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Wandering Guardians

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter One

    A Dwarven trade caravan trundled through the countryside of southern Terfarine, working its way toward the delta of Potter's River in the southeast. Teams of eight Aurochs, a large variety of cattle often raised in dwarven nations, drew each wagon. The wagons were also larger than average with complete walls and low roofs, making them resemble their short and stocky drivers. Two dwarves sat on the seat of each wagon, one driving the teams and one holding an axe in his lap, scanning the road ahead to spot trouble.
    Trouble was common for trading caravans in Terfarine. A string of weak kings, unable to control the nobility, had left the nation patchily governed. The condition of each fief depended largely on the character and ability of the noble who governed it, and it could change rapidly. One fief might be perfectly happy and prosperous, while another mere miles away was thick with brigands, goblins and orcs.
    It was a nervous place to travel, so it was no surprise that nine human horsemen accompanied the wagons. Two rode ahead and slightly out to the sides of each, with another pair bringing up the rear of the caravan, turning frequently in their saddles to check the road behind them. A hundred yards ahead of the caravan the ninth man rode point, scouting the road for ambushes.
    Dwarves usually worked with skilled freelancers rather than guards furnished by a merchant's guild or a lord. As was typical for freelancers, there was a wide variety in their dress and the weapons they carried. The point rider held a longbow across his lap with an arrow nocked and ready, and wore a hooded green cloak. A sword was visible on his waist as well. The two lead riders in the caravan were dressed in plate mail and they held lances. Leather, chain-mail and scale-mail armors equipped the remainder of the guards, and they wielded a wide assortment of weapons including bows, maces, swords and spears.
    The point rider was Egilhard Forstmann, an expert archer, hunter and tracker. His skills made him the ideal choice for the job. Egilhard had been on high alert since they'd crossed the border into the Duchy of Redearth several days ago. It was not governed by good nobles, and although they never had trouble on other journeys, there could always be a first time. His eyes widened as he reached the top of a hill, and he signaled to halt the caravan. It appeared that this was that time.
    In a meadow on the north side of the road, half a dozen wrecked wagons gave their mute testimony of turbulence in the region. Usually that kind of evidence would be cleared away so it wouldn't warn other travelers, and he scanned the tree line beyond the meadow carefully for the raiders, assuming his caravan had interrupted them in the act. He did not spot anything or anyone lurking nearby. A longer look at the wagons showed they'd been partly burned, but there was no hint of flame or smoke now; the perpetrators were long gone. He scowled, trying to puzzle out why whatever or whoever attacked the wagons didn’t bother to hide the evidence. He didn't like any of the answers.
    His gaze still fixed on the wagons, Egilhard beckoned to the caravan behind him. One of the plate-clad escorts, Hailwic, cantered up the hill to join him. Hailwic's eyes widened as he saw the wagons, and he raised his visor for a better look as he pulled up at Egilhard's side. Hailwic was a tall man with the look of a grizzled veteran, although he was several years younger than Egilhard. Like Egilhard he had traveled Terfarine extensively with the caravans, and he could read the same facts from the havoc below.
    "I'm going to go take a closer look,” Egilhard declared. "Move the caravan to this hill and watch for movement. Keep an eye on every direction; there's no telling who did this or where they are now."
    "Understood," Hailwic replied tersely. He wheeled his horse and cantered back to the rest of the caravan.
    Egilhard nudged his horse forward and they walked slowly down the hill toward the wreckage. Longbow half raised, he swept his head and the tip of his arrow back and forth, scanning for threats. When they reached the wagons, he slid off the horse in order to examine them.
    They had been drawn up in a circle around a hastily dug fire pit, a typical evening camp for traders. Egilhard noted that there was very little ash in the fire pit. The tracks were a jumbled mess that would take hours to unravel, but large bloody marks here and there around the camp told him enough. On the side of the encampment furthest from the road there was a strip of grass that had been mashed into a path. At the far end of the habit-trail, more wagons had been parked. These hadn’t come from the road, but across the field from the north, and the tracks went back the same way. He could still see the marks of their passage in the grass, two lines of bent stems retreating onto the plain.
    Stalking carefully around the perimeter of the site, Egilhard located another matted down trail. This one was streaked with blood. At its end, a large pile of ash, wood stubs, and charred bones showed where the bandits had dragged and burned the corpses of the murdered wagoners. Small pieces of metal and other unburned fragments were strewn around its base. The pyre was ghastly evidence of the violence that had occurred here.
    Egilhard looked around once more to satisfy himself that no bandits remained in the area, then returned to his horse. The rest of the caravan had gathered on the hill, escorts stationed in a loose circle around the three wagons, keeping vigilant watch in his absence. He urged his horse into a gallop to ascend the hill and report his findings to his comrades.

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