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The sun was much higherpast noon, in factand the day was hotter as the reinforced company topped the final hill and started down the slope towards the deep-green barrier of the Bogs. The insects which had irritated Trianal earlier had been nothing compared to the swarm of gnats, midges, and mosquitoes which rose from the swamps and whined towards them, and he swatted morosely as a particularly large mosquito lighted briefly on his breastplate. His palm caught the insect before it could move, and he grimaced when the red splotch it left behind on the blackened cuirass indicated that it had already dined.

He grimaced again as he considered the terrain and recalled his own observation that his map wasnt as detailed as the sort a Royal and Imperial Army commander might have had. The ravine and hills were where it had said they would be; it simply hadnt indicated the density of the scrub trees and underbrush which fringed the Bogs and extended inward from its edges. The ravine cut a way through the green barrier, but he was a Sothoii. A horseman at heart, by both training and inclination, and accustomed to the long, clean sight lines of the Wind Plain. He didnt like the way that band of vegetation blocked his view deeper into the swampy land beyond.

He pressed his horse with his right knee, turning it to the left, and the steady pressure of his heels pushed it to a trot as he moved down the slope towards the ravine. It had grown broader and shallower as it approached the Bogs, and as he approached it, he could see the churned earth of the horses theyd been tracking. Sir Stannan, the captain who commanded his troop of scouts, was waiting with his senior sergeant.

Trianal drew up beside Stannan, Yarran and his standard-bearer and bugler at his heels, and the captain and noncom saluted. Trianal returned the salute with a quick brush of his breastplate, then nodded his head at the tracks.

They look fresher, Captain, he observed.

That they do, Milord, Stannan agreed. He was a rangy, brown-haired man, perhaps eight years older than Trianal, with a droopy mustache. He jerked his head at the ravine. Weve made up time on them, as youd hoped, he continued. But theres more of them than there were.

I wonder if they had friends waiting for them? Trianal mused aloud, gazing farther to the east, where the ravine disappeared into the green shadows of the Bogs thickets. The wind had strengthened and hissed softly in the grass about them, then danced on the gently tossing branches of the undergrowth.

They might have, Sir Yarran said. Or it may be that there was more than one detachment of them out there, Milord. Its possible they were doing what were doingout scouting for targets. Weve been moving herds out of the area steadily, so its been getting emptier. They may be heading home after spending the night ranging out further, looking for something to pounce on.

Or keeping watch for us, Trianal responded. I know this would be a lot of men if all they were doing was scouting, but they know were looking for them. It would only make sense for them to want to keep an eye peeled for us to avoid surprises. And they could be sending out bigger scouting parties to give them more strength in case they run into one of our patrols,

Aye, theres that, Yarran agreed. Any road, its reasonable enough that theyd arrange to be meeting up before they went traipsing into the Bogs. Especially if theyve only so many men who know their way about in there.

How many, do you think, Captain? Trianal asked Sir Stannan.

Hard to say, with so many hoofs churning it up on top of each other, Sir, the mustachioed officer replied. Id be surprised if its less than threescore now. And Id not be surprised if it was as much as four, or even five.

Trianal pursed his lips, controlling his expression with care. It was hard. Eighty or ninety menvery nearly an entire company of cavalrymoving about in a formed body had to be up to something. It was also, by a considerable margin, the largest single force they or any of Lord Festians scouts had yet tracked, and they were closer behind their quarry than anyone else had so far come. With the portion of his own command attached to the Glanharrow company Sir Yarran had brought along, he had eight troopsa hundred and sixty men, or almost twice the numbers Sir Stannan was estimating. If he could lay the force theyd been pursuing by the heels

It would be a fine thing to make a hole in the bastards, Milord, Sir Yarran observed. Trianal glanced at him and nodded, and the older knight continued in a thoughtful tone. All the same, weve no evidence theyve done aught but ride about. And if it should happen theyre in Lord Erathians colors, theyve every right to be moving about his lands.

They do, Trianal agreed. But if theyre not in Erathians colors, or if it should happen that theyre in someone elses colors, then wed certainly have a responsibility to ask them who they are and why they were here, wouldnt we? He smiled with predatory humor. After all, Lord Warden Erathian is also my uncles vassal. Its clearly my responsibility to ensure that strange armsmen arent violating his territory or threatening the security of his holding.

Aye, that it is, Sir Yarran said with a toothy smile of admiration for the youngsters pious tone.

Well, in that case, Trianal said, lets see if we cant just catch up to ask them.

Chapter Thirty-Six | Wind Rider's Oath | Chapter Thirty-Seven