“Soâon the face of it, it bears checking. That's a task for the scouts,” Idra said at last, when Kyra had finished her report. She braced both hands on the table and turned to her Scoutmaster. “Tarma, what's your plan?”
“That I take out Kyra andâhmmâGarth, Beaker and Jodi,” Tarma replied after a moment of thought. “We leave before dawn tomorrow and see what we can see. If this trail still exists, we'll follow it in and find out if the locals are right. I'll have Beaker bring a pair of his birds; one to let you know if we find the trail at all, and one to tell you yea or nay on whether it's usable. That way you'll have full information for Lord Leamount without waiting for us to get back.”
“Good.” Idra nodded in satisfaction, as a bit of gray-brown hair escaped to get into her eyes. “Sewen?”
“What I'd do,” Sewen affirmed, pushing away from the table and sitting back onto his stool. “Them birds don't like water, but that's likely to make âem want their coops more, maybe fly a bit faster, hey? Don' wanta send a mage-message, or Kelcrag's magickers might track it.”
“Uh-huh; that was my thought,” Tarma agreed, nodding. “That, and the sad fact that other than Keth,
magickers might not be able to boost a mage-message that far.”
“I need Keth here,” Idra stated, “and none of Leamount's mages are fit enough to travel over that kind of territory.”
Sewen emitted a bark of laughter, weathered face crinkling up for a moment. “Gah, that lot's as miserable as a buncha wet chickens in a leaky hennery right now. They don' know this weather, an' evâry time they gotta move from their tent, y'd think it was gonna be a trip t' th' end of th' earth!”
Idra looked thoughtful for a moment, and rubbed the side of her nose with her finger. “This isn't wizard weather, is it, do you suppose?”
Both Tarma and her scout shook their heads vigorously. “Na, Capân,” Kyra said, cheerful light brightening her round face. “Na, is just a bit of a gentle fall storm. Y'should see a
Idra's eyebrows shot upward; she straightened and looked seriously alarmed until Sewen's guffaw told her she'd been played for an ignorant flatlander.
“Seriously, no,” Tarma seconded, “I asked Keth. She says the only sign of wizard weather would be if this
that it's got too much weight behind it, whatever that means.”
Sewen lifted his own eyebrow and supplied the answer. “She meant it's somethin' comin' in the proper seasonâgot all the weight of time an'
what should be
behind it.” He grinned at Tarma's loose jaw, showing teeth a horse could envy. “Useta study wizardry as a lad, hadn't ânough Gift t' be more'n half a hedge-wizard, so gave't up.”
“Good, then, we're all agreed.” Idra straightened her shoulders, gave her head an unconscious toss to get that bit of her hair out of her face. “Tarma, see to it. Who will you put in to replace you tomorrow?”
“Tamar. Next to Garth and Jodi, he's my best, and he's come in from the skirmishers.”
“Good. And tell him to tell the rest of your scouts not to give the enemy any slack tomorrow, but not to get in as close as they did today. I don't want them thinking we've maybe found something else to concentrate on, but I don't want any more gut-wounds, either.”
It was dawn, or nearly, and the rain had slackened some. There was still lightning and growling thunder, but at least you could
through the murk, and it was finally possible to keep the shielded torches at the entrance to the guarded camp alight.
Tarma saw her scouts assembled beneath one of those torches as she rode up to the sentry. She felt like yawning, but wouldn't; she wouldn't be a bad example. Cold,
I'm half-frozen and we haven't even gotten out of the camp yet, she thought with resignation. I haven't been warm since summer.
:And then you were complaining about heat,:
Warrl replied sardonically.
“I was not. That was Keth,” she retorted. “I like the heat.”
Warrl did not deign to reply.
Tarma was already feeling grateful for Kethry's parting gift, the water-repelling cape Keth had insisted on throwing over her coat. It's not magic, Keth had said,
I don't want a mage smelling you out. Just tight-woven, oiled silk, and bloody damned expensive. I swapped a jesto-vath on his tent to Gerrold for it, for as long as the rains last. I hope you don't mind the fact that it's looted goodsâ
So today it was Keth looking out for and worrying about her. They seemed to take it turn and turn about these days, being mother-hen. Well, that was what being partners was all about.
