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Wandering Guardians

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter Three

    Graybank was not an impressive or attractive town. It was situated in a small valley, built on both banks of a small tributary to Potter's River. The area around the river had many clay deposits of good quality, though many disliked their odd gray color from which the town and region got its name. Most of the town was on the east bank, but a small business quarter made up of clay mining operations, brick makers, and potters occupied the west bank. Several stands of trees were close to the town, and beyond them were the farms.
    The region had the potential for prosperity, but years of poor rulers had prevented it from achieving any. The town was distinctly run-down. The larger and more important buildings were made of the gray brick the town produced, but they were in disrepair, with missing bricks and crumbling mortar. Buildings in less wealthy parts of town were built mostly of wood, usually old and gray. In the poorest sections the buildings were small hovels with thin, aged and occasionally rotten wood walls. Several areas, particularly in the north near the wall, contained only abandoned and crumbling structures.
    The city wall could best be described as short and thin. Like the town's other important structures it was built from the characteristic gray bricks, but these were unevenly cut, the excess protruding from the interior side of the walls. Low in the wall, arches had been built over the river and covered with grates to allow the water to pass through. The wall's height was uneven, but it never rose above eight feet. In some places it would be low enough for Egilhard to see over if he stood beside it. It was in a worse state than any of the buildings, and Egilhard doubted whether it would stand up to a siege for a day.
    Several bridges in Graybank crossed the little river, but only one, on the road connecting the east and west gates, was heavy enough for wagons to cross. The rest were smaller, intended mostly for the foot traffic of workers in the businesses on the west side, though they could probably support a horse if necessary. There was a third gate on the south wall, but none to the north.
    It was only mid-afternoon when the train of dwarven wagons pulled into town. Usually they would have kept going for another few hours, but after their encounter with the destroyed wagons it was wiser to stay the night. Sleeping in the town, fewer people would have to stay awake on watch and everyone would get more rest. They parked the wagons and pitched their tents in an open area near the east gate.
    Once they had made camp, the members of the caravan went in shifts to find taverns or inns around town where they could get a meal. A few of them always stayed near the wagons. Serious trouble was unlikely in town, but there were always thieves, and even honest folk might be tempted by an unguarded merchant wagon. Baer's rule was that shifts guarding the wagons were assigned by lot, with no special privileges even for himself. As luck had it, both he and Egilhard drew the first shift today.
    "See if you can pick up some information in town," Baer instructed as they waited their turn. "Tavern keepers hear a lot of the local news. You might find out what's going on. Visit a few different taverns if you have to."
    "I'll see what I can find out," Egilhard promised.
    "I don't know that you need to mention what road we came in on or what we found," Baer cautioned, "Or even that we've been here before. If our bandit outfit plans to stay in the region for a while they'll have put spies in nearby towns. I wouldn't want them to know we're on our guard, and local policing isn't our business."
    "I won't say anything," Egilhard reassured him.
    The members of dwarven trade caravans enjoyed special status in Terfarine. Trade terms between Terfarine and Iberhelt, the dwarven nation from which their caravan originated, were stipulated by a treaty which had a number of different provisions. The most significant for the dwarven caravans was that while in Terfarine they were subject to orders and regulation only from the King's own officers. Local lords, regardless of rank, could not interfere with them even to enforce local laws; a town watch or a noble's soldiers collecting tolls for instance. The treaty also required the king to come down hard on lords that did. Such local forces caused much of the instability in Terfarine, and the few Dwarf traders interested in traveling that far insisted on protection from their abuses.
    However, the dwarves and their guards similarly had no right to interfere in local affairs. They were obliged ignore the abuses of local lords, no matter how vile, and it could be distasteful in the extreme. The dwarven caravan masters as a group could and did refuse to do business with the worst of the Terfarine nobles, but that was all. If they did intervene, the nobles would complain about it to the king, who was unlikely to make a thorough investigation before revoking the privileges of the caravan master involved. Spreading reports of bandits in league with the Baron of Grayvale could bring them a lot of trouble.
    Egilhard wandered in the southern part of town for a bit, looking for a tavern he was certain he'd never visited before. He probably wouldn't have been recognized anyway, since they so rarely stopped in Graybank, but barkeepers tended to develop sharp memories. Their taprooms were, after all, hubs of information for those in many walks of life. Information was sometimes more profitable to them than what they actually served. He eventually settled on a medium-size establishment in an area of modest but relatively sturdy buildings that housed general laborers and stepped inside.

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