Once out of the camps, they rearranged their order. Now it was Kyra who had point, and Tarma who took tail. This side of the mountains, danger would be coming at them from the rearâKelcrag's scouts, sniffing around the edges of the Royalist army. All of them had taken care long ago to replace metal harness pieces with leather where they could, or even carved woodâanything that wouldn't shine and wouldn't clink. The metal they had to have
brightwork; it was dulled and tarnished and left that way. Shinâa'in horses were trained to neck and knee, so all they needed was a soft halter with no bit. As for their own armor, or lack of it, their best protection would be speed on a mission like thisâstay out of the way if you can, and never close for a fight unless you have no choice. So they saved themselves and their horses the few extra pounds, and dressed for the weather, not for battle. Tarma kept her short Shinâa'in horse-bow strung and under her cape; if it came to a fight, she would buy the rest time to string theirs. Warrl ranged all over their backtrail, keeping in steady mindtouch with Tarma. He would buy them yet more advance warning, if there was going to be trouble.
But the trek west was quiet.
The storm gradually slackened to drizzle as the sky grew lighter; the landscape was dreary, even without the devastations of warfare all about them. The hills were dead and brown, and lifeless; the herds of sheep and gercattle that usually grazed them had gone to feed one or both armies. The scrub trees displayed black, leafless branches against the gray sky, and the silence around them intensified the impression that this area was utterly deserted. Wet, rotting leaves left their own signature on the breeze, a melancholy, bitter aroma more tasted than smelled, that lingered in the back of the throat. The track they followed was part rock, part yellow mud, a thick, claylike stuff that clung to hooves and squelched when it let go.
All five of them rode in that peculiar half-trance of the scout on his way to something; not looking for anything, not yetânot paying outward attention to surroundingsâbut should anything, however small, moveâ
A crow, flapping up to their right, got exactly the appropriate reaction; Tarma, ready-armed, had already sighted on him before he'd risen a foot. Jodi and Beaker had their hands on their bowcases and their eyes to left and right, wary for possible ambush. Garth had his sword out and was ready to back Tarma, and Kyra was checking the road ahead for more trouble.
They all laughed, shakily, when they realized what their “enemy” was.
“Don't think even Kelcrag's taken up with the corbies,” Tarma said, shaking her head, and tucking her bow back under the oiled silk. “Stillâ
he hasn't got anyone dedicated enough to go muck- ing around in this weather, but we can't count on it. Stay alert, children. At least until we get out of the war zone.”
By midday they had done just thatâthere were herds on the distant hills, although the shepherds and herders quickly moved them out of sight when they saw the little band approaching. Tarma saw Garth nodding in sympathy, lips moving soundlessly in what she rather thought was a blessing. His people had been all but wiped out when some war had trampled them into
earth, somewhere down south.
Tarma knew everything there was to know about her “children”; she had made a point of getting drunk at least once with each of her scouts. It was damned useful to know what made them twitch. One of the reasons Garth was with Idraâhe was so good a tracker he could have served with any company, or even as a pampered huntsman to royaltyâwas because she allowed no looting of the peasantry (nobles were another matter) and insisted on the Hawks paying in trade-silver and pure copper ingots for what they needed. Like Garth, all the Hawks tended to serve their lady-Captain for more than just coin.
By now they were all fairly well sodden except for Tarma, brown and black and gray cloaks all becoming a similar dark, indeterminant shade. Even Tarma was rather damp. Rain that was one scant point from being sleet still managed to get past her high collar to trickle down her neck, and muddy water from every puddle they splashed through had soaked through her breeches long ago. She was going numb with cold; the rest of them must be in worse case.
“Kyra,” she called forward, “You in territory you know yet?”
The girl turned in her saddle, rain trickling down her nose. “Hmmâeh, I'd say so. Think this's Domery lands, they're kin of my kinâ”
“I don't want to stretch anybody's hospitality or honesty, but we need to dry off a bit. There any herders' huts or caves or something around here? Something likely to be deserted this time of year?”
