By Stephen Schamber
Once off the wall, Egilhard had no trouble catching up to the footpads. They were good enough at stealth when they were in town, but nature was his domain. They moved more quietly than most through the fields and trees, but he'd practiced this since he was a child; he might as well be a ghost.
He approached from a slightly different angle than the footpads, trying to keep a clearer view. He could see both the men and Emmie clearly at first. He noticed Emmie was crouching to hide her path through the meadow. It was helping against the footpads, but he was on much higher terrain and could see her clearly until she reached the trees. Once she was there, he only saw occasional flickers of her through the leaves.
He was too far from the men to hear their whispered conversation, but he was certain that they were frustrated by the unexpected trip into the countryside. Once they reached the trees, the footpads stopped, sending a jolt of fear through Egilhard. Had they decided not to wait for the leader and grab the girl before things got any more difficult? He risked straightening out of the undergrowth to get a clear look at them.
Emmie wasn't with them, which was a relief. It was only then that he realized he'd lost track of her. She'd been well into the grove the last time he'd noticed her position. Hopefully that meant the bandits weren't sure where she'd gone either.
He moved into the trees, silently closing in on the bandits. When they picked a place to stop and wait for the night to be well advanced and for the girl to fall asleep, he wanted to hide close enough to hear them. It was almost dark, so one of them should be going to find the leader soon.
Egilhard carefully crept through the trees and undergrowth, not making a sound. He came to within a few yards of the place the bandits had picked to wait, and sat down behind some bushes with his back to a tree. He'd been careful to pick the most brush-choked spot near them to hide, in order to decrease the risk of being detected. The wisdom of venturing this close was questionable, but he wanted to be able to make out their words, not just hear that they were talking.
And boy were they talking, he thought idly, after he'd been settled for a few minutes. They kept their voices low, but he was close enough to hear everything they were saying. It was best to remain silent on a stakeout. Jabbering away as they were doing reflected ignorance and lack of discipline.
On the bright side, their inability to shut up provided him with information he needed. He now knew that they didn't know exactly where the girl was. They were certain she was hiding somewhere nearby, because they'd seen her crouch down and stop moving. They also didn't realize she'd spotted them, because they decided not to search for her exact location yet to avoid alerting her to their presence. Soon the younger of the pair went to get their leader and things quieted down a little.
It took about half an hour for him to return with Herve. Egilhard had worried the presence of the man in charge would tighten their lips, but if anything they now talked more. Herve was as disorderly as his men. If he was a disaffected noble, his poor self-control was reason enough for whatever imagined slights he'd endured.
As the night wore on, Egilhard heard a great deal of talk from the three men. He picked up some interesting local politics from their talk of what roads they should raid and what other barons and mayors might be persuaded to ignore their activity. The two footpads even brought up the possibility of attacking the Dwarven caravan, which got Egilhard's attention. Herve flatly refused to consider the idea though, saying that even if they could mount a successful attack, in the end it would bring the King's army down on them.
Herve was right, too. His actions were sloppy, but he wasn't a complete idiot. Local officials weren't the only ones who would come to grief threatening dwarf traders. The King was a dandy, and mostly cared about making certain he was surrounded by luxury. The dwarves made many of the finest precious metal objects available however, so he wanted trade connections with them. The nobles who organized the army recognized the value of access to dwarven sources of iron and mithril, which were of much higher quality than Terfarine's. Good diplomatic ties with the dwarves were valuable in their own right as well. This combination of political interests guaranteed anyone who attacked a dwarven caravan, successful or not, would be hunted down.
This was partly what Egilhard was relying on to protect Emmie after the night's activity. Once she was with a Dwarven caravan, it didn't matter when or where she had joined it. After they got out of this barony sometime late the next morning, no one would care who she was or from where she'd come. She was with a Dwarven caravan. That was all they would need to know.
The three men kept talking long into the night. It was possible, Egilhard conceded, that their talk was an effort stay awake rather than pure incompetence. They were careful to keep their voices quite low, even when the discussion became heated. Perhaps his judgment of their abilities had been too hasty.
The conversation itself brought them no such favor in his eyes. They told boastful stories of things they'd done in the past, many of which were evil, obscene or both. What little hesitance Egilhard harbored about his plans for them was banished. Worst were the stories of Herve, whose status as a noble usually meant he could manipulate the law to fall on his side. Terfarine's legal system offered little in the way of recourse for commoners who were abused by the noble class.
"She must be asleep by now," Herve eventually declared.
"Well past midnight," one of the footpads whispered in agreement.
"Let's wait no longer then," Herve said. "Get the ropes ready. Light a torch and tie it to a tree on the side away from town. We need more light than this."
There were sounds of the men preparing, and Egilhard couldn't suppress a predatory smile as he silently drew and nocked an arrow.