Early the next morning, Skrie headed to the common room to the aroma of coffee, bacon, sausage, and fresh bread permeating the inn. Della was at the bar, getting ready for the morning breakfast. She looked up as Skrie entered.
“Good morning, Miss Skrie,” she said. “Breakfast ain’t quite ready. Would ye like some cider, tea, or coffee?”
“A cup of coffee would be wonderful, Della.”
The halfling enjoyed the quiet of the inn and the warmth of the hot beverage as her eyes swept the room. They’d built the first floor of stone and the inn’s upper levels with sturdy hardwood. Two walls had burned at one time, but they cleaned and rebuilt it, possibly more than once. Above the bar hung a longsword, shield, two battle axes, and a bow. The slab itself was solid, old oak, the end near the door charred but smoothed and polished clean. She saw they had expanded the bar from the different textures and ages of the wood used.
Through the window that faced the road, Skrie saw the sheriff’s deputy, Michel, and another man opening the town gates. Della unlocked the tavern doors and threw them wide, stepping outside to wave to the men. A chill from the morning air blew in, bringing with it the smell of fresh tilled earth.
“What would you like for breakfast, Miss?” asked Della when she returned to Skrie’s table. “We have oatmeal with dried fruit, eggs and sausage, or bacon. We offer most of what anyone would want to start their day.” The young woman leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m partial to my ma’s flapjacks, myself, and Michel, er, the deputy, likes a big plate of eggs and sausage. He loves my biscuits, too.”
Skrie ordered oatmeal, bacon, and more coffee, and Della headed back to the kitchen. A little while later, the girl returned with a bowl of oatmeal loaded with honey, spice, chopped nuts, and dried fruit and a plate of bacon. She set another mug of coffee in front of the halfling, then bustled back to the kitchen. The cleric watched as one, then the other merchant guard, came into the tavern, and sat at the same table they had occupied the previous evening. A few locals came in to break their fast, as did several merchants and mining foremen.
Skrie observed the crowd and listened as the farmers discussed what fields to plow today and the miners talked about what tunnels showed the most progress. She saw Sergeant Goston come into the inn, wearing civilian clothes rather than his uniform. This piqued her curiosity. He sat with the two guards.
“We talked to her, yeah.”
“What did she say?” Goston asked.
“She can tell you, herself. She should be down soon. A light sleeper, that one.”
Skrie also noticed the bounty hunter from the night before. He looked like he had a mean hangover. He ordered coffee and sat at his regular table near the hall. Although some locals from last night asked him about his tales, he was not as talkative as he had been the prior evening.
The cleric glanced around the room and spotted Dayne chatting with someone in the kitchen storeroom. It was Sergeant Stiles. Theren and Garrick came down from the room and ordered breakfast on their way to the table Skrie occupied. Garrick ordered a large platter of eggs, bacon, bread, and coffee and asked Dayne to deliver it to their room for “our friend who isn’t feeling well.”
“How’s he taking it?” asked Skrie when the pair sat at the table.
“Not well,” said Garrick, sliding into the chair next to the halfling. “All he’s done this morning is whine about being hungry, everyone splitting up, and being cooped up inside four walls.”
“To be expected, I guess.”
“I suppose,” said Theren.
“I need to finish a ruse,” said Skrie, getting up to leave.
The cleric looked for a place to hide and reappear as the old halfling man. ‘He’ finds a table and orders coffee. The old man talks to Della about his plans to leave soon. A bit later, the ‘old halfling’ headed back towards ‘his’ room. Skrie dropped her disguise and went to their apartment to find that Malusk was gone. His food was still warm but untouched. Searching the room, she found nothing.
Heading toward the stables, she noticed that the merchant’s wagon was gone. Skrie looked for Johns, the stable boy.
“Johns,” said the halfling, “what happened to the wagon that was here last night?”
“‘Mornin’, Miss,” he said. “The wagon left a while ago. The lady asked me to harness the horses first thing this morning. She had your big friend with her. He was drivin’ the wagon when they left.”
After searching around outside for any clue about where the wagon may have gone, Skrie headed back to the bar and found Dayne at the table with Garrick and Theren.
“Malusk is gone,” she said.
“What!” said Garrick. “He was fuming when we left, but promised to stay.”
“I delivered his food, meself,” said Dayne, indignation and anguish in his voice. “I wanted to make sure it weren’t poisoned.”
“I don’t know what happened,” said Skrie. “I talked to Johns, and he said Malusk left with a half-elf woman and was driving the wagon for her. We have to catch up to them.”
Skrie noticed Goston was gone. Dayne confronted the two merchant guards about the missing wagon, and an unpaid stabling fee.
