"What banner did you say?"
Sir Festian stared at the muddy, sweat-soaked scout in disbelief, but the man only shook his head stubbornly.
"I saw what I saw, Sir."
"But-" Festian began, then stopped. Yarran was a good man, one of his best. If he said he'd seen something, then he'd seen it… however impossible it seemed.
The scout commander chewed on that unpalatable thought for several seconds, then dismounted and handed his reins to an aide.
"Show me," he ordered, and Yarran nodded and led the way down the trail.
At fifty-six, Festian was getting long in the tooth for this sort of thing. His wind wasn't what it had been, and the joints were getting a bit stiffer of late. But he forced himself to keep up with Yarran and smiled crookedly as their riding boots scraped on rock or sucked in mud. Scouting on foot's not exactly the sort of job any Sothoii relishes, he thought. I think most of us would mount up to go take a piss… assuming we could get the horse into the privy with us!
He almost laughed at the thought, then scolded himself for letting his attention wander this close to the enemy. He shook his head, concentrating on making as little noise as possible as Yarran led the way around another bend. Then the scout's hand waved urgently, and the two of them slipped off the trail and into the cover of one of the many boulder piles the long-vanished river had heaped up in the bends of the Gullet.
"There," Yarran said quietly, and Festian felt his eyebrows rise as he followed the scout's pointing index finger to the crude fortification.
Not surprising they stopped here, was his first thought. The trail widens out enough to let us deploy more strength, but then it pinches in… and they're right atop that nasty slope. He tried to remember what the hradani called the place. He knew it had a name-enough skirmishes and battles had been fought here to make him that familiar with it-but he couldn't recall it. Something's Despair, wasn't it?
He brushed the thought aside and sat back on his haunches in the concealment of a large boulder, rubbing at a patch of dried mud on his cuirass, and stared at the banner flying above the roughly built walls. Not the crimson-on-black axe of Hurgrum, but dark forest green, bearing a crossed sword and mace in gold.
So Yarran was right. But what the Phrobus is the Order of Tomanak doing here? And Order or no, those are damned well hradani on the wall below it!
He grimaced, then nodded to Yarran.
"All right. Keep an eye on them, and I'll send a few more men down to watch your back and act as runners. Don't go getting yourself into any fights, but if those bastards do anything-anything at all except sit right where they are-you get word back up the Gullet fast. Right?"
"Good!" Festian patted the scout's shoulder and turned to scramble back up the trail.
"The Order of Tomanak ? Your man's mad-or drunk!" Sir Mathian declared.
"He's neither, Milord," Festian said tightly, "and I saw the banner myself-with these." He indicated his own eyes with a sharp, angry gesture. "Whoever or whatever is under it, that's Tomanak's banner down there!"
Mathian recoiled as he finally recognized the fury boiling behind Festian's mask-like expression. The two of them stood face to face under an awning one of Mathian's aides had managed to rig between two boulders while clouds of gnats swarmed in the humid afternoon sunlight. A nice, cool breeze blew across the Gullet at right angles, but the steep walls kept any breath of it from reaching them. The barren crevice was like a steamy oven, just the sort of place to exact the maximum discomfort from a man's armor, and the Lord Warden's red face was soaked with sweat.
"All right, Festian. I believe you, of course," he said, much more placatingly than he'd intended to. "But it just seems so… so impossible."
"Indeed, Milord," Haladhan put in. "One would have thought even hradani would hesitate to profane the symbols of Tomanak . Surely even they wouldn't willingly risk turning the War God's favor against them in their next battle!"
"Pah!" Mathian spat on the ground. "Hradani are animals! I doubt even the gods know what they would or wouldn't do. We should ride right over the scum, not waste time worrying over what savages like them think!" He spat again, then added, "If they think-which I doubt!"
Festian opened his mouth, his eyes bleak, but Sir Kelthys' raised hand stopped him before he spoke. It was just as well, he reflected a moment later. He himself might not like hradani, but he'd fought enough of them to respect them. They had guts and skill, and, by their own lights, they fought with honor. Indeed, at this particular moment, he would much rather be under the command of a hradani than what he actually had.
"Your pardon, Milord," Kelthys said in his quiet way.
"Yes, Sir Kelthys?"
"I believe Sir Haladhan has made a valid point, Milord. Whatever else they may be, hradani are warriors. And while it has been my own observation that they show no great reverence for any god, whether of the Light or the Dark, neither do they go out of their way to antagonize the gods. Especially not the Sword God."
"Are you actually suggesting that the Order of Tomanak is waiting for us down there?" Mathian couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice, but Kelthys only shrugged instead of taking offense.
"All I'm suggesting is that we face something unusual. It's always possible this is, indeed, no more than another ploy to delay us. On the other hand, there just might be something more to it. Under the circumstances, I believe we should determine what we actually face before acting hastily. If I recall correctly, that position can hold no more than two hundred men. Does that sound about correct, Sir Festian?"
"Aye. You might get as many as three hundred in there if you pounded 'em in with a hammer, but they'd be dead meat for high-angle archery. It's no more than a wall of piled up rocks, with no overhead cover."
