Friedrich Adelsohn, Captain of the Third Company of the Mounted Constabulary of the State of Thuringia-Franconia, stared at the ox. The ox stared right back. After a moment, it lowered its gaze, and resumed its attempts to convert the roadside into a nicely trimmed lawn. Friedrich wished that, like Siegfried in the Volsunga Saga, he had tasted Fafnir's blood, and could understand the speech of animals. Could the ox tell him what had brought it to this deserted spot, miles from the town? And why it, and its fellow beast of burden, had been abandoned?
The ox stolidly ignored his musings. Clearly, it was what the American movies called, "the strong, silent type." So it was up to Friedrich to figure matters out for himself.
The two oxen had been unyoked and left to graze. The wagon itself was in excellent condition, although empty. If bandits had slain the teamsters, why hadn't they slaughtered the oxen for food? If the wagoneers had fallen sick, where were their bodies? If they were hale and hearty, why had they not simply ridden the wagon into nearby Wurzburg?
The wagon was abandoned on the flank of a great sawtooth-shaped hill, with a cliff brooding over the road. Friedrich remembered, suddenly, that there was an ancient watchtower, half in ruins, near the cliff's edge. Could bandits have taken it over? Was the wagon ferrying supplies to them?
Friedrich pointed at the forested slope beyond the wagon. "Herman, Wolfgang, scout that area. See if there's a trail that looks like it might go up the hill. And if there are signs of recent use."
They didn't have to search for very long. While there were no footprints—if any had been left, they were obliterated by a rain shower earlier that day—there were plenty of broken branches to indicate that men had passed that way.
"All right, looks like we may be near a bandit lair. Bring the horses into cover, and tie them down. Jakob, and Gerhard, stay on guard here. The rest of you, we're going to have a climb. If there are bandits at the top, it will probably be fighting at close quarters, so have your swords and pistols at the ready. But Hans, you're our best marksman, you hold your rifle, in case we need distance fire. Ready? Let's go. And don't make noise."
They started hiking. As they snaked up, they caught occasional glimpses of the crest.
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff