"Well?" Sir Mathian spat the one-word question at Festian.
"I warned you this route was more difficult than it looked on a map, Milord," Festian replied in a tart, stinging tone. The scout commander's eyes flashed, but he had himself under control. Which didn't mean he intended to suffer Mathian's tantrums. Not in the field, where Mathian's so far negligible exploits certainly hadn't earned him the right to tongue-lash a man who'd served his own apprenticeship under Pargan the Great.
Mathian's face darkened, but then he made himself draw a deep breath as the older knight's reply fanned his ill temper afresh. The fact that Festian had, in fact, argued against the expedition-and specifically against sending it down the Gullet-from the first didn't help… and neither did the fact that Mathian knew he needed the scout commander. Unlike Mathian, Festian had fought in the Gullet before. But Fiendark take it, this was the only way Mathian could get at the Phrobus-damned hradani, and if he meant to attack at all, it had to be now, while that bastard Bahnak had all his troops off slaughtering his fellow barbarians elsewhere.
"Very well. You warned me," he said. "Yet however well taken your warning may have been, we're here now. And that being the case, I need your report on what we face."
"As you say, Milord." Festian removed his open-faced cavalry helm and tucked it into the crook of his left arm. Like Mathian and Haladhan, he wore a steel cuirass over boiled leather armor, not the chain or plate knights would have worn in other lands. Aside from the wind riders, almost all Sothoii cavalry, nobles and armsmen alike, were light or medium horse whose forte was mobility and speed. In open terrain, their fast, slashing attacks and lethal skill with the horsebow made them deadly foes, but the Gullet would deny them virtually all their normal advantages. They couldn't fight on horseback in its cramped confines, and their light armor would be of limited value against Horse Stealer hradani on foot. Not that Mathian seemed aware of it.
Festian took a moment to survey the expedition's commander, and a mental lip curled. Despite his inherited position as Warden of the Glanharrow District, this was the first opportunity Mathian had found actually to command any sizable body of troops in the field, and if there were two mistakes he hadn't made, Festian couldn't think of what they might be. He always was a pain in the arse, he thought. No wonder the coursers wouldn't take him! Now if only there were some way I could be rid of him!
But there wasn't. And so Festian was out here, a third of the way down the Escarpment, with his weary horse mud to the belly, under the orders of a vengeance-driven fool who'd never grown up… and thought he was Torren Sword Arm reborn.
"The Gullet may not be flooded, Milord," he said, "but the mud's hock deep in places. In fact, it's mostly mud-where it isn't solid rock or piled up boulders so steep even a wind rider would have to dismount." Mathian's eye flashed at the mention of wind riders. His glance darted to where Sir Kelthys sat comfortably in the saddle, and Festian hid a smile of satisfaction. "On top of that, the hradani knew we were coming. My lead scouts are a third of the way down, and they've already reported at least a dozen spots where the enemy used mud or rock slides to block the main path."
"But we can get through them, correct?" That was Sir Haladhan, and Festian glanced at him coldly.
"We can, Lord Marshal. We'll have to clear the trail-especially if we mean to get horses through, which I presume we do-and some of my men are already working on that, but it's going to take more like three days than two to get all the way down."
Haladhan's eyes flashed at the pointed comment about horses and he opened his mouth angrily, but Sir Kelthys interrupted him before he could speak.
"That may be true, Festian," the wind rider said thoughtfully, "but the fact that they're trying to block the Gullet may actually be good news."
The others all turned to look at him, and he shrugged with a smile. It was a cheerful enough smile, but there was iron behind it, and Mathian knew it. He also knew that the combination of Kelthys' experience and his kinship to Baron Tellian made him someone he had to listen to very carefully. Particularly since he'd already overridden Kelthys' advice against mounting this expedition in the first place.
"Good news, Sir Kelthys?" he asked now. "In what way?"
Kelthys smiled again. Unlike his companions, he wore full plate, and Mathian's bay raised its head as the older knight's courser stepped up alongside it. At sixteen hands, Mathian's gelding was tall for a Sothoii war horse, but it looked like a pony beside the courser. Sir Kelthys' mount stood just under twenty-one hands-almost seven feet-at the withers, and its coat was midnight black. In the years he'd served under Pargan the Great, Festian had seen horses in other lands which approached coursers in size, but none could compare in any other way. Coursers had none of the ponderous, muscle-bound massiveness that characterized the chargers of heavy foreign knights and made them look so clumsy and unwieldy. Aside from their size, Mathian's gelding and the courser might have been the same breed, and the same promise of explosive speed lurked in their deep chests and long, powerful legs.
But no one who'd ever met a courser would mistake it for a "horse." Oh, physically, perhaps, aside from the size, but not in any other way, and Festian found himself bending his neck in a courteous bow as the courser's eyes met his. There was an intelligence in those eyes at odds with all other horses-even the magnificent war horses his people bred and, upon rare occasion, sold for princely sums to foreigners. Legend said that Tomanak and Toragan had worked as one to create the coursers. From Toragan had come the beauty and the grace, and the wild, unconquerable freedom of their nature, and from Tomanak had come the courage and the fiery spirit which would face any challenge, any danger, at their chosen companions' sides. And after the gods had created the coursers, they had given them into the keeping of the Sothoii, with the command to protect and nurture them and never-ever-to let them fall into the hands of others.
Festian had no way to test the legends, but he believed them. Who but a god could have given grace and power such perfect expression? And who but a god could have given them their speed-the magnificent speed no other creature could match, and the endurance to trample the sun itself under their hooves?
He shook himself, breaking free of the spell coursers always cast upon him, and made himself listen as Kelthys responded to Mathian's question with one of his own.
"So far your scouts haven't actually seen a single hradani, have they, Sir Festian?"
"No, Milord," Festian replied, with none of the rancor he felt when Mathian or Haladhan threw out one of their arrogant questions, and Kelthys nodded.
"That sounds remarkably unlike them," he pointed out to Mathian. "As Sir Festian says, the Gullet is always a difficult passage, especially for horsemen, and the hradani know that as well as we do. Under the circumstances, I would expect them to pick one of the more defensible positions and hold it against us. Yet if our lead scouts are a third of the way down the trail, then they've already passed at least two places were a protracted stand might have been made." He shrugged. "Coupled with their efforts to block the trail, that would seem to me to indicate that they lack the strength to mount a credible defense even with the advantages the Gullet offers them. Of course, it also means we must be alert to the possibility of more… energetic blocking efforts on their part. If memory serves me, there are several places where a properly contrived mud or rock slide could easily bury half a mounted troop."
"Um." Mathian sounded struck by Kelthys' analysis, and Haladhan beamed as if he'd thought it up on his own. Festian merely looked thoughtful, but behind the mask of his expression, he had to admit he could find no fault in Kelthys' reasoning.
"You may well be right, Milord," he said, "and I hope you are-about the numbers, at least. But you're also right about the possibility of their using slides against us, especially as we get closer to the halfway point. The ground's worst of all in that stretch, and even without help from the hradani we'd have to be on the watch for slides this time of year. Which only reinforces what I said before, Milord Mathian," he added. "If it's as Sir Kelthys says, we may have to go even slower, which means it could take us as much as four days to get our lead elements down."
He looked at Kelthys, not Mathian, as he spoke, and the other knight nodded ever so slightly back to him. Unfortunately, the Lord Warden had made his determination to drive this attack home-and his refusal to listen to objections-abundantly clear.
"If it takes four days, then it takes four days," he said now, and gave Festian a cool look. "No doubt your men require your guidance, Sir Festian. Don't let us detain you."
"Of course not, Milord," Festian replied through gritted teeth, and turned his horse back down the Gullet.