Thick mist swirled in slow, heavy clouds on the chill breeze, rising from the cold, standing water and scarcely thicker mud of the swamp. Somewhere above the mist, the sun crawled towards midday, burnishing the upper reaches of vapor with a golden aura that was delicately beautiful in its own way. All thirty of the mounted men were liberally coated in mud, however, and the golden glow did little to improve their tempers.
"It would be the Bogs," one of the trackers growled, grimacing at the mounted troop's commander.
"Would you really prefer the Gullet?" the grizzled horseman responded in an equally sour voice.
"Not really, Sir Yarran," the tracker admitted. "But at least I've been down the Gullet before. Halfway, at least."
Sir Yarran grunted a laugh, and so did most of his men. Their last trip down the Gullet had not been a happy one, but the men in this troop were not so secretly delighted by at least one of its consequences. Yet the laughter faded quickly, for like Sir Yarran, all of them were unhappily certain that the mission which brought them to the swamps this morning had been sparked by an effort to undo that consequence.
Sir Yarran rose in his stirrups as if those extra few inches of elevation could somehow help his sight pierce the billowing fog. They didn't, and he growled a mental curse.
"Well, lads," he said as he finally settled back into the saddle, "I'm afraid we've no choice but to keep going for at least a bit farther." He looked at one of his men and pointed back over his shoulder the way they'd come. "Trobius, go back and find Sir Kelthys and his men. Tell him we're pushing on into the swamp." He grimaced. "If he cares to join us, he'll be welcome, but there's little point his wallowing about in there, unless he's nothing better to do than freeze his arse off in muddy water along with the rest of us."
"Aye, Sir Yarran." Trobius saluted, reined his horse around, and went trotting off into the mist. Sir Yarran contemplated the swamp ahead of them sourly for a few more moments, then grunted resignedly.
"All right, lads," he said. "Let's be going. Who knows? We might get lucky enough to actually find something to track."
"Aye, Sir," the tracker acknowledged, and urged his horse forward, picking a careful path deeper into the watery muck. "And pigs may fly, too," he muttered to himself, and Sir Yarran glanced at him. Fortunately, his voice had been low enough Sir Yarran could pretend he hadn't heard him. Which suited Sir Yarran just fine. Especially because he was in complete agreement with the other man.
He watched the tracker and his two assistants making their cautious way deeper into the treacherous footing, then sighed and clucked gently to his own horse.
* * *
"And of course we won't be able to prove a thing."
Sir Yarran Battlecrow grimaced, then hawked noisily and spat into the fire in disgust. It was a habit Sir Festian Wrathson, Lord Warden of Glanharrow, had been trying to break him of for years. Not because Festian disagreed with the emotions which spawned it, but because Yarran did it with so much energy.
At the moment, however, Festian felt no urge to reprimand Yarran. If anything, he longed to emulate his marshal, the commander of Glanharrow's armsmen. And whatever Festian might long for, Yarran, at least, had earned the right to express himself however he chose.
Steam oozed from the knight's rain-soaked tunic and trousers. His graying blond hair was rough edged and sodden, and although it was obvious he'd wiped down his riding boots, they were still smeared with mud stains. His sodden poncho was draped over the back of one of the hall's chairs, radiating its own steam wisps before the fire, and a servant was busy drying Yarran's cuirass in one corner.
"No, we won't be," Festian said after a moment. "And because we won't, I can't afford to go about making accusations. Especially not about my neighboring lords."
"Aye, that's true enough, and I know it," Yarran agreed in a heavy, resigned tone. "Still and all, though, Milord, you and I both know, don't we?"
"Maybe we do, and maybe we don't," Festian replied. Yarran gave him a skeptical look, and the lord warden waved one hand. "Oh, I know what we both suspect, Yarran, but as you say, it's not as if we had proof, is it?"
"No, Phrobus take it," Yarran acknowledged sourly.
"Then let's take it one step at a time and consider what we do know for certain. For example, what direction were they headed when you lost the trail?"
"Phrobus only knows," Yarran growled. A serving woman entered the hall and handed him a steaming mug, and the marshal's expression lightened perceptibly as he detected the rich, strong scent of chocolate. It was an extraordinarily expensive luxury on the Sothōii Wind Plain, and the tough, grizzled warrior had a bigger sweet tooth than any three of Glanharrow's children combined.