“I'll think on't.”
A few soggy furlongs laterâas Kyra scanned her memory and the land around themâ
“Scoutmaster,” she called back, “ âBout three hills over there be a cave; used for lambin' and shearin' and never else. That do?”
“Room for all of us? I mean horses, too. No sense in shouting our presence by tethering them out, and plain cruel to make them endure more of this than we do.”
Kyra's brow creased with thought. “If I don't misremember, aye. Be a squeeze, but aye.”
Kyra had misrememberedâbut by
stimating the size of the cave. There was enough room at the back for all five horses to stand shoulder to shoulder, with enough space left over for one rider at a time to rub his beast down without getting trampled on. An overhanging shelf of limestone made it possible to build a fire at the front of the cave without all of them eating smoke. And there was wood stocked at the side, dry enough that there wasn't much of that smoke in the first place.
More to the point, where concealment was concerned, the rain dissipated what trickled past the blackened overhang.
“How much farther?” Tarma asked, chewing on a tasteless mouthful of trail-biscuit.
“Not much,” Kyra replied. “We better be cuttin' overland from here if m' memâry be still good. Look youâ”
She dipped a twig in muddy, black water and drew on a flat rock near the cave's entrance.
Tarma got down on her knees beside her and studied her crude map carefully. “One, maybe two candlemarks, depending, hmm?”
“Aye, depending.” Kyra chewed on the other end of the twig for a moment. “We got to stick t' ridgesâ”
“What?” Beaker exclaimed. “For every gossip in the hills to see us?”
“Oh, bad to be seen, but worse to be bogged. Valleys, they go boggy this time of year, like. Stuff livin' in the bogs is bad for a beast's feet. Y' want yer laddy's hooves t' rot off âfore we reach trail's end, y' ride the valleys.”
“No middle way?” Tarma asked.
“Well.... We won't be goin' where there's likely many, an' most of those'd be my kin. They see me, they know what I was abaht, and they keep their tongues from clackinâ.”
“That'll have to do.” Tarma got up from her knees, and dusted the gravel off the knees of her breechesâwhich were, she was happy to find, relatively dry. “All right, children, let's ride.”
“I dunnoâ” Garth said dubiously, peering up through the drizzle at what was little better than a worn track along the shale cliffside.
Tarma studied the trail and chewed at the comer of her lip. “Kyra,” she said, finally, “your beast's the weakest of the lot. Give it a try. If she can make it, we all can.”
“Aye,” Kyra saluted, and turned her mare's head to the trail. She let the mare take her time and pick her own places to set her feet along the track. It seemed to take foreverâ
But eventually they could see that she was waving from the top.
“Send the first bird, Beaker,” Tarma said, heading Ironheart after the way Kyra had followed. “We're going to see if this trail is a dead end or the answer to our prayers.”
Twice before sunset they lost the track on broad expanses of bare rock, and spent precious time trying to pick it up again, all of them combing the ground thumblength by thumblength.
Sunset was fast approaching the second time they lost, then found the trail again. Tarma scanned the sky warily, trying to judge, with the handicap of lowering clouds, how much time they had before darkness fell. They obviously weren't going to make trail's end by sunsetâso the choice was whether to camp here on this windswept slant of scoured stone, or to press on in the hope of coming up with something better and maybe instead find themselves spending the night on a ledge two handspans wide.
She finally decided to press on, allowing just enough time in reserve that they could double back if they had to.
The track led on through lichen and rubble: treacherous stuff, except where the wild ponies had pounded a thin line of solidity. Jodi was mapping as they went along, and marking their backtrail with carefully inconspicuous “cairns” composed of no more than three or four pebbles. The drizzle had stopped, at least, and the exertion that was warming them had driven most of the damp out of their clothing. The pony-track led down into a barren gulleyâTarma disliked that, and kept watching for water marks on the rocks they passed. If there was a cloudburst and this
to be one of the local runoff sites, they could be hock-deep in tumbling rock and fast water in the time it took to blink.
