The morning sun's heat lay golden on the rolling grassland as a reinforced company of cavalry in the mingled colors of Glanharrow and Balthar swept steadily southeast. The wind blew—more than a breeze, but still gentle—from the south, and if it was cooler than it would become once full summer arrived, the day was already warmer than the day before had been. The cavalry sweep was approaching the perimeter of the Bogs, riding along one of the marshy streams that drained the rich but empty pastureland toward the swamps, still some miles away, and hordes of insects sent outriders of their own to scout the horsemen for possible targets.
Sir Trianal Bowmaster grimaced as the first stinging insect lighted on his warhorse's neck. The black stallion's skin shuddered, sending the insect zipping away, but the young man knew it would be back. Along with its brothers, sisters, and cousins . . . and all of their assorted uncles, mothers, fathers, and aunts. And, of course, they would find their way under hardened leather greaves and vambraces. And steel breastplates. Although, he reflected, he wasn't certain that even a horsefly under a breastplate wasn't preferable to a mosquito inside a helmet.
Funny, he told himself, how the bards somehow forget to mention gnats and midges—or trapped sweat—when they talk about battle and glory.
He snorted at the thought, then chuckled as he contemplated the response Brandark might have made to his observation. Whatever reservations Trianal might still nurse about hradani in general, he found himself forced to admire the Bloody Sword's intelligence and sharp, biting sense of humor. His views on bardic oversights might well have been profane, but they would certainly have been amusing.
He stood in the stirrups for a moment, stretching his leg muscles, then settled back. He and his men had been in the saddle, but for brief, occasional halts, since well before dawn. Their pace had been slow enough to conserve their mounts, but that hadn't given them any more sleep before they left the barracks, and his backside ached. Fortunately, it wasn't all that bad yet, and it was a sensation to which he was well accustomed, despite his youth. And although Chemalka's amusement with the spring rains seemed to have worn itself out, the ground was not yet dry enough for his troopers to be raising the clouds of dust which would have risen, even from grassland like this, later in the summer.
He wondered how many of his armsmen thought they were wasting their time. Whoever—he conscientiously avoided the names Dathian and Saratic—was behind the raids appeared to be doing exactly what Sir Yarran had suggested they might and adopting a waiting posture. There had been no reports of additional raids in almost two weeks now, and Trianal's patrols had found no sign of raiding parties during that time. He had other, smaller groups of scouts out searching for those signs even now, but he'd chosen to lead this larger sweep in person. In no small part that had been to get himself out into the open air and away from the office Lord Festian had assigned him in the keep at Glanharrow. It was also the sweep most likely to encounter something, assuming that Lord Dathian was, in fact, one of those responsible for the attacks. Although, if Trianal wanted to be honest with himself about it, he didn't really anticipate that they were going to run into anything exciting, even so. But at least it was getting him some exercise.
And the opportunity to sweat . . . and worry about horseflies and breastplates.
He chuckled again and reached for his water bottle. He took a sip—little more than enough to rinse his mouth out—then restoppered it and looked up as one of the riders scouting ahead of his main force came cantering back towards him.
"Do you suppose they've actually found something?" he asked the older man beside him skeptically.
"I'd say it's possible," Sir Yarran replied, squinting against the sun which hovered in the vicinity of the eastern horizon against a sky of blue and dramatic white clouds. "If they have, they don't think it's urgent, though." Trianal looked a question at him, and the senior knight shrugged. "If it was urgent, he'd be moving faster than that," he pointed out, and Trianal nodded.
"You've got a point," he conceded. Then he chuckled bitterly. "Of course, if they've found anything, they're doing better than we've done for the last two weeks!"
"Patience, Milord. Patience," Sir Yarran advised with a half-grin. "That's what it's all about, most times. Patience, I mean. Knowing when and how to wait is harder than charging behind the bugles, when all's said. Guts or a thirst for glory can get a man through battle and bloodshed, but it's discipline and patience keep him from dashing off to find them—and get his people killed—when there's no need. And they're also what get him through the time between the battles he does have to fight without letting boredom dull his edge."
Trianal cocked his head, considering what Yarran had said. The older knight watched him for a moment, then shrugged.
"Boredom's what's killed more sentries—and scouts—than anything else, Milord. A man who's bored is one as doesn't keep his eyes open and his wits about him for that one second when there truly is someone waiting out there with a bow, or creeping up behind to slit his throat with a knife."
"And I imagine it's killed more than a few men whose commander was too bored to be paying attention to his duties," Trianal said after a thoughtful pause, his eyes once again on the cantering scout.
"Aye," Yarran agreed, pleased that the youngster had explicitly made the connection. "Aye, it has."
The returning scout spotted Trianal beside his bugler and standard-bearer and cantered up to him and saluted.
"Sir Stannan's respects, Milord. He thinks we may have found something."
"Such as?" Trianal asked dryly when the armsman paused.
"Pardon, Milord." The armsman gave a wry grimace and shook his head. "Didn't mean to go to sleep on you, Sir. The Captain said to tell you we've struck the tracks of a party of horsemen."
"How large a party?" Trianal's eyes narrowed.
"It looks to be at least a score of horses, Sir. Might be as much as a score and a half. And most of 'em are wearing war shoes."
Trianal nodded acknowledgment and glanced at Sir Yarran. The older knight looked back, his own eyes thoughtful, but said nothing. Every young falcon must learn to fly, and it was as much his job to let Trianal try his wings as it was to keep the youngster from making too many mistakes.
Trianal understood that, and, to his credit, didn't resent it. He returned his attention to the scouts, but his voice was at least half directed towards Yarran when he spoke again.
