By Stephen Schamber
The chubby man didn't notice when the stranger at the bar left. He was too busy reading through the cargo manifest of the merchant wagons he and his men had attacked several days previously. He'd read it numerous times already of course, but just as he never got tired of counting money, he never got tired of reading lists of things he now owned.
Herve was the youngest son of a noble in the northeastern part of Terfarine. Since he was the youngest, he never had much chance of inheriting his father's station, but he was the son of a baron. Some other baron in his home duchy ought to have seen fit to give him at least a knight's fief, but they hadn't. In fact, he'd been passed over many times, the honors going instead to far less qualified men. He was still bitter about that.
Finally, he'd had enough. If the other nobles weren't going to give him his due, he'd make his way himself. He traveled south and west into other duchies, recruiting men as he went. Many of them were men-at-arms who had been deemed unsuitable by lords of some rank or another and released from their service. These men had shared his sentiments, and were happy to participate in his plan: since they'd been denied appropriate stations, they would simply take what should rightfully have been given to them.
It hadn't taken long for Herve to realize that his men were little better than thugs. They had a wide assortment of bad habits, from laziness to drunkenness and everything in between. It was probable that they'd deserved their loss of station, unlike himself. True, he'd preferred to spend time in his counting room or at the feast table rather than on a horse, but he'd never been unwilling to do his duty either. He'd spent more time than he cared to recall running down debtors, delinquent tenants, and raiders at his father's order, and had nothing to show for it.
He took a drink to clear thoughts of the past from his head. Things were looking better for him these days. Ambushing wagon trains was not a difficult business, and it was highly profitable. The local baron and the mayor of Graybank were looking the other way; he'd paid them off, of course. He was finally getting the wealth he deserved, without the inconvenience of ruling a piece of land. As long as they were careful not to attack too many caravans on one road, or from the same merchant guild, they could evade the duke's notice indefinitely.
It did annoy him that he had to split the takings with his men. Bands of brigands tended to be far more egalitarian than the halls of nobles. Everyone there was equally in danger of losing his head, and it had taken him time to adjust to his men thinking they were on the same level as him. It had been particularly difficult to convince the sluggards to unload stolen goods from wagons in a timely manner, and they had the gall to expect his participation in such grunt work!
Like the good leader he was, he'd managed to resolve that difficulty to everyone's satisfaction. Most towns had plenty of orphan kids running around, and Graybank was no exception. Herve and his men had simply snatched a few of them off the streets. No one kept track of street urchins, or cared about them. If the three boys' absence was ever noticed, they wouldn't really be missed. The three prisoners did all the unpleasant tasks required for the camp, and were kept locked up when they weren't needed. Morale had improved significantly, and he spent far less time arguing with his men.
Taking the children hadn't been very difficult. Most were malnourished and weak and they stayed awake, roaming the streets looking for scraps long after most had gone to bed. They were careful when returning to their hiding places, but some of his men were more footpad than soldier, and tailed them unobserved. Once the target child returned to their hidey-hole, the bandits waited until everyone was asleep, grabbed them and gagged them. Then they dragged the child back to their camp, careful to keep noise to a minimum.
They had been planning another such snatch tonight, and the girl that had been in here looked like as good a target as any. He wanted a girl, because a girl might be better at the housekeeping tasks the camp needed than the boys. His men resisted the cleaning work needed around the camp as much as the grunt work, and neither they or the three boys knew how to do most of it properly. If she wasn't any better at it than the boys, Herve had been thinking of trying to make contact with slave traders anyway. After he'd realized how easily street urchins could be taken, it had occurred to him that kidnapping could be another source of money.
He looked out the small window to see how late it was. The sun was getting low, and they'd need time to find the girl and tail her. He stood up, gathered his papers and went to pay for his ale. He thought he caught an odd, suspicious look on the barmaid's face as he paid, but dismissed it after a second glance. She was stern-faced, but that wasn't uncommon in a town like Graybank. He was reluctant to part with the few coins he handed her, but he didn't want any trouble in a tavern that already had city watchmen as regulars. He couldn't remain anonymous here forever, so he needed to be innocuous, and it wasn't as though he lacked money anymore.
As he walked out of the tavern, the two men with him approached from the porch of another tavern a few buildings further down. He made most of his men stay away from Graybank to avoid raising questions, but these two he allowed in town occasionally, because they'd been thieves before he recruited them. They were well-practiced at escaping notice, picking locks and finding the occasional hidden compartment full of valuables in a wagon. He motioned them to go to the shadowed side of the building, looking around quickly to see if they were being observed. Seeing no one, he followed them into a narrow alley between the tavern and the crowded row of ramshackle houses behind it.
"Were you watching the tavern?" Herve asked them.
They both nodded. "As you instructed, Herve," the older of the two said.
"Good. Did you see the girl who came out a little while ago?"
They nodded again.
"Good. She's our target for tonight," he told them, a crooked smile crossing his face. "Hopefully she'll do a better job of the cleaning work at camp than the boys have been. You know the drill by now. Follow her..."
"...to wherever she sleeps, then one stakes it out and the other comes to find you," the older recited. "Then we wait until late, when everyone's asleep, and grab her. We do know the drill boss," he finished, grinning again.
"I would hope so by now," Herve grunted. "Get to it then."
The two footpads slunk away, and Herve went off to wait with their horses and the ropes. None of them noticed the ranger emerge from a small gap between two of the houses, where he'd heard every word. Egilhard slipped, grim and unnoticed, toward the wagons.