He smiled at the serving woman, accepted the mug, and sipped with slow, sensual pleasure. Festian allowed him to savor it for several seconds. Then he cleared his throat rather pointedly, and Yarran lowered the mug and wiped a froth of chocolate from his mustache with an almost sheepish air.
"Beg pardon, Milord," he said. "Took me a bit by surprise, that did."
"You've been working your arse off for me for weeks now, Yarran," Festian said mildly. In fact, as he and Yarran both knew, the other knight had been doing precisely what Festian would once have been doing for the deposed Lord Mathian. Not, as both of them knew, that Mathian would have been rewarding anyone with hot chocolate for his efforts.
"What I'm here for, Milord," Yarran said, which was as close as either of them was ever likely to come to putting their shared knowledge into words.
"Any road," the marshal continued after a moment, "whoever it was started off headed southwest, but there's no damned way that was where he was really going. Nothing that direction but the Gullet, and not even a wizard could get that many cattle down the Gullet." He shook his head. "No, Milord, they started out that way, and I'm guessing they meant to at least make us wonder if they'd headed down it. Wanted us to think it was the Horse Stealers if they could, like as not. But they turned another direction once they hit the Bogs." He shrugged. "Can't prove any of that, of course. We did our best to follow them, but there's too much quicksand and too little solid ground to hold hoof prints. I damned near lost three of my men before we gave it up. I'd have kept going if we'd been able to find any signs at all, but it's soupy enough in there at the best of times. In the spring—especially one as rainy as this?" He shook his head again. "No way at all to say what direction they went."
"And whatever way they headed, there are altogether too many places they can come out of the muck again," Festian agreed sourly.
"Aye, Milord. That's true enough. But what sticks in my mind is that it would take someone who knows the Bogs like the back of his own hand to get a herd of cattle through them."
Festian grunted in agreement. He knew what Yarran was really getting at. "The Bogs" were a treacherous spread of swamp, mud banks, and mire which stretched for miles south and eastward from the narrow passage known as "the Gullet." Once, centuries ago, a river had found its way down the Escarpment, the towering side of the Sothōii Wind Plain, to the grasslands below, through that passage. Then some long forgotten earthquake had changed its course, turning the gorge it had bitten out of the Escarpment's forbidding wall into one of the very few avenues by which the Sothōii and the barbarian hradani could get at one another. It wasn't much of an avenue—more of a tortuous, twisting alley, really—but it had served as an invasion route either way, in its time.
Yet Yarran was correct when he said no one could possibly get a herd of stolen cattle down the Gullet . . . and that only someone with an intimate knowledge of the terrain could have threaded that same herd through the trackless mud where the frustrated river had spread and flowed and soaked to create the Bogs.
Which meant, almost certainly, that whoever had stolen the cattle—and the sheep, and the horses, before them—came from Glanharrow itself. Not that that was very much of a surprise.
"With all due respect, Milord, and I know you don't want to, but I think it's time you called on Baron Tellian for help," Yarran said after several silent seconds. A heavier gust of rain drummed on the hall's roof, and the flames on the hearth danced.
"A lord is supposed to look after his own herds, just as he's supposed to look after the well-being of his own people," Festian said flatly.
"Aye, so he is," Yarran agreed with the stubborn deference of a trusted henchman. "And meaning no disrespect, but just what has that got to do with it?" Festian glared at him, and the marshal shrugged. "Chew my head off if you want, Milord, but you and I both know truth when it bites us on the arse. And so does Baron Tellian, come to that. He knew when he chose you to replace that arse-headed idiot Redhelm that there'd be those as would do all they could to see to it you fell flat on your face. Well, that's what's happening now. I'd bet my best sword that whoever ran those cattle off in the first place is one of our own people. No one else'd know the Bogs well enough to get a herd that size through 'em. But whoever he is, he's got to have someone to take them off his hands when he gets to t'other side. Now, I suppose it's possible he could have some bent merchant who could dispose of them for him for a partner. But it's a lot more likely one of your fellow lords is waiting for him. Maybe we can't prove it, but we both know it, and Baron Tellian's your liege lord . . . not to mention the one as dropped you into the pot in the first place. And if another lord is behind this, then like as not he's a close enough neighbor of yours to make the Baron his liege, too. Or else he's someone else's vassal," Yarran carefully named no names, "in which case you've no choice but to appeal to the Baron. So, either road, it seems to me, it's the Baron's place to be sending help now that someone's declared open war on you."
