Chapter 7: Unexpected companions
The night was peaceful and the hours passed slowly and without events. They took turns watching in pairs, first Rowan with Owein, then Bran with Bredan and, towards morning, Bert with Glen. Bran had decided to let the other five rest; by nightfall most were feeling considerably better and only one of them woke up, during his watch, to scramble among the trees. But after his turn ended he could not get much sleep anymore. He drifted in and out of it and, when it finally came to him, he dreamt of Kiran staring at him silently, exuding a power that froze his body and filled his heart with dread. He watched terrified as Kiran slowly turned into a monstrous creature that loomed over him with a mocking smile. He startled awake with a gasp, his heart hammering in his chest and his face damp.
Bert and Glen were talking in low voices some distance away and the others were all asleep. Among the trees nearby, the horses were dozing. It was still dark and the stars were bright, but the moons were lower and the sky towards east was turning a lighter blue. In less than two hours the sun would rise. He knew he would not be able to sleep, more so after that dream, and lying there awake with his unpleasant thoughts would only aggravate him. He stood up and went to the stream, splashing his face to chase away the drowsiness. The cold water sent shivers through his body, waking his senses, and he faced the breeze to dry his skin, breathing in the smell of dewy grass. He heard a shuffle behind him and turned to see Bert, who had probably been alerted by the splashes.
“Captain?” whispered Bert, surprised. “Were we being too loud?”
“No, I just couldn’t sleep anymore.”
They went together to sit with Glen.
“Cap’n! Somethin’ wrong?”
“I cannot sleep.”
“You worried about catchin’ up with the others?”
“Yes. No… I don’t like it when things don’t go as planned.” It was true, but, despite the tense vibration, the statement was reflective, not meant as a reproach. Still, the men lowered their heads, though what had happened the day before was not their fault.
“Cap’n, please don’t be too hard on the boys,” Glen pleaded humbly. “I know they were in the wrong, but they meant no disrespect. They’ve not seen much of the world outside the city.”
“Many of the others haven’t, but that’s no excuse. You realize this puts me in a bad position as well.”
“Why?” asked Bert. “It was their mistake.”
“Because he’s our Cap’n. He’s responsible if we step wrong. A Cap’n who can’t keep his men in check is no good. He’s the youngest of them and some boys think he’s got the position because of his father.” Glen was a responsible man, with more experience than the others. It was High-Captain Pryce who had asked him to stay behind with them.
Bert understood, though he thought it was unfair. Like his comrades, he knew Bran was the right man for it, that he had risen in the ranks on his own because he had discipline, a sharp mind and strong leading qualities. He also knew he was too proud and principled to accept favouritism. They respected him. But it was obvious the lads had not thought their little morning escapade could have serious consequences, much less that it would reflect badly on their captain. He felt ashamed and regretful.
“I should have tried harder,” he apologized. “I told them not to go in those brambles, that we had orders to pack, but I didn’t really think they were doing anything that bad. It was close to the camp.”
“It doesn’t matter, Bert, orders are orders and the harm has been done. I will take full responsibility for it, but I cannot turn a blind eye on their behaviour. It’s not about my position, lack of discipline can put us all in danger. You seem to forget where we are going.”
It was not hard to. None of them had seen battle and, since nothing had happened at the border yet, there was no sense of real danger. The men were relaxed. Indeed there were stories depicting King Arne as anything from ruthless to unstable, to plain mentally ill, and his army an assortment of cold and cunning beasts, but they sounded too far-fetched and the reality had yet to confirm any of them. They had not met anyone who had actually seen them. The countryside was peaceful and everywhere people went on with their lives. Drinking was the most common form of recreation; tales and gossip were the soul of a drinking assembly. It was not hard to guess where those stories had emerged.
For soldiers on duty, however, their attitude was inexcusable.
“I will talk to the lads, get some sense into them,” volunteered Glen.
