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Chapter Thirty-Seven

Theyre 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 Fahlthus 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 Fahlthus troopers and their waiting position to the line of hills beyond. Theyd 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 swamplands low-growing trees and brush to hide its heliographs flash from anyone to the west.

Fahlthu grunted in acknowledgment of Evauhlts report and drummed the fingers of his right hand on the hilt of his saber. That estimate of the enemys numbers was higher than hed 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 didnt 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 didnt care very much at the moment. The more he saw of Brownsaddle, the less he liked. Not because the man wasnt competentin fact, he was almost irritatingly capable. Indeed, much of Fahlthus 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 Saratics orders.

If it were still raining, that would be one thing, Sir, Darnas Warshoe repliedrespectfully, but with enough patience in his voice to show his opinion of Fahlthus critical tone. As it is He shrugged. You cant 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 themlike 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 wasnt 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 Yarrans doing. And however quickly theyd 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, Trianals 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 youngsters command had been closer to the small, isolated scouting forces hed expected to encounter during the opening phases of the new campaign.

Unfortunately, now that contact had been made at all, Halnahks ordersand, worse, Sir Chaltharswere explicit.

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