:Took you long enough to come to that conclusion,:
Warrl laughed. :
Now if you'd just start mother-henning meâ:
“You'd bite me, you fur-covered fiend.”
“Ahâyou're hopeless,” Tarma chided him, smothering a grin. “Let's look serious here; this is business.”
Tarma bit back another retort. She never won in a contest of sharp tongues with the
Instead of answering him, she pondered her choice of scouts again, and was satisfied, all things considered, that she'd picked the best ones for the job.
First, Garth: a tiny man, and dark, he looked like a dwarfish shadow on his tall Shinâa'in gelding. He was one of Tarma's first choices for close-in night work, since his dusky skin made it unnecessary for him to smear ash on himself, but his most outstanding talents were that he could ride like a Shinâa'in and track like a hound. His one fault was that he couldn't hit a haystack with more than two arrows out of ten. He was walking his bay gelding back and forth between the two sentries at the sally-point, since his beast was the most nervous of the five that would be going out, and the thunder was making it lay its ears back and show the whites of its eyes.
Beaker: average was the word for Beaker; size, coloring, habitsâaverage in everything except his noseâ
raptor's bill rivaled Tarma's. His chestnut mare was as placid of disposition as Garth's beast was nervous, and Beaker's temperament matched his mare's. As Tarma rode up, they both appeared to be dozing, despite the cold rain coming down on their heads. Fastened to the cantle of Beaker's saddle were two cages, each the size of two fists put together, each holding a black bird with a green head. Beaker was a good tracker, almost as good as Garth, but
was his specialty; the training and deployment of his messenger birds.
Jodi: sleepy-eyed and deceptively quiet, this pale, ice-blonde child with evident aristocratic blood in her veins was their mapmaker. Besides that skill, she was a vicious knife fighter and as good with a bow as Garth was poor with one. She rode a gray mare with battlesteed blood in her; a beast impossible for anyone but her or Tarma to ride, who would only allow a select few to handle her. Jodi sat her as casually as some gentle palfreyâand with Jodi in her saddle, the mare acted like one. Her only fault was that she avoided situations where she would have to command the way she would have avoided fouled water.
And Kyra: peasant blood and peasant stock, she'd trained herself in tracking, bow and knife, and hard riding, intending to be something other than some stodgy farmer's stolid wife. When the war came grinding over her parents' fields and her family had fled for their lives, she'd stayed. She'd coolly sized up both sides and chosen Surshaâsâthen sized up the mercenary Companies attached to Sursha's army and decided which ones she wanted to approach.
She'd started first with the Hawks, though she hadn't really thought she'd get inâor so she had confessed to Tarma after being signed on. Little had she guessed that Scout Pawell had coughed out his life pinned to a tree three days earlierâand that the Hawks had been down by two scouts before that had happened. Tarma had interviewed her and sent her to Sewen, who'd sent her to Idraâwho'd sent her back to Tarma with the curt orderâ“Try her. If she survives, hire her.” Tarma had sent her on the same errand that had killed Pawell.
had returned. Since Pawell had had no relatives, no leman and no shieldmate to claim his belongings, Tarma gave her Pawell's dun horse, Pawell's gear, and Pawell's tentmate. Kyra had quickly acquired something Pawell hadnâtâtentmate had turned to shieldmate and lover.
The Scouts altogether approved, as Pawell had been standoffish and his replacement was anything but. The romance had amused and touched them. Kyra had begun to bloom under the approval, to think for herself, to make judgment calls. The Kyra that had joined them would never have come to Tarma with an old tale and a rumor; Kyra of “now” had experience enough to
how important that rumor could be, and enough guts to present the information herself. She was Tarma's personal pick to become a subcommander herself in a few years.
It was false dawn; one hour to real dawn, and there was a hint that the sky was getting lighter. No words were needed; they all knew what they had to do. When Tarma rode gray Ironheart into the waiting knot of Scouts and horses, those dismounted swung back up into their saddles. Tarma didn't even slacken her pace; all five of them left the camp in proper diamond formation, as if they'd rehearsed the whole maneuver. Tarma had point (since as commander she was the only one of the five with all the current passwords), Garth tail, Jodi right and Kyra leftâBeaker and his precious birds rode protected in the middle.
