“They’re back there, all right, Sir,” Sergeant Evauhlt said.
The Golden Vale armsman was perched in one of the sturdier trees, peering back to the east through a spyglass at a winking point of light. The long-barreled glass was much heavier and clumsier than the Axeman double-glass in the case hanging from Sir Fahlthu’s weapons harness. It was, however, almost as powerful and far cheaper, and Fahlthu had no intention of trusting his prized glasses to any clumsy-fingered cavalry trooper. Even a signaler like Evauhlt.
“How many of them?” he asked, gazing up into the oak.
“The scouts say six or seven score, Sir,” Evauhlt reported, still watching the flash of the heliograph from the steep hill further into the swamp. The lookouts atop it could see over the trees sheltering Fahlthu’s troopers and their waiting position to the line of hills beyond. They’d been diligently keeping watch on their crests since dawn, in anticipation of his scouting parties’ return, and passing their reports to the signal post located far enough down the hill for the swampland’s low-growing trees and brush to hide its heliograph’s flash from anyone to the west.
Fahlthu grunted in acknowledgment of Evauhlt’s report and drummed the fingers of his right hand on the hilt of his saber. That estimate of the enemy’s numbers was higher than he’d hoped it might be when the scouts watching his back trail first reported that his tracks were being followed. On the other hand, the other side thought they were still chasing mere horse thieves. They didn’t know the rules of the game had changed… .
“Well, Master Brownsaddle,” he observed to the man beside him. “So much for hiding our tracks.”
He knew the criticism implicit in his tone was less than fair, but he really didn’t care very much at the moment. The more he saw of “Brownsaddle,” the less he liked. Not because the man wasn’t competent—in fact, he was almost irritatingly capable. Indeed, much of Fahlthu’s unease where “Brownsaddle” was concerned stemmed from the fact that the man was too capable for who and what he claimed to be. Fahlthu had the instincts of a successful mercenary, and they insisted that “Brownsaddle” proved there was even more going on here than Sir Chalthar had explained when he issued Lord Saratic’s orders.
“If it were still raining, that would be one thing, Sir,” Darnas Warshoe replied—respectfully, but with enough patience in his voice to show his opinion of Fahlthu’s critical tone. “As it is—” He shrugged. “You can’t hide the tracks of that many horses in weather like this, whatever you do. All you can do is try to put them somewhere no one will look for them—like the bottom of a ravine.”
Fahlthu grunted again. This time he sounded remarkably like an irritated boar as he considered his options. Those same instincts which distrusted “Brownsaddle” urged him to avoid any closer contact with his pursuers. It wasn’t as if that would be difficult to do, although Sir Trianal had made considerably better time to this point than Fahlthu had anticipated. The boy had reacted quickly and pressed hard, the Golden Vale armsman acknowledged. Not hard enough to tire his horses as much as Fahlthu had hoped for, unfortunately, but that might be Sir Yarran’s doing. And however quickly they’d gotten here, and however fresh their mounts might be, Sir Fahlthu still had the advantage of position. Not to mention guides who knew their way through this miserable, mucky swamp. Still, Trianal’s force was considerably larger than Halnahk had anticipated when he issued the detailed instructions which gifted Fahlthu with responsibility for this initial operation. Fahlthu would have been far happier if the youngster’s command had been closer to the small, isolated scouting forces he’d expected to encounter during the opening phases of the new campaign.
Unfortunately, now that contact had been made at all, Halnahk’s orders—and, worse, Sir Chalthar’s—were explicit.