The next day, the caravan heads more westward, losing sight of the River Weldyn as the route angles away from it. In the afternoon, the long string of carts and wagons reaches a smaller river where there is typically an easy crossing over a low, many-arched stone bridge. Today, though, that bridge is out. Rhodri calls a halt and heads down the line, checking with their hired hands on who has the skills needed to scout out a new route. Rhodri does not want to lead the entire caravan off in search of an alternate route across and is open to suggestions from the mercenaries.
The first approach Heppa and Tric discuss is actually rebuilding the bridge. However, although there is a bridge-building force with the caravan, they lack a civil engineer. Constructing anything sturdy enough to get all the wagons across would take a long time, too, even if it is just a temporary structure that Hepalonia holds together until its job is done. She is confident she can do so; it would be just like the dilapidated manor in South Tower.
“Those folks back there might need some practice building a bridge anyway,” Tric tells Rhodri, nodding his head toward the prisoners. “This is a smaller scale and not cursed—well, assuming the bridge hasn’t been purposefully destroyed.”
With that last thought in mind, the cousins head to the front of the caravan to find out just how much of the bridge has collapsed. When they get there, Tric sends Mate out on aerial surveillance, and Heppa tries to cast Falcon Sight on Tric. It is her first time attempting this on another person, and it proves more difficult than she anticipated. The elves are forced to look around with their own regular vision.
That turns out to be sufficient. They find rubble scattered in both directions, up- and downstream from the bridge. Some of the broken stone is smudged with black soot, similar to what they saw in Untdunben’s mines. Mate catches Tric’s attention, guiding him to some burnt planks that look like they came from a barrel, further supporting their suspicions. There is no reason to suppose that dwarves are to blame, but explosives are pretty rare, particularly out in the wilderness like this. Tric recalls the rumor that he heard back at the Parting Glass, that once upon a time Gweddry blew up the bridge at the Ford of Abez. Heppa’s thoughts are on the present, though. She suggests this might indicate that the nearest good crossing holds an ambush. The damage looks not more than a week or two old.
“Somebody knows this is the caravan route and exploded this bridge,” Tric informs Rhodri, showing the evidence Mate found to support the claim.
“So there are bandits in the vicinity, then. We need to be on high alert,” the caravan manager says, not realizing that the problem is potentially larger than mere thievery. Heppa points out that the presence of the prisoners is no secret.
“And these bandits were unusually well-equipped. Not just anyone can get their hands on explosives,” Tric adds.
“It’s not a material I typically trade in,” Rhodri admits, “so I’m not well-informed about its rarity.”
“Well, have you ever encountered anything like this?” Heppa asks.
“Or ambushes?” she clarifies.
“There are certainly bandits out in the wilds who want to steal the goods of hard-working citizens,” Rhodri says. That is, after all, why they have hired mercenaries for protection.
“Isn’t blowing up a bridge a crime against the kingdom, too? Or something like that?” Tric asks.
“I would think so. Somebody put a lot of effort into that bridge, and this is blocking commerce! We need to go find some other way to cross.”
“That’s exactly what bandits would be looking for, right? There’s got to be an easy ford not too far away, and that’s where they’ll be waiting,” Tric argues.
“Whoever blew up this bridge had to consider how likely we would be to stay and rebuild it versus trying to find another path,” Heppa adds. Since the latter is probably faster, that is where she would lay the ambush if she were the one planning this. And once some of the carts are in the water, the caravan will be at its most vulnerable.
“Are you suggesting we should cross the river at a bad place?” Rhodri asks, perplexed. “That’s a way to lose half our cargo!”
That is not what the elves meant. In fact, they recommend sending scouts forward as though the caravan is looking for a good place to cross, keeping an eye out for the bandits. Or alternatively, Rhodri can have Henrick unchain the prisoners and set them to work fixing the bridge, seeing if that triggers the attack of allies intent on freeing them, if the cargo is not the target. Of course, anything they do to legitimately fix the bridge or in some other way improve the crossing at this location will take a significant amount of time.
“Which is time during which goods are going to start rotting. And our travel supplies, our beverages and our food, are going to be consumed,” Rhodri complains.
“Right, but if you get shot through with an arrow, your insides are going to start rotting,” Tric counters.
“So would you prefer to find another place and withstand the ambush?” Heppa asks.
“I just want to expediently get to the other side and resume the journey. With all the things that I am entrusted with transporting,” Rhodri says. “What the best means of doing that is, I don’t know.”
“You hired extra guards like us for this exact purpose,” Tric points out, more encouraging now that Rhodri sounds less critical and more receptive. “And a pair of elves traveling along the river would not necessarily be tied to the caravan. Anyone we encounter won’t likely know that Heppa and I are part of your group. They might not pay us the same level of attention.” Tric leaves out that if the ruffians are from South Tower, they may actually know of him.
This sounds like a good idea to Rhodri, though they toss one more idea into the mix: taking the otherwise empty prisoner wagon further upriver under guard to provoke an attack. Potentially even have it hiding additional guards inside. Of course, they might need to sacrifice a cart or two of goods to go along, to help sell that this is not a trap. Meanwhile the rest of the caravan, which would still have the prisoners, would be less secure, so this plan is not without risk. Deliberations continue, and ultimately, they decide to hold the reverse-ambush plan in reserve. First, Tric and Heppa will scout ahead, under the guise of being “just” elves. The cousins think they are unlikely to be attacked, but if things go poorly, they can always send Mate back to fetch help.