“What! That bitch took off with the wagon, the supplies and left us here in this….” The guard stopped and looked at Dayne blinking owlishly, no doubt thinking it unwise to say anything disparaging about where he was.
“I bet she thinks she can make a better deal at the fort and cut us out,” said the other guard, completely surprised as well.
“Oh,” said the barman, calming the pair and leading them to the bar. “It’s worse than that.”
“The guards have an extra horse you can use,” said Dayne when he returned to the group. “And you can use my bay in the stables.”
The man led the party to the stables and had Johns help him saddle the horses.
“Miss Skrie, you fellas, be careful. I hope you find your friend.”
The group headed out and down the road toward the Merchant’s Way. Once at the crossroad, they found new tracks heading north. They saw no sign of other wagons on the road, so they followed the trail.
They followed for a league before Skrie saw Malusk walk out onto the road ahead of them, a struggling woman wrapped in his arms.
“Ambush!” the halfling heard just as bolts and arrows flew from the trees and brush to their left.
Skrie dove from the moving horse, rolling to break her fall, and slid into the brush on the right side of the road. Garrick and Theren slowed the horses and jumped for the bushes also, hiding the best they could as more projectiles flew past their heads.
Spotting a crossbowman high in a tree, Skrie targeted and killed the bandit. The other men fired back, missing with each shot.
Malusk walked out to the road with the woman and Skrie heard him say, “call off your men or I will pop you like a pimple.”
Theren walked out of the brush and onto the road. He cast a spell that darkened the brush that hid the ambushers, hoping to blind the men firing at them. It had the effect he wanted. One man climbed from his tree and the halfling heard him stumbling away in the darkness. The other man fired blindly, bolts flying wildly.
The half-elf struggled against Malusk and cast another spell. The big half-orc suddenly let her go, walking across the road and through the forest. As soon as he let the woman go, she leaped into the brush.
Skrie, Garrick, and Theren chased the kidnappers into the forest after their friend. They could see him ahead of them. Skrie ran to catch up to Malusk but saw Theren stop and stand completely still, apparently unable to move or speak. Skrie and Garrick raced through the forest, trying to catch their friend. The earth exploded in front of them, causing a chunk to rise man-height, overturning trees, and making the ground move beneath their feet. Jumping to the side to shoot around the new obstacle, Skrie fired a bolt at her retreating friend, hoping to break whatever spell held him. The jolt freed the half-orc from the charm that held him.
After collecting Malusk and making certain he escaped the spell, they looked for Theren. He’d also broke the spell the kidnapper had thrown at him and was waiting for the rest of the party. The group heard the bandits and the woman flee into the forest.
The group headed back to the wagon and examined the contents. They found heavy crossbows, swords, shields, and helms, as well as barrels of wine and ale. Malusk took a sword and shield to arm himself for the journey back to Suncall. Figuring these were the supplies for the fort, they took the wagon to Fort Bridale and looked for Sergeant Stiles.
They found Stiles outside his office talking to the two merchant guards.
“I questioned the guards,” he said. “They came in looking for Goston and told me what the sergeant promised them. The sergeant is in the brig, although he claims the men misunderstood or were lying about what he told them. No matter. He will stay there until the lieutenant returns.”
“We was hired in Grayard to escort the wagon,” began one guard. “That woman, Reisha, met us at a bar and told us she had this wagon with supplies for sale. She never told us where we was going to sell them, just that we’d be heading south.”
“It was odd though,” said the other, “that she didn’t want to stay in the farming villages along the way. We camped out until we got here. Maybe she didn’t have a lotta money.”
“She didn’t even pay us, and then took off. I don’t suppose you found a coin box in the wagon, did ya?”
“I ain’t certain how we’re gonna stick around here. We ain’t got much coin between us.”
“Well,” said Stiles, “I can put you up in the barracks for a bit, if you don’t mind working around the fort. When the lieutenant gets back, we can sort out the ownership and sale of the wine, ale, and arms. I am certain we will come to a fair arrangement.”
“Sounds good to me, Sergeant,” said one fellow.
“Fair enough,” said the other.
“What I don’t get,” Stiles said when the guards were gone, “is why Goston wanted the goods. Did he hope to sell them to the lieutenant, with some story he concocted, or did he have another buyer?”
Skrie filled everyone in on what she discovered about the merchant guards, the merchant, and what they said Goston told them. What little she knew left everyone as puzzled as she was.
They headed back to Suncall and turned Dayne’s horse over to the stable boy, Johns.
“Yer back,” said Dayne when the party entered the common room. “Ye look beat. Let me get ye’s some lunch.”
As they ate, Skrie watched the traveler that claimed to be a bounty hunter. She also looked for anyone else that showed special interest in the group. Not noticing anything out of the ordinary, they returned to their room for a private conversation following their meal.
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