Tric rides behind Heppa on Butterbell so that they can make better time. While she urges the pony on, he pays close attention to the river, expecting to find a ford that will make a good ambush site. What catches his eyes first, though, is a pair of ropes stretched across the river, one angled downriver from the east bank to the west, and another starting at that spot and angling farther downriver as it comes back east. Someone has set up a ferry!
Is this just a toll? Is this also just commerce? Tric wonders. Is there actually an ambush, or is this just for more coin?
A really big raft is pulled up on the east bank, with three folks standing around it. They spot the approaching elves, and as they look toward the riders, Tric realizes he recognizes the group. He shared drinks and stories with them a few days ago after trying out human dancing.
One of them steps forward, taking the initiative. “Ho there, travelers!” the leader calls while the elves are still far off. “Needing to cross the river? A mere five gold will get you to the other side.”
“That’s honestly not a bad rate,” Tric mutters appreciatively.
“But what could we do from the other side?” Heppa asks quietly, focused on practical matters rather than deals.
“We can report back from that side,” Tric points out. “Anyway, these folks were at the Parting Glass a couple days ago. They’re definitely not fans of King Konrad What’s-His-Name using those prisoners as labor.”
“Then let’s check it out,” Heppa agrees. She brings Butterbell to a stop near the ferry, and they dismount. Tric makes a show of inspecting the raft and asks Heppa her opinion on how sturdy it looks. It is definitely better constructed than the one she and Tric built in the Foul Fen. She hopes it will be able to support Butterbell’s weight, but she will not know that until they try. Still, she politely compliments the humans on their raft.
“This is actually really convenient,” Tric tells the spokesperson. “We just passed the bridge back that way and it was out.” He is hoping to provoke some sort of response by which to judge their culpability.
“Well, yes, when we happened upon the remnants of that long-destroyed bridge, we thought we’d take advantage of… of the opportunity to help the local travelers by providing an alternate means of crossing. The currents up here were slow enough that it made an excellent ferry location. Not that it’s so simple to set up a ferry, mind you. We had to get the ropes across.”
Tric follows the speaker’s sweeping arm gesture with his eyes, and movement catches his attention. Some of the reeds along the opposite bank are twitching. That is not just wind, Tric thinks. The tall grasses growing along the marshy edge would make for a good hiding place, as long as a person was willing to get wet. The ambush may be planned for the other side, rather than this one. Tric still wonders, though, whether these three folks are connected to the ambush or operating independently. “Five coins, you say?” he asks, continuing to feign interest in transport.
“Well, you know, it was a lot of work to build this raft…”
“Oh, yes, of course. That’s not going to be a problem for us, but there was a caravan a ways back. It’s going to be tough for them,” Tric says, distancing himself and Heppa from the caravan.
“They’ve probably got very deep pockets,” the ferrier says. “Water’s pretty deep here, too. Can’t just float carts across, not without a raft.”
“True, true,” Tric agrees. “They were stopped at the bridge. Looked like they had some kind of engineers with them.” He lowers his voice to confide, “They thought that bridge was taken out on purpose. They were talking about calling in the king’s forces.”
This is like one of Tric’s games of what-if, Heppa decides. “They sent a rider back to South Tower,” she adds, imagining what some people might do under those circumstances.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever crossed blades with the captain of the guard there,” Tric says, trying to make these folks nervous. “She knows her stuff.”
“Yes, well, a rider to South Tower is not going to get the news to the king faster than crossing to the other side and heading on,” the spokesperson says, but Tric can hear nervousness in the voice. “Whoever destroyed that bridge surely will pay the price once they’re captured, but in the meantime, there’s no reason for that caravan to linger. Not when there’s a perfectly good system set up right here.”
“That’s a good point,” Tric allows. He presses on, hoping to unsettle them enough to call off their plan, to cancel the ambush if there is one—not just some alligator over in the reeds. “The caravan manager,” he adds, “they’re no-nonsense. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent a rider back and a rider forward as soon as they could. They hired extra guards, I saw. They’ve got deep pockets, and they’re willing to pay coin, but they’ll make you a hard bargain, I bet.”