"Stealing cattle and horses is hardly 'open war,' Yarran," Festian objected, but it sounded weak, even to him. True, there'd been no formal declaration of defiance or hostilities, but among the Sothōii, herd-raiding and lightning border forays were the traditional means of striking at an enemy. Yarran only snorted with magnificent emphasis, which was quite enough to make his own opinion of Festian's objection clear, and the Lord Warden of Glanharrow shrugged.
"Whatever it may be," he said, "Baron Tellian has enough other problems on his plate right now without my adding this one to it."
"Again, with all due respect, Milord, this is something as is supposed to be landing on his plate. And I'm not the only one who thinks so." Festian cocked an eyebrow, and it was Yarran's turn to shrug. "Sir Kelthys thinks it's time, as well."
"You've discussed this with Kelthys?" Festian asked sharply, a thin flicker of anger dancing in his eyes for the first time, and Yarran nodded.
"Wasn't as if I had a lot of choice about it, Milord," he pointed out. "Being as how Deep Water backs right up on the Bogs the way it does. Wouldn't have done for me to be leading more than a score of mounted men across his land without explaining to him just what we were up to."
"The thieves cut across Deep Water?" Festian demanded, his surprise evident.
"No, of course not." Yarran snorted again. "I just said that anyone who knows the Bogs well enough to give me the slip in them has to be from around here, Milord. And anyone from around here knows exactly what would happen to anyone fool enough to try to take a herd of stolen cattle through Sir Kelthys' lands." He shook his head. "No, I cut across Deep Water to try to make up time on them. Did, too. Just not enough.
"Anyway, he turned out a half-score of his own men to help, not that it made much difference in the end. And he spent most of our ride together discussing the raids and their pattern with me."
"I see." Festian frowned unhappily, but much as he might have liked to, he couldn't simply reject Yarran's advice out of hand. Especially not if Sir Kelthys Lancebearer, Baron Tellian's cousin, also thought it was time Festian called upon his liege for assistance. If only it didn't stick so sideways in his craw!
"Milord," Yarran said with the respectful insistence of the man who had been Festian's senior lieutenant when Festian had commanded Glanharrow's scouts for Lord Mathian, "I know it's not something you want to be doing. And I know pigs probably know more about politics than I do. But it's plain as a pimple on Sharnā's arse that whoever is doing this is striking as much at Baron Tellian as at you. I'm not saying whoever it is wouldn't be happy enough to do anything he could to make you look unfit to hold Glanharrow, because we both know that, even as stupid as Redhelm was, there'll always be some as think he ought to be sitting in that chair still. But there's bigger fish to fry this time, and if they make you look unfit, then they make him look unfit for having chosen you. That's my opinion, anyway, and Sir Kelthys shares it. Which means Baron Tellian won't be thanking you if you wait to call on him until it's too late."
For a taciturn fighting man with a reputation for never using two words when one would do the trick, Yarran did have a way of getting his points across, Festian reflected. And he wasn't saying anything Festian hadn't already thought. It was just—
It's just that I'm too damned stubborn to ask for help easily. But Yarran's right. If I can't solve this problem on my own—and it seems I can't—and I wait too long to ask the Baron for help, it will be too late. And then both of us will be drowning in horse shit.
"Well," he said mildly after a moment, "if you and Sir Kelthys both agree so strongly, then I suppose there's not much point in my arguing, is there?" Yarran had the grace to look embarrassed, though it was obvious it took some effort on his part, and Festian grinned crookedly.
"Finish your chocolate, Yarran. If you're so eager for me to go hat in hand asking for Baron Tellian's assistance, then I think you're the best choice to take the message to him."
Another gust of rain pounded on the hall's roof, and Yarran grimaced at the sound.