"War shoes don't necessarily mean anything," he said, emphasizing the adverb slightly, "but that large a number of riders in one party is interesting. How far ahead is Sir Stannan?"
"Just over half a league, Milord," the messenger replied, turning in the saddle to point back the way he'd come. "There's a ravine just over the slope yonder, then another line of hills, up against the edge of the Bogs. There's a creek in the ravine—this one here joins it, and from the looks of things, it was a river a week ago—that cuts through the hills. It's not very straight, though. Sir Stannan says his map shows it drains into the Bogs, eventually. The tracks follow the ravine."
"They do, do they?" Trianal murmured, and the messenger nodded. "What's the ground like in the ravine," the young knight asked, rubbing his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully.
"Not good, Sir," the messenger said with a grimace. "Like I say, it looks as if it was filled to the brim with runoff last week, and it's twisty. It's marshy and soft, too, and there's places where the runoff's dumped gravel beds, or even a boulder or two. A man who wasn't careful could break a horse's leg in spots."
"But the going is firm and clear over the hills?" Trianal asked. "And they're not too steep?"
"Aye, Milord." The messenger nodded. "They're just hills, Sir—fairly rolling, dirt and grass, not even any trees. Well, there's some bushes here and there, especially up along the crest line. Such as it is, and what there is of it."
"I see." Trianal looked back at Sir Yarran. "War shoes might not mean very much," he said, "but when a party that size chooses to thread its way through that kind of terrain instead of going over the hills . . ."
"Aye." Yarran nodded, and cocked his head at Stannan's messenger. "How fresh would those tracks be?" he asked.
"Fresh, Sir." The messenger scratched his chin consideringly. "The sun's not been on them long, not down in the ravine like they are. But even saying that, the wet dirt hasn't dried where it was kicked up." He scratched again and squinted. "I'd say they're not more than an hour or so old—two at most."
Trianal's eyes brightened, but he made himself nod thoughtfully. Then he opened the hard leather case attached to his saddle and extracted a map. It was already folded to the proper section, and he beckoned for Yarran to move his horse closer so that they could both see it.
It wasn't as detailed a map as the King Emperor's surveyors could have provided one of the Empire of the Axe's commanders, but it was far better than most maps of the Wind Plain. Baron Tellian had made it a priority to import surveyors from the Empire, and they'd been working their way through the West Riding for several summers now, one section at a time (as he could budget for their fees and weather permitted). Fortunately for Trianal, he'd begun with Glanharrow because of its proximity to the Horse Stealers.
"What do you think?" Trianal ran a fingertip along the course of what had to be Stannan's ravine. According to the map, it wound its way through the line of hills in a serpentine series of twists and turns until it finally emerged on the rather indeterminate edge of the Bogs. There were very few details, aside from one or two larger, more prominent hills, once the map crossed over into the Bogs proper, unfortunately.
"From this," he continued, tapping the map, "it looks as if the ravine comes out well into Lord Dathian's lands."
"Aye," Sir Yarran agreed. Then he shrugged. "Come to that, though, Milord, we've been on Dathian's lands at least since sunup."
"I know. But this," Trianal tapped the map again, on top of the ravine, "leads much further in. In fact, his keep is less than three leagues away from where it hits the Bogs."
"Three leagues might be thirty across ground—or mud—like that," Yarran pointed out.
"Unless a man happened to know a way through the Bogs."
"Aye, there is that," the older knight agreed.
"But if following the ravine means they don't have to worry about skylining themselves or leaving tracks out in the open, it also comes near to doubling how far they have to go. And it probably triples their riding time. Whereas if we were to push our pace a bit and cut directly across the hills here . . ."
"It's a good thought," Yarran said. "All the same, Milord, it's not likely we'll be there before them," he warned. "Not if those tracks are nearer two hours old than one."
"I know. But it's worth a try. And even if we don't get there before them, we may get there close enough on their heels to be able to follow them through the Bogs before the mud sucks their tracks under."
"That's true enough," Yarran agreed, and Trianal waved for their troop commanders to join them.
* * *
The sun was much higher—past noon, in fact—and 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 wasn't 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 hadn't 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 Sothōii. A horseman at heart, by both training and inclination, and accustomed to the long, clean sight lines of the Wind Plain. He didn't 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 they'd 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. "We've made up time on them, as you'd hoped," he continued. "But there's 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 Bog's 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. It's possible they were doing what we're doing—out scouting for targets. We've been moving herds out of the area steadily, so it's 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 we're 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, there's that," Yarran agreed. "Any road, it's reasonable enough that they'd arrange to be meeting up before they went traipsing into the Bogs. Especially if they've 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 hooves churning it up on top of each other, Sir," the mustachioed officer replied. "I'd be surprised if it's less than threescore now. And I'd 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 men—very nearly an entire company of cavalry—moving 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 Festian's 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 troops—a hundred and sixty men, or almost twice the numbers Sir Stannan was estimating. If he could lay the force they'd 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, we've no evidence they've done aught but ride about. And if it should happen they're in Lord Dathian's colors, they've every right to be moving about his lands."
"They do," Trianal agreed. "But if they're not in Dathian's colors, or if it should happen that they're in . . . someone else's colors, then we'd certainly have a responsibility to ask them who they are and why they were here, wouldn't we?" He smiled with predatory humor. "After all, Lord Warden Dathian is also my uncle's vassal. It's clearly my responsibility to ensure that strange armsmen aren't 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 youngster's pious tone.
"Well, in that case," Trianal said, "let's see if we can't just catch up to ask them."