By Stephen Schamber
Egilhard untied the rope behind the girl's head and took the gag out of her mouth, tossing it toward the two dead bandits.
"Do you recognize me?" he asked, helping her into a sitting position.
She nodded, working her jaw and spitting several threads of the cloth that had been blocking her mouth into the carpet of old leaves and moss. She still looked apprehensive, though he couldn't blame her.
"You were at Lorin's tavern tonight," she said. "Were you following me too?" she asked accusingly.
"No," he assured her, beginning to work on the ropes binding her feet. "I followed them." He jerked his head toward the bodies. "The leader, the one they called Herve, was at the tavern too. I heard them planning to kidnap you outside when I left." That knot undone, he threw those ropes towards the bandits as well and started on the one tying her wrists. "We have more important things to talk about now. How much do you know about laws?"
"Nobles can do what they want, and peasants have to do what they say?" she offered. "That was what my parents used to say." She seemed more curious than afraid now, though she was still on edge.
"That's a fairly good summary, sadly, at least in this country." He pulled away the ropes that had tied her hands. "Well, one of the laws says commoners aren't allowed to hurt or kill nobles, even to protect themselves. Herve was a noble." He held up a bulky signet ring attached to a silver chain. "I'm not sure what family uses a star and a hippogriff as their insignia, but a diamond background signifies a noble house in Terfarine." He handed it to her, and she squinted at it in the torchlight. "They are almost certain to put the responsibility for his death on you," he told her.
She was silent for a long moment. "They won't take my word for what happened, and you'll be gone by then, right? That's why?" This eventual response surprised Egilhard. It showed a remarkably firm grasp of the situation for one so young.
"Exactly," he answered with approval. "Noble families that produce men like him," he jerked a thumb at Herve's body, "aren't usually big on getting proof when they're looking to avenge a kinsman. For instance, they won't check to see if you know how to use a bow, assuming they can even tell he was killed with an arrow. They won't care about the crimes he and his thugs were engaged in, or that they were trying to kidnap you. All they'll see is a dead noble and a commoner holding the weapon. It was a clever trick to lead them out here and past the torches, but how often have you used it to escape pursuit?"
"Loads of times," she whispered, face going pale. "Usually it's other street urchins trying to find where I hide my things and steal them. They can't keep track of me out here, but tons of them could tell someone that I come out to disappear here. Most of them would if they could get a meal out of it, too. There aren't many other street urchins who dare stay outside the city walls after dark, and they think this grove is haunted. I know it isn't because I used to come out here with my Mom..." she trailed off.
"That will be enough. You need to leave town," Egilhard warned, "and the sooner the better. In a different town there will be no one who will recognize you, and that will make it difficult to track you down. In another duchy, it will be almost impossible."
"Okay," she sighed.
"Interesting," Egilhard commented, raising an eyebrow at her.
"What?" she asked, looking at him quizzically.
"I'd expected it to be harder to convince you it was necessary, that's all," he explained. "Most people who've lived their whole lives in one town are afraid to leave it behind, particularly at a moment's notice, even when the reality is that they must."
She shrugged, her face downcast. "Well, both my parents died six months ago and I had no other family to help me. If I hadn't faced that reality, I wouldn't be alive right now. I guess it's not that hard to realize I have to face this one too. It's not like there's anything keeping me here."
"That takes a lot of courage," he commended her, genuinely impressed. He stood up, picking up the longbow he'd set on the ground when he went to work on her ropes earlier, and slinging it over his shoulder. "My name is Egilhard. I came in yesterday afternoon with the Dwarven caravan. I'm leaving with it at first light. I suggest you join us."
"You want me to come with the caravan?" She asked, eyes widening with surprise.
"Yes. You don't have much in the way of money or food, which are things we can provide easily. That will let you travel much further and much faster than you could if you had to stop and scrounge in every town for resources to make the trip to the next one. You'll be less noticeable with a merchant caravan, and most importantly, the Dwarven caravans are protected from local authorities. Only an agent of the king himself can interfere with one in any way, which they won't do to satisfy a noble family's thirst for revenge. Most people won't give you a second thought; if you're with us, that's as much as anyone needs or cares to know. If someone does happen to find you, they'll have to leave you alone."
She frowned as she considered the offer. "What will I have to do for you in exchange?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Nothing. I helped you because it was the right thing to do, not because I expected you to pay me back for it. You can travel with us for as long as you like, and part ways with us whenever you please. Taking you with us is just part of helping you, really, because you'd still be in danger here. It's a saying in my country that if you help someone but don't see it through, you haven't helped them at all. We'd take it as a kindness if you kept your silence though," he added. "The protection Dwarven caravans get cuts both ways. We're specifically barred from doing things like this. Legally, I shouldn't have interfered with Herve and his friends at all unless they attacked me too."
"Alright," she decided, still digesting what he'd said. "I'll come with you."
He extended a hand and helped her to her feet. "Let's gather your things."