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Why do you think theyve been so quiet lately, Sir Yarran?

I beg your pardon? Sir Yarran Battlecrow looked up from the tankard of ale the serving maid had just plunked down in front of him. Did you say something, Milord?

Yes, Sir Trianal Bowmaster said, then grimaced and waved one hand through the pipe smoke-thickened air. The mess hall attached to Lord Warden Festians barracks was packed with Glanharrows own armsmen and almost half of the ten troops of Balthar armsmen who had accompanied him here. That many raised voices, one or two of them already beginning to bawl out the words of a ribald song with more than a trace of tipsiness, made it hard enough for a man to hear his own thoughts, much less what the fellow sitting beside him might have said aloud.

I asked, he said more loudly, why you think theyve been so quiet lately?

Well, as to that, Milord, Sir Yarran said as thoughtfully as a man could when he had to half-shout to be heard, Im inclined to be thinking its a matter of weather and your uncles reinforcements.

Trianal arched an eyebrow and curled the fingers of the one hand in a drawing motion, inviting him to continue. Sir Yarran grinned, then took a long pull at his tankard, and shrugged.

The weathers finally clearing, Milord, he pointed out. Thats probably making it easier for them to get in and out of the Bogs, with or without stolen cattle or horses. But at the same time, its taken away the cover of all those nice, thick fogs they used to run about inside, and weve moved every cattle and horse herd in the area of their original operations out to the west. That means theyll have to range further out, and the dryer, harder groundand the fact that the rain doesnt come along and wash out any hoof prints five minutes after theyre mademeans wed find it far easier to track them back to their ratholes. Theyll know that as well as we do, so when you add to that the fact that Milord Barons seen fit to send in his own armsmenwhich both raises the number of bows and sabers we can send after them and simultaneously says hes minded to take this whole business a mite seriouslyId say its fairly plain what theyre thinking.

I see. Trianal pushed the remnants of his supperexactly the same food any of his armsmen might have expectedaround his plate with a spoon and frowned. Sir Yarran watched him and very carefully allowed no sign of his inner smile to show. Sir Yarran was inclined to think that all the good reports hed had about Trianal had been accurate. The lad was conscientious, hard-working, and determined not to disappoint the uncle he clearly idolized. He was also not only smart but willing to actually use that intelligence which all too many young nobles of Sir Yarrans experience had not been.

But for all of that, he was still only nineteen years old, and he couldnt quite hide his disappointment at the thought that his adversaries cautionor cowardicemight deny him the opportunity to show what he could do.

Do you think theyve given up for good, then? he asked after a moment, trying valiantly (though with imperfect success) to conceal his disappointment.

No, Milord. Sir Yarran leaned closer to his titular commander so that he could speak without shoutingand with less chance of being overheard.

Milord, he continued in the patient voice he and Festian had used to train generations of eager young armsmen, theres two sides in any fight, and neither one of thems got any real interest in losing. Which means that whatever you may want the oily bastards to do, theyre going to be trying to think up something you wont want them to do.

Now, we know that whoever these people are he avoided mentioning any names, despite the voice-drowning background hubbub theyve already shown us as how theyre pretty damned determined to make Lord Festian look like he cant find his arse with both hands, and to make your uncle look foolish for having picked him to replace Redhelm in the first place. Im thinking its not so very likely that theyll just decide it was all a bad idea and that they ought to go home and behave themselves. And even if it happened that theyor some of themwere beginning to lose their nerve, weve a pretty fair idea of who they are, and you know your uncle better than I do. Dyou really think hes going to be inclined to let them go home and pretend as how butter wouldnt melt in their mouths?

Trianal barked a laugh at the very thought, and Yarran nodded.

Aye, and if you and I think that, dont you think those on the other side might be thinking the same? Which means their best chance to get out of this with their skins whole is to succeed in what they started out to do in the first place. And theyll not do that by sitting home on the other side of the Bogs and letting Lord Festian put Glanharrow back in order.

So Im thinking that what theyre doing right this minute is either sitting back and waiting to see just how long Milord Baron is prepared to leave you and your armsmen here to support Lord Festian, or else thinking about whether or not they want to reinforce their side. Or it might be theyre doing both of those at the selfsame time.

He shrugged, and his expression was noticeably more grim as he drank another large mouthful of his ale.

So the answer to your question, Milord, he said finally, letting his tankard thump back down on the plain, plank tabletop, is that, aye, I think well be seeing them again. Maybe sooner than wed like.

* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *