The plan for moving us, I thrashed out with Ailadas before handing it to 2nd Amitzas. The horses weren’t in good condition, we were apparently low on grain. Of course there was less grain for them to haul. It was trade-offs.
Since Kyriala had not ridden here but had started in a litter all those months ago, one of the other women would have to give up her postern saddle and be carried on her husband’s. I knew that women didn’t ride astride, horrors. But Ailadas informed me gently that many couldn’t. He wouldn’t say why but told me I could not plan for any of them to learn. It would slow us down so I had to factor that in.
We were lucky that the temperature dropped even more, putting a crust on the snow that even the loaded horses didn’t break through. Gannara showed up with a grin on his face before we left, just after Noon observance, with a knitted hood in his hands. “It’s a present.”
“Really. From whom?”
“One of the girls. They thought you needed it more than just that scarf wrapped around your head.”
He handed it to me and I pulled it on, gratefully. “Oh, that’s warm. If you think she’d be embarrassed for me to know, tell her – “Thank you lady, it will help my ears not fall off!” He giggled and ran out to pass on my message. I’ll bet a gold chain this was knitted by the Mirror herself. I should find something to give her… hmmm. I’m not making anything, just being pounded into the ground by Ice-Eyes. I’ll have to think about it.
It took us almost the whole day to make it to the plowed high road and the light was failing so it was perfect for us. Ice-Eyes let me think we would be heading north right up until we made it to the road.
It was cleared only enough to allow a single horse’s passage, with a bit of space on either side to swing a sword or a stick if one had to, the snow drifts still high enough to block the wind. The occasional wider space allowed passage in opposite directions but there was not much traffic to need many. The dark green spikes of trees towered over the snow cliffs. 2nd Amitzas stopped everyone in the falling darkness and bitter cold, sending a single scout south and north to check if the road were clear.
I sat the horse, thankful it was steaming warm, wishing my feet were covered in more than thin leather boots. I watched him call ten Mahid forward, looking more rag-tag than when we had started, with parti-coloured furs. That left me sitting in the fringe of trees with Ailadas next to me, with Gannara sitting a mule next to both of us. All our breath steamed in the cold and I couldn’t restrain a sigh when, at long last the scouts returned. We would be moving, soon. I sagged for a second when 2nd Amitzas turned the column south. He had deceived me into thinking he was going to do something so obviously stupid.
The first part of the night was a nightmare, it was so cold, but as we dropped lower and lower on the mountain, the spring began coming up to meet us. The snowbanks gradually grew lower and the temperature went up. By then I was so sore from having been in the saddle most of the day and part of the night I almost didn’t care. Ice-Eyes set a pace that would have been hard for field Mahid.
The clearing 2nd Amitzas pointed out for us to stop had a thin layer of snow on the ground still. Tomorrow night we would have caught the spring and be sleeping on the mud. Four Mahid swept our melting track as we worked around a stand of leafless trees out of sight of the road. Thank goodness these roads were so seldom travelled. In the muck our track, off the hard road surface, would be much harder to hide.
Gannara groaned quietly as he got down when when we finally stopped, in a hidden clearing. Ailadas didn’t say anything at all but leaned against the horse as if he were about to collapse, his face clenched. Some of the women were weeping quietly, Mahid or not. Binshala was saying. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t stop my tears. It's my shame.”
The advance scouts had hidden fires going and rocks warming to go in our sleeping rolls to heat our cramped and aching feet on. I fell right off the horse and miracle of miracles it didn’t step on me or pull the rein out of my hand, just sidestepped and snuffled my head.
Am I going to spend the rest of my childhood getting worn ragged and passing out? That can’t be good for me. That can’t be good for any of us. 2nd Amitzas is treating me… treating us too much like a hale field command of Mahid. He’s not thinking… or he’s not telling us why he’s pushing like this. Were we somehow spotted?
I lay on my back in the slush and slowly straightened my limbs. I didn’t have anyone rushing to help me up and wondered when I would get used to doing everything for myself. This wasn’t even doing for myself. I lay and watched the light grow brighter as tougher Mahid set up camp around me. Did I really have people running after me with soft slippers? Or warm towels to wipe my face in case I should have gotten a smudge from the soft grey roe and butter crackers I had just eaten?
I wanted my own bed, stairs and feather pillows and painted moons. I wanted my baths to soak my weary, wet, cold limbs in water hot enough to turn me pink. I wanted my skates. I wanted silk underthings instead of armour and armour padding, and sleeves deep enough to hide a donkey in. I wanted my cats.
“The Spark is required to see to his horse – or attempt it.” It was light enough now that I could see the furry bulk of Ilikren Mahid. I wasn’t sure of his number.
Ice-Eyes would have sent him to drive me to my feet. “I hear and obey.”
The next night brought us all the way to the foothills and the mud and I found out why we were to move before snowmelt as we trekked through relentless rain.
We could ride abreast of one another now, in rolling plains cut by ravines. The bridges that crossed them were solid stone engineering but should have seen more of the Empire’s road crews. The fat guy probably skimped to pay for the rejins. 2nd Amitzas insisted on drilling me on logistics as we rode.
“…beyond which the limit is reached where an army can carry its own fodder—“ He cut me off with a slash of his hand, reining in. My horse stopped only a step or two beyond as he flung his hand up to stop everyone else. It was near dawn, the sky bright with the coming sun. We would be stopping the moment the sun rose over the horizon. We were coming up on one of the bridges, by the worn road sign just ahead. Someone had nailed a crude warning over it, two unattached bridge ends painted on it with stick figures falling into the ravine below.
“Ah, Spark. It appears you will be given a lesson. Be silent and observe, stay with me.”
What had he seen? Or heard? I’d just seen the sign and been reciting the formula for how many days of fodder could be carried by how may animals if an army could not live off the land. He signalled for me to get down and he drew me after him into the hedgerow. The road curved before the bridge and he led me up through the brush and wet grass to the top of hill it curved around. We could see the whole stretch before the bridge and none of our party were visible.
Our scouts had split into two groups, seven sitting just out of sight of the bridge, with their dart tubes and bows ready. I saw one man quietly check that his sword was loose in its scabbard. Three rode on as if completely alone.
“What are they—“ 2nd Amitzas thrust a hand over my mouth, leaned over to hiss in my ear.
“Quiet. See by the bridge there are bushes? Look at the left side right at the foot.”
I squinted at the shrubs and didn’t see anything at first. But then there was a trace of motion where there shouldn’t be.
“There are six or seven men in that ambush. We will remove the threat. It is possible they damaged the bridge in the first place. They are in our way. We will correct the situation.”
I’m just as glad he doesn’t think I need blooding in a ‘safe’ situation. It would be a good way for me to get killed. I’ve only had real sword training for a few months, since you can’t count the Bellicose Arts nonsense from before. With bandits it could be anything from untrained okas to solas on the run from their rejin.
The three scouts rode toward the bridge as if to check if it were passable, putting on a Jitzmitthra play that they were just normal people, slouching in their saddles a little, their wet furs hiding the armour and weapons.
A big change from before. None of them could have pretended even this much a few moons ago. I found myself holding my breath. A motion from the bushes and two leaped out to confront the approaching riders.
“Not a bad move, if they had more men.” 2nd Amitzas instructed.
“Hold up, hold up there, sers.” A rough fessas accent, equal to equal. “Yeh can’t go on, t’bridge’s out.”
The scouts pulled up their horses in what they probably thought was a ragged stop, but the man speaking to them didn’t notice. “Ye’ll need some help gettin’ across, sers. Fer a fee, we’ll h’ep you an’ yer horses acros’t.”
Still no answer from our scouts and the two men laid hands on their swords... they had swords... so their extortion had netted them two such valuables... how many other things had they taken? The tension grew thicker and thicker and then one scout leaned forward as if to speak to the man blocking his way.
“Now,” 2nd Amitzas said as an arrow ‘thwipt’ out of the bushes over the scout’s head and stuck in the furs of Boras, behind. Stuck in the furs because it didn’t penetrate the armour he had underneath.
The leaning scout leaped onto the man in front of him before he could whip his sword out, the horse crow-hopping sideways as Boras, with the arrow apparently sticking out of his chest, set heels to his horse and charge the bowman that I couldn’t see. The seven other scouts came pounding around the corner, completely silent except for the thunder of their horse’s hooves.
The third lead scout flung a perfect knife-cast into the throat of the second man in the road who crumpled sideways onto his knees, hands clunching then falling away. Four men spilled out of the bushes on that side as Boras charged and a lone man on this side stood up, raising a crossbow. He fired and missed, he frantically braced his boot in the stirrup, jammed the lever into it, but fell, with darts sticking in him from the charging Mahid.
The oncoming horsemen rode down the last two men, one running into the edge of the bridge support and falling over the edge of the ravine. That fast, it was over. The largest pool of blood was on the muddy road from the knife-choked corpse. The only thing I could think of was so fast.
“Did you note the moment when the criminals determined that their potential prey were not going to be easy to bully?”
You mean the slight clue of your saying ‘now’ and the arrow getting fired weren’t good enough? “Yes, honoured guardian.”
2nd Amitzas stood up as the advance scouts gave the ‘all-clear’ shout, dusting off his knees and elbows as he rose. “It appears the one is still alive. An excellent opportunity for instruction on obtaining information in the field, for you Spark. Even if he is not an enemy spy, he will still serve the Empire in adding to your instruction.”
I stood up, feeling sick. “Of course, honoured guardian.” The man’s dead anyway. I just have to ignore the screaming of his ghost in the meantime.