"As I thought," Kelthys murmured, and turned back to Mathian. "We have the better part of four thousand men, Milord, all of them as well trained as archers as for melee. If we're forced to fight for that position, our losses will be heavy, but the enemy can't hold for long against our numbers. That being so, I see no harm in sending forward a messenger under a flag of truce to discover what the presence of Tomanak's banner actually means. Even if it is only a ploy, the extra time we expend will be minimal."
"I suppose there's something to that," Mathian agreed finally, although his expression remained manifestly unhappy. He glared at the ground for a moment, then beckoned to his cousin. "Come with me, Haladhan. I want to consider any message we might send those bastards very carefully."
Haladhan nodded, and the two of them stumped off. For a moment, Festian thought Kelthys was going to follow them, but the wind rider only watched them go with a faint smile. Then he looked back at Festian, and the scout commander realized that it was the first time the two of them had actually been alone together.
"Tell me, Sir Festian," Kelthys' expression remained as pleasant as ever, but his quiet voice bit like a lash, "just what the hell you thought you were doing letting that idiot run off to war without even telling Baron Tellian about it?"
Festian flinched from the anger in the wind rider's voice, but then he shook his head sharply.
"He did send word, Milord. He-" He broke off at the look in Kelthys' eyes. "Do you mean he didn't? But he told me himself he was going to! Surely not even-"
He cut himself off again, abruptly, before he said something one of Mathian's household knights had no business saying, and Kelthys sighed.
"I'm afraid he would, Festian," he said, the anger vanished from his voice.
"But how do you know he didn't?"
"Festian, Festian! Did you think my cousin just happened to decide one afternoon that it would be nice to have me at Deep Water so I could visit regularly for picnics? He's worried about Mathian ever since Sir Gardian's death, and he wanted me to keep an eye on him. Which I have for the last two years. And for which service-" he grimaced "-the good Baron Warden of the West Riding owes me a monumental return favor."
Festian simply stared at him, and the wind rider chuckled as if against his will at the scout commander's expression. Then he stepped closer to Festian, "coincidentally" hiding Festian's face from anyone else until the older knight got it back under control and keeping his own expression casual as he spoke with quiet urgency.
"It's been obvious for at least ten years that the Horse Stealers and Bloody Swords were going to settle their disputes one way or another at last. Tellian has sent regular dispatches to Sothfalas to keep King Markhos and his ministers apprised of the situation, and the court has been sharply divided on how to proceed. One faction wants to stand back and let events take their course, hoping Bahnak truly will manage to civilize the barbarians. Another faction shares Sir Mathian's view; it wants to strike now, while the hradani are busy with one another, and burn them out root and branch. Yet another wants us to aid Bahnak's opponent, in order to keep the pot boiling and the hradani fighting amongst themselves, rather than bothering us, for as long as possible. And a fourth is stuck out in the middle between the extremes, with no clear idea of what we ought to do. Are you with me so far?"
He darted a sharp look at Festian, and the knight nodded.
"Good. Well, Tellian's been worried about Mathian for some time, and when he discovered that he and Haladhan had been quietly discussing certain 'contingencies' with the younger and more hotheaded of the minor lords here in Glanharrow and across the district line in Tharkonswald, he got even more worried. Hence my arrival at Deep Water. Mind you, I truly was looking for somewhere to settle down, and Deep Water is a lovely little place, but the real reason was to get me close enough to Mathian that I could keep an eye on him and hopefully induce him to include me in his discussions. Tellian wanted private reports from me to tell him whether or not there was a legitimate reason for him to summon Mathian to Balthar for some pointed inquiries into just what he was up to."
One of Mathian's aides walked past, and Kelthys broke off until the man was out of earshot, then resumed.
"Well, Mathian decided to include me, but apparently he was more careful in what he said to me than what he said to the other minor lords. I knew he hated hradani, and I knew he had spies among them. I even knew he contemplated some sort of action against them, but I had no idea his plans had progressed so far, and I never expected anything like this. Once he actually started to move, I judged my best course was to allow myself to be convinced to go along with him so that I could learn what his plans were, and it worked. He still hasn't taken me as fully into his confidence as Haladhan and some of the others, but at least I got close enough to learn that he plans to dispatch a messenger to Tellian only after he's committed us to open war against the hradani."
"But that's treason!"
"No it's not-quite," Kelthys said dryly. "As he's said, he has the authority as Lord Warden to summon the knights and armsmen of Glanharrow on his own authority if he judges an emergency to exist. And as far as the delay in informing his own immediate liege of his actions, he will undoubtedly argue that until the situation had clarified, there was no point in sending messengers as far as Balthar. Of course, by the time the 'situation clarifies,' he'll have us at war, but that's exactly what he wants." Festian blinked, and Kelthys sighed. "That's what this is all about, Festian! He wants to force us to smash the hradani before they unite under a single leader who might actually be able to threaten the Kingdom. He sees it as his gods-given duty-something that will both let him avenge his father's death and emerge as the hero of our people."
"Phrobus," Festian whispered, and Kelthys nodded.
"Exactly. Which is why, my friend, you and I have to delay the young lunatic as long as we possibly can. I sent my wind brother Karral off to Balthar to alert Tellian as soon as Mathian summoned me to Glanharrow. He should be there by now. In fact, Tellian's response-if not Tellian himself-should be on the way back. But unless they were already prepared to move almost instantly, not even coursers could get anyone here before tomorrow evening. So between then and now, it's up to you and me."