Wandering Guardians

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter Eight

    Although it was the largest town in the region, Graybank wasn't that big. Its population was a few thousand at most, and had been in decline for years. There were few structures at all outside the walls, with a fair amount of empty space and many abandoned buildings inside. It didn't take Egilhard long to spot Emmie as he wandered through town in the setting sun. She was walking through streets and alleys, occasionally stooping to pick through a refuse pile for anything useful that had been thrown away.
    It didn't take an expert to tell that her path was planned rather than random, and as she looked through the refuse she carefully checked her surroundings. Once she even caught sight of Egilhard.  Fortunately he remained inconspicuous, standing and watching from precisely selected positions, so he didn't draw any suspicion. He didn't think she recognized him, but was more careful after that.
    Herve's two footpads were not so discreet. They'd found Emmie first, which made Egilhard's task more difficult, since he had to monitor and stay hidden from all three of them. He wasn't sure the men were as skilled as Herve believed. They weren't exactly clumsy, but they moved around far too much. They followed her through the streets, watching from a distance and staying out of her sight. To Egilhard, it was like watching grown men playing a game of hide-and-seek. Crouching behind a chimney, staircase or crate kept them hidden from Emmie, but was occasionally suspicious. Sometimes a passerby spotted them, but only gave them an odd look before moving on. None of them seemed to notice Emmie.
    She worked her way steadily across town, meandering toward a section of abandoned buildings to the east, where Egilhard assumed many street urchins had their abodes. Perhaps one of the footpads wasn't stealthy enough, or perhaps Emmie had noticed the strange looks of people on the streets, but she had noticed something was wrong tonight. As the sun went down and the light began to fade, she changed her pattern of movement.
    Emmie ducked down an alley Egilhard knew she'd been through already. Once she was out of the sight of Herve's men, she ran swiftly to the end of the ally and bent over a pile of rags she'd already searched through, watching the mouth of the alley. From his position, leaning against a shadowed wall across the street she was looking toward, Egilhard saw the footpads hide by the corner. One leaned out and cautiously peered down the alley, staying in the shadows. It was a slight movement, one that might have gone unnoticed if she hadn't been looking for it, but she saw it. Egilhard could see her head twitch as her eyes locked instantly onto the brief flicker of the man's head. Their cover was blown.
    Egilhard tensed, ready to spring into action. If she started running, the footpads would realize she'd spotted them. Then they had two options: chase her down and grab her here and now without waiting for Herve, or let her go, regroup, and try to find her again. He desperately hoped they wouldn't chase her. It might get them caught, but it would also make it almost impossible for Egilhard to help her without being noticed and getting the whole caravan into deep trouble.
    Fortunately, she didn't run. She behaved as though she hadn't noticed the movement, finished with the pile of rags, then turned and continued down the alley as normal. The two footpads didn't realize they'd been spotted, and soon crept down the alley after her again. Egilhard sighed with relief; he hadn't noticed he'd been holding his breath. She kept moving through town toward the east and the only hint she gave of her unnerving discovery was checking behind her more frequently.
    The sun had set and the light was fading as Egilhard paralleled her movement toward the east. He tried to stay a bit behind, and remained on the main streets. Neither Emmie nor her two tails were paying much attention to those streets, and there were too few people still out for anyone to notice his frequent stops. When they were almost to the east wall, Emmie stopped combing the back alleys and side streets. She walked calmly to the main road and straight through the east gate.
    Egilhard stopped short in the street, torn between admiration and chagrin. Though the lazy town watch left the gates unguarded, there were several torches around them. Emmie's tails would have to pass through the gate, giving her the chance to get a good look at them. It was a good move on her part. Unfortunately, both Emmie and the bandits would get the same chance to spot him. Perhaps he could avoid using the gate; the walls were not that high, and he recalled that they were uneven. Hurrying for the first time that night, he headed at an angle for an unlit portion of the wall south of the gate.
    His memory had been accurate. The unevenly-sized bricks stuck out from the wall surface, sometimes by several inches, providing reasonably good hand and footholds. It was only slightly harder to climb than a spreading tree. He noticed as he looked along the wall for guards that many of the low spots in the wall looked unfinished rather than decayed.
    He scrambled quickly up the wall. At the top, he scanned the area beyond, trying to find his quarry before the light faded entirely. He spotted the two footpads quickly, but the girl took a bit longer. She headed away at an angle from both the town and the road, and they were still on her tail.
    Beyond the town were a few hundred yards of meadow, sloping downward away from the walls. The grass was thick and long and bore no signs of the usual grazing animals in it. The townsfolk probably used it as a winter pasture. There were frequent patches of low bushes and brambles, and here and there a protruding stump. It was likely also full of holes from various burrowing rodents.
    At the bottom of the slope in the direction the girl was heading, there was a large clump of trees no one had ever bothered to cut down. They weren't very big; at most they were thirty feet tall and five or six inches thick. They grew in a somewhat crooked way that would make them useless as building material and difficult to split into firewood. With other stands of timber visible in the distance, that was probably why they'd never been cut. The margins of the grove were relatively clear, probably kept that way by the guards so that they could see into it, and cut by frequent game trails. It would offer plenty of places to hide.
    Egilhard had not expected Emmie to leave town, but it was a promising development. He was certain that he could move around the countryside better than any of the bandits, especially in the trees. It would also make it much easier to prevent anyone from discovering his involvement. He dropped to the ground beyond the wall and, moving in near-silence, followed the footpads.

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber