Baltrog turned to the crowd. When he began to speak he did so in a quiet, rich voice. It was a trick he had learned long ago: never shout. Never raise your voice. It was undignified and unnecessary. People would fall quiet to listen to what he had to say, sometimes even holding their breaths. They did it this morning.
“Good people of Oakborder,” he began. “As you know, our much beloved servant, Yorg, was murdered two nights ago by a traveller. I know you feel the sorrow of that loss as much as I do. But unlike you, I also feel anger. Anger at the man who killed Yorg, but also anger at you.”
A few people near the back of the crowd gasped.
Baltrog continued, “For where were you when Yorg was murdered? Why didn’t you rally to his aid? Pursue his murderer? Why did I have to come to town bring justice?”
He paused to let the questions sink in. “But my anger is a fleeting thing, like the anger of a father at a wayward but favoured child,” he said. “And I have come to make sure this sort of outrage will never happen again.
“Let me introduce you to someone.”
With a theatrical gesture, Baltrog swept his arm at the group of his followers who stood with their horses and wagons on the road leading down from the square.
From behind one of the wagons stepped a huge figure, covered in fur, wearing black leather armour and carrying the dwarf’s axe on his hip like it was a dagger. It was a bugbear, or at least part bugbear. Its lower jaw extended a bit beyond its upper, allowing its bottom canines to poke up. It smiled grotesquely as it strode to Batrog’s side, and it leered at the crowd, its small red eyes pausing significantly on the young women. Several children buried their faces in their mother’s dresses in fear.
“Meet your new sheriff, Yorg’s replacement,” said Baltrog. “His real name is not pronounceable, so let’s call him Gram. I’m afraid he is not as patient and kind as Yorg was, but then discipline and law are so much more important than kindness. Don’t you agree? Besides enforcing the law, Gram will collect taxes which, because of the recent expenses that Yorg’s death has incurred, will be raised to 340 gold pieces a month.”
Someone at the back of the crowd gasped. A woman began to weep quietly. Baltrog continued. “Now,” he said, “I have to leave you in Gram’s capable hands. His first act of office will be the execution of Yorg’s murderer. I ask you all to stay and watch justice being served. I look forward to seeing you all again next month.”
Baltrog turned and left the square. The crowd parted to let him go. The rest of his retinue began climbing on the horses and wagons. Baltrog swung himself onto his mount, a beautiful white stallion. The gnome climbed onto the largest of the wagons.
A burly human standing beside the wagon reached into the back of it and dragged out a large, burlap sack. He let it drop to the ground, then climbed onto the wagon’s bench beside the gnome and took up the reins.
Baltrog turned his horse to face the crowd. “A very good morning to you all,” he said, then wheeled his horse and started off at a canter down the road. The other wagons and horsemen fell in behind him, followed by guards on foot who fell into an easy run. In a minute, they were out of sight.
The crowd turned back to Gram. He liked the attention. He crossed over to the sack in a few broad strides, picked it up with one great hand, and brought it back under the oak tree. He dropped it at his feet and looked up at the silent crowd. He smiled unpleasantly, and held up one finger for everyone to see. The claw on the finger, a good two inches long, had been filed to a vicious point. He leaned down and drew the finger along the length of the sack. It split open like the skin on an overly ripe fruit. Inside the sack was the dwarf. He hands were bound behind his back, his feet tied together. He was gagged with a dirty cloth. He glared up at the bugbear.
Gram smiled down at the helpless dwarf. A line of drool fell from his mouth onto the sack. He looked back at the crowd.
“Rope,” he said.
For a second no one moved, then a man at the back of the crowd turned and ran into a nearby house. He came out quickly with a length of rope. The crowd parted to let him bring it to Gram. He got as close as he dared to the towering bugbear, then held the rope at arms’ length.
“Rope hole,” grunted Gram.
The man stared at the bugbear with frightened incomprehension.
“Rope hole!” shouted Gram.
“He wants a noose,” someone in the crowd said.
The man with the rope, now shaking with fear, tied one end of the rope into a sloppy noose. He handed it to the bugbear then ran back into the crowd.
Gram threw the noose end of the rope over a branch of oak tree. He grabbed the dwarf by the front of his clothes and jerked him to his feet.
