By Stephen Schamber
"We've stumbled onto something much bigger than we thought," Baer mused, tugging gently at his braided beard.
Egilhard had just finished relating to him what he'd learned during his trip to the tavern. They were sitting together by one of the wagons, out of earshot of the other guards who were clustered around their campfire.
"Also, how do you have the luck to just walk into one tavern and learn all the information we need, Egilhard?"
Egilhard shrugged. "I don't know. I don't even know why the chubby fellow struck me as so suspicious that I needed to follow him, but he did. What he said to his men and what those guards said in passing fairly well confirms everything we guessed on the road today."
Baer frowned at that. "I agree, but let's work through the logic there," he cautioned.
"Alright," Egilhard conceded, knowing that it would be wise before attempting what he had in mind. "First, the bandits and the kidnappers have to be the same or related."
"Yes, based on what your chubby man and his friends said," Baer agreed.
"The chubby one was called Herve," Egilhard supplied. "I never heard the names of the other two."
"Herve then. He's been kidnapping orphans to do the drudgery in his camp." Anger seeped into Baer's voice; in Iberhelt, mistreatment of children was viewed as the worst possible type of criminal activity. "That means he has a large number of men, not just the two you saw. They're taking the children for their own use, not to sell into slavery, and they've already got at least two. They wouldn't need more slaves without a lot more men, and their income is coming from something else."
"Right," Egilhard agreed, "and if they were doing something legitimate, more of them would be coming to the town, if only to visit taverns. They could tell the truth about whatever they were doing."
Baer nodded. "Furthermore, what you heard tonight indicates strongly that the local authorities are in collusion with the bandits," he continued. "Their ringleader, or one of them, was sitting in the same tavern with three city guardsmen who adamantly deny that he even exists. From what you heard of their discussion, many of the townspeople think that there are bandits about, but the baron and mayor steadfastly refuse to investigate. It would be far more reasonable to send out some patrols to scout for a camp, even if it was only halfheartedly. Then, if they found nothing, most of the town would dismiss the rumors.
"If they know the bandits are out there, that's not an option. Soldiers that they send to scout may well find the camp or other evidence, and then the mayor and baron have to decide whether to run off the bandits or pay their men to keep their mouths shut, too."
"Both choices are bad for them," Egilhard noted. "Run the bandits off and they lose the income. Pay their men for their silence and it eats away at the profit and provides that much more opportunity for someone to slip up or have an attack of conscience and spoil the whole thing. That leaves what they're doing; ignore the situation, deflect all questions, and discredit all reports about it for as long as they can."
They'd both become angrier the longer they discussed the topic, and were now to the point of fuming. Neither said anything for several minutes, letting themselves cool down.
Finally Baer broke the silence. "The Baron and the mayor can't keep that going forever, you know," he pointed out. "Sooner or later there will be something they can't ignore, and if they drag it out long enough that the duke or an agent of the king takes interest, they'll be caught colluding with the bandits."
"I think their biggest worry will be the angry townspeople and farmers eventually trying to stick pitchforks in them," Egilhard contradicted. "Duke Lameris won't take interest; he's at least as corrupt as they are. They probably paid him for their offices. The king's agents might look into it eventually, since unchecked banditry interferes with commerce. More likely, the baron and the mayor intend to take the bribes for as long as they can, then double-cross Herve and his men to cover up what they did."
Baer gave a satisfied grunt. "He's got good odds of winding up a corpse eventually then."
"Eventually," Egilhard agreed. There was another extended pause. "I'm not sure I'm willing to wait that long."
"What?" Baer frowned.
"We can't let them do this Baer," Egilhard declared, quiet but angry. Baer didn't respond immediately.
"The Trade Treaty specifically forbids us from taking aggressive action against anyone unless we're attacked," Baer countered. "It's for good reason, too. Things we'd never accept in Iberhelt, things you'd rebel over in Robber's Run, those are the law of the land here sometimes. We aren't a roving town watch. The most we can do with information like this is report it to the local authorities, which we can't do here because they're already compromised. We're required by law to stay out of it."
Egilhard shook his head. "This time we can't look past it Baer, and I know you agree with me. I understand what you're saying. We're not the magistrate, we're not the executioner, and we're not allowed to act like it. We ride on through and let locals be locals, but they are kidnapping and enslaving children. I'm not saying we should march into their camp and fight them all, but we can help the girl, and nobody else is going to."
"I do agree, Egilhard, but keep in mind the consequences," Baer cautioned. "If we are discovered, I will no longer be allowed to do business in Terfarine, possibly not even in Iberhelt. None of us will be able to serve as guards for caravans bound for Terfarine either, which may destroy all our livelihoods. You had better make absolutely certain," he warned, shaking his index finger at the ranger, "that you are not discovered."
"I won't be," Egilhard promised.
"Good," Baer relented. "I'll tell the others what's going on. Keep in mind that Herve or any of his assorted miscreants could be of noble birth. Terfarine law gives a commoner no protection at all from a noble. If you kill them, she'll be connected to their deaths. If you don't, they'll keep chasing her with the law on their side. She'll never be safe in Redearth Duchy again. She'll need to come with us, at least for now. We have legal protection from them; if we say she's with us, they can't touch her."
"That was my intention," Egilhard said, rising. "Thank you."
"One more thing," Baer added before Egilhard could turn away. "After this little episode, I don't intend to pass through Graybank for another year at least. If she has any goodbyes to say, make sure she does it now."