Veronica took a step down it. Ed stayed behind, pulling a chair out from under the desk and parking himself on it.
“Take care, yeah?” she said to him, standing just on the cusp of the candlelight.
“You too,” he answered.
She walked off, and he saw the spark of a torch being lit, but the tunnel quickly turned a corner, and all he could see of her after that was the light glinting off the cave wall.
Ed sat back in the chair, looked at the body he was sharing the room with, and waited.