“Even though the carts were stuck, they could have gotten a horse and rider to swim across the river back where the bridge was out,” Heppa throws in.
Tric sees the assistants exchanging nervous glances. Good, maybe some of them will decide that they don’t need to be a part of this. He and Heppa do not need to “win” right now; just reducing the other side’s numbers will be helpful. Keeping up the act, Tric negotiates the fare across, pretending that they do not have much money to spare. Given how much they owe Alric, that is actually the case. He idly wonders whether any of these folks also owe the bartender. Maybe this whole ferry business is just to pay off their tab. “Five coins?” he moans. “We blew most of what we had in South Tower. I tell you, that town will bleed you dry. Five for the lot of us, right? And the pony? And the bird? No, the bird can just fly. Bird’s not paying.” Tric nods toward the reeds and sends Mate on his way.
“This is faster,” Heppa fake-consoles her cousin.
Soon the raft is underway. As the humans guide it hand-over-hand along the ropes to the other side, the elves keep an eye on the reeds. There they see something strange, the head of a large snake with a frilled ruff. Soon they spot a second, as well. Aside from the size, what is striking is that the creatures each have a pair of sinewy arms. They are wearing some sort of worked chest plate that includes shoulder armor. Snakes do not wear clothes and do not have arms. Nor do they have swords or small bucklers. These must be nagas.
Neither elf has ever seen a naga, but they have heard a few stories about them here and there. Mari-Elin the Carter said they were sort of like water orcs, and Tric recently heard that some conducted an attack at the Ford of Abez. Nagas—like many other peoples, elves included—tend to be xenophobic and keep to themselves. However, they are known to work with other groups, if it furthers their own goals. It is unlikely that nagas would be involved in simple highway robbery. Nor would they independently seek to liberate the Rats who are being sent to Weldyn. But they might accept payment for performing the task, in order to fund some goal of their own.
The ferry is not attacked upon landing, so it is a solid bet that its operators and these nagas are working together in some way. Possibly the nagas even helped set up the ferry’s ropes. As Heppa starts to lead Butterbell off the raft, Tric wishes the ferry folks well—ominously. He laces his words with intention—with power, as Glammur would say—willing them to second-guess their choices and reconsider how they proceed. While he does not specifically introduce the idea that nagas could turn on them, that is the vibe he goes for. “You know, it is really helpful that you were able to set this up. Hope your ferry license is all in order because—whoa! If they bring the king’s wrath down…” Tric takes a playful swipe at the air with his knuckle dusters on and then goes back to idly twirling them. “I’m sure your license is fine, though, right?” he says jocularly, winking at them. “It’s so great you were able to take advantage of the destruction of that bridge. Wow, all the coin that’s going to be coming your way, all the attention… And you only have to split it three ways! That’s going to be a ton of money, right?”
Heppa contributes to the effect, thanking the ferry operators and complimenting them on how well they all work together.
“I’ll be sure to tell people that this ferry is here so that they won’t worry about having to deal with where the bridge used to be,” Tric adds. “Sure, it was a beautiful stone bridge—and hey, wasn’t it named Konrad’s Crossing, or something? Anyway, that doesn’t matter to you. But, yeah, I wouldn’t want to be the person who gets run down by the captain of the guard. Good luck!” Tric claps the leader on the back, slightly harder than necessary, and then mounts up behind Heppa on Butterbell.
The naga situation is a topic of discussion as Heppa and Tric ride westward away from the small river. Heppa cleverly points out that brambles could do away with their hiding place quite easily. The elves continue inland for a while, long enough to sell the story that they are simply resuming their own private travel. After what she deems a long enough time, Heppa directs her pony northward and then back east again. Although the initial plan is to meet the caravan and shout an update across the river, she spots something that will be far more useful… a ford. It is a ways north of where the caravan paused, and she would not have happened upon it if they were not taking such a circuitous route back. It is an excellent find, though. For one, the elves can cross back to the eastern bank and rejoin the caravan for a more quiet discussion on how to proceed. But also, it gives the caravan a safe route along which to move cargo while some of the tougher folk deal with the ferry ambush.