The dwarf was a mess. The orc’s blood was still on his face, now dry and brown, and his own blood had run from his nose into his beard. His nose was swollen and he had two black eyes. He blinked at the crowd.
The bugbear forced the noose around the dwarf’s neck and tightened it. He took up the other end of the rope and wrapped it around his huge right arm. He paused to make sure everyone in the crowd was looking at him, he set his feet, took a grip on the rope with his left hand too, and pulled.
The dwarf was jerked into the air. He dangled two feet off the ground, bucking and squirming as he strangled. His face turned red and his movements grew more and more desperate. Even through the gag the crowd could hear his grunts of pain.
Just as the dwarf’s movements began to slow, Gram released the rope. The dwarf crashed to the ground. Gram reached down and loosened the noose, allowing the dwarf to grab a shuddering breath.
Gram turned to the crowd and laughed.
Everyone understood. The bugbear would take his time killing the dwarf. He would play with him, perhaps for hours, and they had to watch. Tears ran down the faces of some of the crowd, but no one made a sound.
Gram grabbed the rope again and wrapped it around his arm. He looked at the crowd and set his feet. But before he could pull a shrill whistle pierced the morning quiet. The crowd looked back in the direction of the whistle, somewhere on the road uphill from the square. The bugbear reluctantly turned in the same direction and scanned the street and the buildings. He sniffed the air. He picked out a new scent, one that did not belong to the members of the crowd. It was a combination of human and something else, mixed with earth, leather, and cured wood. He was sure he had smelled something like it before, but before he could place it he saw the faces of the people in the crowd whip back towards him, following the flight of something that streaked over their heads and headed towards . . .
The arrow entered Gram’s left eye. It pierced the orbital socket bone, entered his very small brain, and stuck into the back of his thick skull. Dead, the bugbear stood for a full minute before he crumpled at the knees and began to pitch forward. His arm was still wrapped with the rope so as his body fell forward, the rope pulled it into a spin. He landed on his back, his tied arm stretched taut in the air.
The dwarf was lifted off the ground by the rope. Not as high as before, but still high enough to strangle. His body began to buck and heave.
No one in the crowd moved. They were paralyzed with thoughts and questions. Was Gram really dead? Would the Lord Baltrog blame them? Would their taxes go up again? How could they pay the raise that had already been announced? Who shot the arrow? Was it one of theirs? Was someone missing from the townspeople?
The dwarf’s spasms began to slow down but still no one moved.
The townspeople all ducked as a something streaked over their heads. An arrow appeared, quivering, in the tree branch that the rope was slung over. The dwarf fell to the ground with a thump and the crowd realized that someone had shot the rope, pierced it with the arrowhead, saving the dwarf. But the dwarf was not moving.
Harry Bandle pushed from the back of the crowd to the prostrate dwarf and loosened the noose around his neck. Still the dwarf did not move. Harry placed his hands on the dwarf’s chest and began to press rhythmically. After a dozen pushed the dwarf coughed into his gag. Harry pulled the gag off the dwarf’s face then pulled a kitchen knife from his belt and cut the ropes that bound the dwarf’s hands and feet. The dwarf sat up and coughed up blood.
The crowd of townspeople began to drift away. Some went back to their homes to pack. They had decided on the spot that the problems they could face leaving the town were nothing compared to the problems they would face when the Lord Baltrog came back and found his new man dead and the murderer of his old man alive. Others went back to their homes to pray to their gods. Still others went home to find what they could sell. They knew they would not be able to leave the town, but they hoped if they could find the tax money they would not die too soon. One old man went home to kill himself. He had seen a lifetime of troubles and knew when more were coming.
In a matter of minutes, the dwarf and Harry were alone in the square.
The dwarf coughed up more blood.
Harry, hunkered down beside the dwarf, thumped him on the back.
“Ahem,” said a voice. The men looked up to see a woman, dressed in green leathers, standing in front of them. She was tall and slender. She held a complicated long bow in her hand. A quiver of arrows peeked over shoulder. At first the men were not certain she was real, because she had appeared so silently, but the dwarf recognized her as the woman who had shared his breakfast.
She pointed at the tree branch that the rope had been slung over. “I want my arrow back,” she said.