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Chapter Thirty-Six

The morning suns heat lay golden on the rolling grassland as a reinforced company of cavalry in the mingled colors of Glanharrow and Balthar swept steadily southeast. The wind blewmore than a breeze, but still gentlefrom the south, and if it was cooler than it would become once full summer arrived, the day was already warmer than the day before had been. The cavalry sweep was approaching the perimeter of the Bogs, riding along one of the marshy streams that drained the rich but empty pastureland toward the swamps, still some miles away, and hordes of insects sent outriders of their own to scout the horsemen for possible targets.

Sir Trianal Bowmaster grimaced as the first stinging insect lighted on his warhorses neck. The black stallions skin shuddered, sending the insect zipping away, but the young man knew it would be back. Along with its brothers, sisters, and cousins and all of their assorted uncles, mothers, fathers, and aunts. And, of course, they would find their way under hardened leather greaves and vambraces. And steel breastplates. Although, he reflected, he wasnt certain that even a horsefly under a breastplate wasnt preferable to a mosquito inside a helmet.

Funny, he told himself, how the bards somehow forget to mention gnats and midgesor trapped sweatwhen they talk about battle and glory.

He snorted at the thought, then chuckled as he contemplated the response Brandark might have made to his observation. Whatever reservations Trianal might still nurse about hradani in general, he found himself forced to admire the Bloody Swords intelligence and sharp, biting sense of humor. His views on bardic oversights might well have been profane, but they would certainly have been amusing.

He stood in the stirrups for a moment, stretching his leg muscles, then settled back. He and his men had been in the saddle, but for brief, occasional halts, since well before dawn. Their pace had been slow enough to conserve their mounts, but that hadnt given them any more sleep before they left barracks, and his backside ached. Fortunately, it wasnt all that bad yet, and it was a sensation to which he was well accustomed, despite his youth. And although Chemalkas amusement with the spring rains seemed to have worn itself out, the ground was not yet dry enough for his troopers to be raising the clouds of dust which would have risen, even from grassland like this, later in the summer.

He wondered how many of his armsmen thought they were wasting their time. Whoeverhe conscientiously avoided the names Erathian and Saraticwas behind the raids appeared to be doing exactly what Sir Yarran had suggested they might and adopting a waiting posture. There had been no reports of additional raids in almost two weeks now, and Trianals patrols had found no sign of raiding parties during that time. He had other, smaller groups of scouts out searching for those signs even now, but hed chosen to lead this larger sweep in person. In no small part that had been to get himself out into the open air and away from the office Lord Festian had assigned him in the keep at Glanharrow. It was also the sweep most likely to encounter something, assuming that Lord Erathian was, in fact, one of those responsible for the attacks. Although, if Trianal wanted to be honest with himself about it, he didnt really anticipate that they were going to run into anything exciting, even so. But at least it was getting him some exercise.

And the opportunity to sweat and worry about horseflies and breastplates.

He chuckled again and reached for his water bottle. He took a siplittle more than enough to rinse his mouth outthen restoppered it and looked up as one of the riders scouting ahead of his main force came cantering back towards him.

Do you suppose theyve actually found something? he asked the older man beside him skeptically.

Id say its possible, Sir Yarran replied, squinting against the sun which hovered in the vicinity of the eastern horizon against a sky of blue and dramatic white clouds. If they have, they dont think its urgent, though. Trianal looked a question at him, and the senior knight shrugged. If it was urgent, hed be moving faster than that, he pointed out, and Trianal nodded.

Youve got a point, he conceded. Then he chuckled bitterly. Of course, if theyve found anything, theyre doing better than weve done for the last two weeks!

Patience, Milord. Patience, Sir Yarran advised with a half-grin. Thats what its all about, most times. Patience, I mean. Knowing when and how to wait is harder than charging behind the bugles, when alls said. Guts or a thirst for glory can get a man through battle and bloodshed, but its discipline and patience keep him from dashing off to find themand get his people killedwhen theres no need. And theyre also what get him through the time between the battles he does have to fight without letting boredom dull his edge.

Trianal cocked his head, considering what Yarran had said. The older knight watched him for a moment, then shrugged.

Boredoms whats killed more sentriesand scoutsthan anything else, Milord. A man whos bored is one as doesnt keep his eyes open and his wits about him for that one second when there truly is someone waiting out there with a bow, or creeping up behind to slit his throat with a knife.

And I imagine its killed more than a few men whose commander was too bored to be paying attention to his duties, Trianal said after a thoughtful pause, his eyes once again on the cantering scout.

Aye, Yarran agreed, pleased that the youngster had explicitly made the connection. Aye, it has.

The returning scout spotted Trianal beside his bugler and standard-bearer and cantered up to him and saluted.