They rode along the back of the string of encampments ; dark tents against slowly graying sky to their right, scrub forest and hills stark black against the sky to their left. The camps were totally dark, since just about everyone had encountered the same troubles as the Hawks had with lights and fires in the pouring rain.
They were challenged almost as soon as they left their own camp; a foot-sentry, sodden, but alert. He belonged to Staferd's Cold-drakes; this was the, edge of
camp. Tarma nodded to herself with satisfaction at his readiness, and gave him the countersign.
Then came a heavy encampment of regular infantry, whose sentry hailed Warrl, who was trotting at Ironheart's flank, by name, and called out; “You're recognized, Sunhawks. Pass on.” Tarma felt a little twitchy about that one, but couldn't fault him. You challenged those whom you didn't recognize; you could let known quantities by. And there were no
in Kelcrag's forces.
At the next encampmentâDuke Greyhame's levyâthey were physically challenged; a fully-armed youth with an arrogant sneer on his lips, mounted on a heavy, wild-eyed warhorse. He blocked their path until Tarma gave an elaborate countersign. Even then, he wouldn't clear the path entirely. He left only enough room for them to ride past in single file, unless they wanted to desert the firm ground and ride on the mushy banks. And he backed off with some show of reluctance, and much induced rearing and prancing of his gelding.
Garth eased his horse alongside Tarma's and whispered angrily to her:
“I'd like to feed that little son of a bitch his own damned gauntlet!”
“Peace,” Tarma said, “Let me handle this. Give me rear for long enough to teach him a lesson.”
Garth passed the word; wry grins appeared and vanished in an instant, and the scout ranks opened and closed so that Beaker had point and Tarma had dropped back to tail. The scouts squeezed past the arrogant sentry, one by one, Tarma the last. She didn't move, only stared at him for a long moment, letting Ironheart feel her ground and set her feet.
Then she dropped her hands, and signaled the battlemare with her knees.
Black as a nightmare in the rain, the battlesteed reared up to her full heightâand stayed there, as perfectly balanced as only a Shinâa'in trained warsteed could be. Another invisible command from Tarma, and she hopped forward on her hind hooves, forefeet lashing out at the stranger-gelding, who, not being the fool his rider was, cleared off the path and up onto the mucky shoulder. Then Ironheart settled to all four hooves again, but only for as long as it took to get past the arrogant sentry. As Tarma had figured he would, he spurred his beast down onto the path again as soon as they got by. Whatever he'd thought to do then didn't much matter. As soon as he was right behind them and just out of range of what was normally an attack move, Tarma gave her mare a final signal that sent her leaping into the air, lashing out with her rear hooves in a wicked kick as she reached the top of her arc. Had the boy
within range of those hooves, his face would have been smashed in. As it was (as Tarma had carefully calculated), the load of mud Ironheart had picked up flicked off her heels to splatter all over him, his fancy panoply, and his considerably cowed beast.
“Next time, boy,” she called back over her shoulder, as her scouts snickered, “best
whose tail it is you plan to twist, and be prepared for consequences.”
The edge of the camps was held by the freefightersâlittle clots of scum no good company would take into itself. They were one of the reasons each levy and company had its own set of sentries; politics was the other. Tarma didn't much understand politicsâscum, she knew. It had been a band of this sort of flotsam that had wiped out her Clan.
But a sword was a sword, and Leamount was not above paying them so long as someone he trusted could keep an eye on them.
That, thank the Warrior, is not Idra's job,
Tarma thought to herself, wrinkling her nose at the stench of their huddle of makeshift shelters. Unwashed bodies, rotting canvas, garbage, privy pits right in the campâthe mix was hardly savory. Even the rain couldn't wash it out of the air. They rode past this lot (too sodden with drink or drug, or just too damn lazy to set one of their own to sentry duty) without a challenge, but with one hand on their knives and shortswords at all times. There'd been trouble with this lot beforeâand five were not too many for them to consider mobbing if they thought it worth their while.