By Stephen Schamber
Baer Silverhill, the dwarven merchant who led the caravan, waved Egilhard over as he approached. The young dwarf had thick, dark brown hair which, as was traditional for his clan, he grew to his shoulders and kept in a single braid. His beard was the same color, and was also kept in a single braid, in keeping with tradition. His Gray eyes were set close together and a scar from a wagon accident several years ago ran from his left brow into his hairline. He was sitting on the seat of the lead wagon, his customary position, putting him high enough off the ground to look Egilhard in the eye.
"What did you find out about that?" Baer asked gravely, nodding toward the wreckage.
"It's not good," Egilhard warned, equally serious. "A trading caravan was ambushed in their overnight camp, probably not long after they'd stopped. The bandits brought in their own wagons over the plain to the north to take the cargo away. The wagoners' bodies were dragged off to the side of the camp and burned, along with anything they didn't want to haul away. The wagons are only partly burned; whatever the reason behind setting fire to them, it wasn't important enough to stay and make sure they burned completely."
Baer grunted and scratched his chin, thinking. There was a deep pause before he spoke. "I know Redearth has never been a well-governed duchy, but this seems like something more than the usual Terfarine turmoil," he said at last. "This is flagrant. Bandits usually bury bodies somewhere secluded, and haul away wagons to conceal evidence."
"That had occurred to me," Egilhard agreed. "Whoever they are, they're not worried about being discovered. Goblins or Orcs crossing Potter's River from the Fallen Nation, perhaps?"
"Raiders from the south is one possibility,” Baer nodded. "However, you said that the bandit's wagons came from the North. This duchy doesn't have particularly ethical lords. Perhaps these bandits don't fear pursuit because they've paid off the baron, and he is ignoring their actions."
There were exclamations of shock and a snort of disgust from the other members of the caravan near enough to hear their conversation. Egilhard was of the same mind. His expression of surprise altered quickly to one of disgust for the kind of corrupt official that would accept such a bribe. He couldn't deny it was a possibility though. Now that he thought about it, given the direction of the tracks, it was more likely than raiders from the south. In particular, a raiding party from beyond Potter's River would be more likely to steal the wagons, complete with teams and cargo, than to leave them behind.
"That would be a better explanation," he admitted now that he'd thought it over. "That makes our situation even more dangerous."
"We'll stop at Graybank for the night," Baer declared.
Egilhard nodded his agreement, as did several others. Graybank was the largest town in Grayvale Barony, the part of Redearth Duchy through which they were currently traveling. It was a good opportunity for a break.
"It's earlier than we would usually stop, but there's no danger of being attacked in town," Baer continued, half to himself. "We can get a better night's sleep, something different to eat, and by the end of tomorrow we'll be out of Redearth altogether. That way they won't have a chance to ambush us." He thought about that plan for a moment, then looked at Egilhard. "How likely do you think it is that they'd try to face us in an open battle?" he asked.
Egilhard considered the question for a long moment. "Highly unlikely," he decided at last. "Bandits are notorious for cowardice. They're in the business for easy living and quick gains, not to risk their lives. They prefer opportunities like this," he stated, gesturing to the scene below. "Dismounted, unprepared targets that they can take completely by surprise, and even then to outnumber by at least two to one. They wait for all the advantages to be with them.
"We're a heavily armed group, and in an open road attack the only thing they'd have going for them would be numbers. Even if they outnumbered us four to one, we'd kill quite a few of them. It's also likely one of them knows commerce, in which case they'll know attacking a Dwarven caravan could bring them the king's ire. Combine all of those, and to them attacking us will look like suicide."
"Good," Baer nodded in satisfaction. "That's exactly what we want it to look like. On to Graybank then, unless anyone has any objections."
Nobody did; no one would argue with a plan that offered a better meal. The food they carried with them wasn't bad, but everyone tired of eating the same rations day after day. With their course of action decided, the caravan resumed its interrupted journey.