Sir Stannans respects, Milord. He thinks we may have found something.

Such as? Trianal asked dryly when the armsman paused.

Pardon, Milord. The armsman gave a wry grimace and shook his head. Didnt mean to go to sleep on you, Sir. The Captain said to tell you weve struck the tracks of a party of horsemen.

How large a party? Trianals eyes narrowed.

It looks to be at least a score of horses, Sir. Might be as much as a score and a half. And most of em are wearing war shoes.

Trianal nodded acknowledgment and glanced at Sir Yarran. The older knight looked back, his own eyes thoughtful, but said nothing. Every young falcon must learn to fly, and it was as much his job to let Trianal try his wings as it was to keep the youngster from making too many mistakes.

Trianal understood that, and, to his credit, didnt resent it. He returned his attention to the scouts, but his voice was at least half directed towards Yarran when he spoke again.

War shoes dont necessarily mean anything, he said, emphasizing the adverb slightly, but that large a number of riders in one party is interesting. How far ahead is Sir Stannan?

Just over half a league, Milord, the messenger replied, turning in the saddle to point back the way hed come. Theres a ravine just over the slope yonder, then another line of hills, up against the edge of the Bogs. Theres a creek in the ravinethis one here joins it, and from the looks of things, it was a river a week agothat cuts through the hills. Its not very straight, though. Sir Stannan says his map shows it drains into the Bogs, eventually. The tracks follow the ravine.

They do, do they? Trianal murmured, and the messenger nodded. Whats the ground like in the ravine, the young knight asked, rubbing his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully.

Not good, Sir, the messenger said with a grimace. Like I say, it looks as if it was filled to the brim with runoff last week, and its twisty. Its marshy and soft, too, and theres places where the runoffs dumped gravel beds, or even a boulder or two. A man who wasnt careful could break a horses leg in spots.

But the going is firm and clear over the hills? Trianal asked. And theyre not too steep?

Aye, Milord. The messenger nodded. Theyre just hills, Sirfairly rolling, dirt and grass, not even any trees. Well, theres some bushes here and there, especially up along the crest line. Such as it is, and what there is of it.

I see. Trianal looked back at Sir Yarran. War shoes might not mean very much, he said, but when a party that size chooses to thread its way through that kind of terrain instead of going over the hills

Aye. Yarran nodded, and cocked his head at Stannans messenger. How fresh would those tracks be? he asked.

Fresh, Sir. The messenger scratched his chin consideringly. The suns not been on them long, not down in the ravine like they are. But even saying that, the wet dirt hasnt dried where it was kicked up. He scratched again and squinted. Id say theyre not more than an hour or so oldtwo at most.

Trianals eyes brightened, but he made himself nod thoughtfully. Then he opened the hard leather case attached to his saddle and extracted a map. It was already folded to the proper section, and he beckoned for Yarran to move his horse closer so that they could both see it.

It wasnt as detailed a map as the King Emperors surveyors could have provided one of the Empire of the Axes commanders, but it was far better than most maps of the Wind Plain. Baron Tellian had made it a priority to import surveyors from the Empire, and theyd been working their way through the West Riding for several summers now, one section at a time (as he could budget for their fees and weather permitted). Fortunately for Trianal, hed begun with Glanharrow because of its proximity to the Horse Stealers.

What do you think? Trianal ran a fingertip along the course of what had to be Stannans ravine. According to the map, it wound its way through the line of hills in a serpentine series of twists and turns until it finally emerged on the rather indeterminate edge of the Bogs. There were very few details, aside from one or two larger, more prominent hills, once the map crossed over into the Bogs proper, unfortunately.

From this, he continued, tapping the map, it looks as if the ravine comes out well into Lord Erathians lands.

Aye, Sir Yarran agreed. Then he shrugged. Come to that, though, Milord, weve been on Erathians lands at least since sunup.

I know. But this, Trianal tapped the map again, on top of the ravine, leads much further in. In fact, his keep is less than three leagues away from where it hits the Bogs.

Three leagues might be thirty across groundor mudlike that, Yarran pointed out.

Unless a man happened to know a way through the Bogs.

Aye, there is that, the older knight agreed.

But if following the ravine means they dont have to worry about skylining themselves or leaving tracks out in the open, it also comes near to doubling how far they have to go. And it probably triples their riding time. Whereas if we were to push our pace a bit and cut directly across the hills here

Its a good thought, Yarran said. All the same, Milord, its not likely well be there before them, he warned. Not if those tracks are nearer two hours old than one.

I know. But its worth a try. And even if we dont get there before them, we may get there close enough on their heels to be able to follow them through the Bogs before the mud sucks their tracks under.

Thats true enough, Yarran agreed, and Trianal waved for their troop commanders to join them.

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