The morning sun’s 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 blew—more than a breeze, but still gentle—from 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 warhorse’s neck. The black stallion’s 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 wasn’t certain that even a horsefly under a breastplate wasn’t preferable to a mosquito inside a helmet.
Funny, he told himself, how the bards somehow forget to mention gnats and midges—or trapped sweat—when 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 Sword’s 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 hadn’t given them any more sleep before they left barracks, and his backside ached. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that bad yet, and it was a sensation to which he was well accustomed, despite his youth. And although Chemalka’s 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. Whoever—he conscientiously avoided the names Erathian and Saratic—was 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 Trianal’s 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 sip—little more than enough to rinse his mouth out—then restoppered it and looked up as one of the riders scouting ahead of his main force came cantering back towards him.
“Do you suppose they’ve actually found something?” he asked the older man beside him skeptically.
“I’d say it’s 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 don’t think it’s urgent, though.” Trianal looked a question at him, and the senior knight shrugged. “If it was urgent, he’d be moving faster than that,” he pointed out, and Trianal nodded.
“You’ve got a point,” he conceded. Then he chuckled bitterly. “Of course, if they’ve found anything, they’re doing better than we’ve done for the last two weeks!”
“Patience, Milord. Patience,” Sir Yarran advised with a half-grin. “That’s what it’s all about, most times. Patience, I mean. Knowing when and how to wait is harder than charging behind the bugles, when all’s said. Guts or a thirst for glory can get a man through battle and bloodshed, but it’s discipline and patience keep him from dashing off to find them—and get his people killed—when there’s no need. And they’re 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.
“Boredom’s what’s killed more sentries—and scouts—than anything else, Milord. A man who’s bored is one as doesn’t 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 it’s 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 Stannan’s 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. “Didn’t mean to go to sleep on you, Sir. The Captain said to tell you we’ve struck the tracks of a party of horsemen.”
“How large a party?” Trianal’s 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, didn’t 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 don’t 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 he’d come. “There’s a ravine just over the slope yonder, then another line of hills, up against the edge of the Bogs. There’s a creek in the ravine—this one here joins it, and from the looks of things, it was a river a week ago—that cuts through the hills. It’s 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. “What’s 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 it’s twisty. It’s marshy and soft, too, and there’s places where the runoff’s dumped gravel beds, or even a boulder or two. A man who wasn’t careful could break a horse’s leg in spots.”
“But the going is firm and clear over the hills?” Trianal asked. “And they’re not too steep?”
“Aye, Milord.” The messenger nodded. “They’re just hills, Sir—fairly rolling, dirt and grass, not even any trees. Well, there’s 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 Stannan’s messenger. “How fresh would those tracks be?” he asked.
“Fresh, Sir.” The messenger scratched his chin consideringly. “The sun’s not been on them long, not down in the ravine like they are. But even saying that, the wet dirt hasn’t dried where it was kicked up.” He scratched again and squinted. “I’d say they’re not more than an hour or so old—two at most.”
Trianal’s 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 wasn’t as detailed a map as the King Emperor’s surveyors could have provided one of the Empire of the Axe’s 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 they’d 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, he’d 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 Stannan’s 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 Erathian’s lands.”
“Aye,” Sir Yarran agreed. Then he shrugged. “Come to that, though, Milord, we’ve been on Erathian’s 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 ground—or mud—like 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 don’t 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 …”
“It’s a good thought,” Yarran said. “All the same, Milord, it’s not likely we’ll be there before them,” he warned. “Not if those tracks are nearer two hours old than one.”
“I know. But it’s worth a try. And even if we don’t 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.”
“That’s true enough,” Yarran agreed, and Trianal waved for their troop commanders to join them.