The trail was fresh, less than an hour old. They were most likely though the pass and probably setting up camp. If they had left an ambush behind or even a sentry something would be happening soon. He trudged along at the same steady pace he had been at for more than an hour. The air was beginning to thin along with the trees, and the north wind might bring snow. He sensed it almost a full minute before he smelled it. Flow would have told him he did smell it; just that he was not focused enough to know what he smelled. Flow also could catch a fish barehanded with his eyes closed, so Scob usually took the wise old elf at his word. The odor was pipe tobacco, and it was coming from around the next twist in the trail. Scob advanced slowly blending in with the rocks to the left of the trail. It took him a full fifteen minutes to move upwind of the place the smoke had been coming from, that is when he realized why the smoke had stopped. The guard, a man was slumped over a rock, either unconscious or asleep, and the way arms were tied to his sides with a belt made Scob think he hadn’t fallen asleep like that.
The owl call told him the whole story immediately. He saw the three of them almost immediately up the trail a hundred yards, on top of a large rock, facing the pass. Scob knew then he was safe to walk down the road, his team was watching the people they had been trailing. After a few minutes he was lying beside them in the gathering gloom looking towards the rocky split in the mountain.
“Who got him?”
Galpo just nodded at the elf’s one word answer.
They sat there in silence for a full minute.
“Well someone want to tell me what we are waiting for?” Scob asked.
Galpo answered. “These two have been discussing who is in charge now, and until they decide, neither of them will make a decision for fear of offending the other. ”
Scob sighed, with Teblan and Encoraan this could take a while.
“Did you gather any more information about our rustlers?”
“Well not from our napping friend if that is what you mean. He was left behind on sentry duty, and he almost stepped on me when he went to light his pipe. So I just rose up and put him to sleep. No papers or anything on him. Although the guy that put him on duty looked kinda familiar to me.”
The other two were still muttering to themselves. Scob decided not to interrupt them as it could put the discussion back to the beginning.
“Galpo why don’t you bring me up to speed on the situation.”
The dwarf nodded. “Ten, not counting Sleepy over there. Eight men, all in their twenties except one in his forties who gave Sleepy his orders, and the two Halfings, we knew about. All of them riding, passed by this spot about an hour ago. Encoraan said he heard the two Halfings talk about the camp on the far side of the pass. Just like we thought this morning they were shooting for. Only two bows among them, the Haflings had slings but no crossbows. They all had short swords except for the leader he had a long sword. ”
“This may be the group that was responsible for the thievery in the northern Shire.”
“Aye my friend” Galpo said nodding. “But why are they crossing into Elves territory with stolen ponies?”
Scob was puzzled as well; no Elf would have use for Halfling ponies. The only ones that used Halfling ponies were of course Halflings and Dwarves and neither had any type of settlement in these mountains. So where are these ponies going.
“These two could talk all night for all I care.” Galpo stated. “But any time now someone is going to come relieve that guard and if Sleepy doesn’t come back soon then we are going to lose the element of surprise and I am getting tired of sleeping in a cold camp with no hot tea in the morning.”
Scob nodded they had been following this group for about a week, even though the theft had occurred two weeks ago. At first they had theorized they would run the heard up into the foothills, move them down into the Southern Shire and sell them. But two days ago the rustlers had turned due south, right towards where they were now.
He and Galpo saw the horse and rider at the same time. Galpo nudged Encoraan with his foot and their conversation came to an abrupt halt. Teblan gave a hand signal and they all got ready. Scob and Galpo slid back down the rock and crept to the corner of the rock nearest the road. With Scob in the lead, Galpo tailing, Galpo knocked an arrow as Regimental rules dictated, even though he was the worst shot of the bunch. Scob heard the horse draw closer and closer and the second before it head popped into view, Scob heard Telban launch himself from atop the rock towards the rider. That is when Scob made a soft soothing sound and stepped out from the rock and grabbed the horse’s bridal. He had a way with horses that some considered almost magical, but he knew it was from spending almost every waking hour around them as a child, he was just very in touch with their moods.
By the time Scob had his second hand on the horse calming it, he knew Telban had the man pinned to the ground. Galpo had moved around him and was looking for a target up the trail, meanwhile Encoraan was stepping on the man’s legs and was about to search him. Scob moved the horse off the trail and tied him to a small scrub pine. By the time he got back to the trail the man, a kid, really was already tied up with his own bootlaces and gagged with a scarf. “Anything?” Scob asked looking over the scraggly and dirty youth. His eyes were wide, not in fear, more like in wonder; Scob dismissed the youth and got right down to it. “Okay guys we got to make a decision soon. We either stay here and pick them off one at a time or within the next fifteen minutes we cross the pass and convince them to surrender.”
An embarrassed moment of silence followed.
Galpo let out a soft growl. “Between the dam elf being such a stickler for the rules and the halfing being so polite those ponies will be halfway to the southern continent by the time we move. ”
The Elf and the Halfling just looked at each other in embarrassed silence.
The dwarf growled again, then picked up the boy who had watched the entire exchange with his eyes staring at the four, he carried the boy off the road and propped him up beside a rock. Once he returned to his teammates he dropped his backpack where he stood and started walking up the trail, towards the pass. Scob realized what he was doing nodded and started following his friend. The other two shrugged and dropped theirs as well and started after their teammates.
A few minutes later they were thru the pass and huddled behind a rock looking down the trail towards a cleft in the rock where firelight and shadows danced off the walls. The low voices of men bounced off the walls as well.
Now that they were across the border into Elvin Lands, Encoraan was in charge, he used sign language and quickly told them what to do.
A few minutes later they were set.
“You in the camp.” Scob shouted. “This the Royal Rangers, you have stolen Halflings ponies, throw down your weapons and surrender peacefully.”
Dead silence, than feverent whispering.
“We know there are nine of you in there and I guarantee you we have at least that many arrows. ”
This was Encoraan’s cue to target something in camp and show just how good a shot he was.
Psst. Scob heard the arrow fly. The next was a few curse words. “That saddle was worth twenty gold royals.”
Scob answered the comment. “That saddle was worth twenty royals. Anyone want to be target practice with something more valuable like your skin?”
After a few seconds the voice of an older man came from the camp. “What are your terms?”
Scob nodded towards Galpo. “Generous, we take you back to the Northern Shire where you stand trial, since nobody was hurt, probably five to ten years in Halflings custody, four squares a day and hard work for the Sheriff, or if you can raise the money a heavy fine and a year served.” Scob was winded after yelling all that.
“Deal.” Came back a speedy reply.
Scob glanced at Galpo that was too quick had they missed something. Galpo shrugged but nodded for Scob to continue.
“Okay I want your leader out here first, the older fellow with the long sword.”
“Alright Ranger I am on my way.”
A few seconds later a large shadow detached himself from the group around the campfire. The shadow rummaged around on the ground and then it came towards Scob slowly across the rocky ground. “That’s far enough. What’s your name mister.”?
“Well my mother used to call me Seth, but everyone since I was sixteen has called me Black Bear.”
“Black Bear,” Galpo shouted with a laugh. “What are you doing stealing ponies in the Shires you old dog?”
“That voice,” the man, said surprised as well. “Is that you Galpo you pug ugly Dwarf?”