But the gulley stayed dry, the track eased a bitâand then, like a gift from the gods, just before Tarma would have signaled a turnaround point, they came upon a possible campsite.
Sometime in the not-too-recent past, part of the hill above them had come sliding down, creating a horseshoe of boulders the size of a house. There would be shelter from the wind there, their fire would be out of sight of prying eyesâand it would be easy to defend from predators.
Garth eyed the site with the same interest Tarma was feeling. “No place to get out of the rain, if it decided to come down again,” he observed, “and nothing much to burn but that scrub up there on the wall. We'd have us a pot of hot tea, but a cold camp.”
“Huh. The choice is this or the flat back there,” Tarma told them. “Me, I'd take this. Kyra? This is your land.”
“Aye, I'd take this; we've slept wet afore,” Kyra agreed. “This âun isn't a runoff, an' don't look like any more of the hill is gonna slip while we're here. I'd say 'tis safe enough.”
The others nodded.
“Let's get ourselves settled then, while there's light.”
The rain began again before dawn and they were glad enough to be on the move and getting chilled muscles stretched and warmed. They lost the track once more, this time spending a frustrating hour searching for itâbut that was the last of their hardships, for noon saw them emerging from the hills and onto the plains on the other side.
Tarma allowed herself a broad grin, as the rest whooped and pounded each other's backs.
“Send up that damned bird, Beaker; we just earned ourselves one
bonus from Lord Leamount.”
Returning was easier, though it was plain that nothing but a goat, a donkey, a mountain pony or a Shinâa'in-bred beast was ever going to make it up or down that trail without breaking a leg. Tarma reckoned it would take the full Company about one day to traverse the trail; that, plus half a day to get to their end and half to get into striking distance of Kelcrag's forces meant two days' traveling time, in total. Not bad, really; they'd had a setup that had taken almost a week, once. Knowing Idra as she did, Tarma had a pretty good idea of what the Captain's suggested strategy was going to be. And it would involve the Hawks and no one else. No bad thing, that; the Hawks could count on their own to know what to do.
The rain had finally let up as they broke back out into the herder's country; they were dead tired and ready to drop, but at least they weren't wet anymore. Tarma saw an outrider a few furlongs beyond the camp; he, she or it was waving a scarf in the Hawks' colors of brown and golden yellow. She waved back, and the outrider vanished below the line of a hill. They all relaxed at that; they were watched for, they need not guard their pathâand there would almost certainly be food and drink waiting for them in the camp. That was exactly what they'd needed and hoped for.
They hadn't expected Idra and Sewen to be waiting for them at the entrance to the camp.
“Good work, children. Things are heating up. Maps,” Idra said curtly, and Jodi handed over the waterproof case with a half-salute and a tired grin. They were all achingly weary at this point; horses and humans alike were wobbly at the knees. Only Tarma and Ironheart were in any kind of shape, and Tarma wasn't too certain how much of Ironheart's apparent energy was bluff. Battlemares had a certain stubborn pride that sometimes made them as pigheaded about showing strain asâ
Warrl said in her head.
she thought back at him,
you should talk about being pigheadedâ
fine work,” Idra said, looking up from the maps and interrupting Tarma's train of thought. “Tarma, if you're up to a little moreâ”
“Captain.” Tarma nodded, and sketched a salute.
“The rest of youâthere's hot wine and hot food waiting in my tent, and a handful of Hawks to give your mounts the good rubdown and treat
deserve. Tarma, give Ironheart to Sewen and come with me. Warrl, too, if he wants. The rest of you get under shelter. We'll be seeing you all laterâwith news, I hope.”
Tarma had been too fatigue-fogged to note where they were going, except that they were working their way deeply into the heart of the encampments. But after a while the size of the tents and the splendor of the banners outside of them began to penetrate her weariness.