“No, Glen, that is my duty,” said Bran. “I will not punish them, those stupid berries have done that enough, but whatever their condition today, they will have to bear it. We can move faster than the others and I want to catch up as soon as possible. Perhaps not today, but tomorrow we will. It’s the only way to redeem, if only a little, for this mishap and I will not tolerate slacking. This is not an excursion.”—The men just nodded—“Besides,” he added, “we’re short on provisions.”
They were silent for a while, sitting on the damp grass, listening to the crickets and the soothing burble of the stream running on its pebbled bed. Every now and then the breeze picked up, sighing through the branches and rippling the grass, wave after wave, carrying fresh scents of wild flowers, then dropped back to a gentle breath. Wispy clouds floated like foam on water, veiling the fading stars. The moons were paler and almost translucent, like wax paper, and on the opposite horizon they could make out the dark outline of gentle hills against the brightening sky. Twilight in the city was never so peaceful, nor so rich.
They made no attempt to speak, each lost in his own thoughts, and Bran was grateful for it. The tension had left his body, taking the dark reflections with it, and he lay his back on the grass, hands under his head, eyes closed, abandoning himself completely to the serenity of the place.
A horse shifted his weight, letting out a long, fluttering breath. A tail swished. A man mumbled something and another turned in his sleep. The water was gurgling and leaves were rustling. The crickets’ chirps were dying down, replaced by the excited, whistled song of the robin. His mind drifted with the sounds, his thoughts thin and distant like clouds, until he slowly slipped into a light, dreamless sleep.
Bert’s amazed voice brought him back and he raised his head to see what was happening. Above the distant hills the sky was ablaze and the clouds were trimmed with gold. He propped himself on his elbows and, letting his head fall back slightly, watched the sunrise from behind half-closed lids. He could not help smiling.
“I haven’t seen anything like it in the city,” murmured Bert, nearly breathless.
“That, lad, is a proper sunrise,” said Glen. “I say we’ll have a beautiful day.”
With a soft rustle Bredan came behind them, contemplating the glorious spectacle. He looked down at Bran, wondering when was the last time he had seen such a peaceful expression on his friend’s serious face. “Weren’t you supposed to sleep?” he asked, meeting his eyes.
“I think I just did,” answered Bran. He felt relaxed and rested and in a better mood than he would have thought a couple of hours ago. He was ready to face the day.
“Soo… damp grass suits you better than a dry blanket? Interesting.”
“Wake the others,” cut him Bran, pushing himself up. “We’ll grab something and take off. We have a long day ahead.”
Bredan wanted to reply, but he noticed something on the road, westwards.
“Travellers this early?”
There were two riders, trotting leisurely, and the four men waited in silence, squinting eyes fixed on the only moving shapes in the still landscape. As they came closer they looked more familiar and Bran’s forehead slowly wrinkled in wonder, recognizing the doctor and his son. The riders waved at them and made haste, leaving the road and coming decidedly towards them.
“Doctor?” asked Bredan, confused.
“A good morning to you, gentlemen,” Val greeted them amiably. They dismounted and approached leading the horses by the reins. Despite the hour there was no trace of sleep or fatigue on the doctor’s face or in his step. He looked spry and in great spirits and there was a playful spark in his dark eyes. His son seemed less cheerful; he greeted them only with a silent nod.
“A good morning, Doctor,” said Bran. “It’s awfully early for a stroll.” He had noticed the travel bags on the horses.
“I’m an early bird,” said Val with modesty.
“Where are you heading?”
“East. As a matter of fact I wanted to see you, Captain. Could we have word?”
“Glen, Bert, get everybody up and ready to leave. Have them eat something and refill the skins. Mind the food, we don’t have much.” Some of the soldiers were already awake, roused by their talk.
Bran waited for them to leave, then turned to Val with a questioning look.
“How are your men feeling?”
“Much better, thanks to you. I really appreciate your help, Doctor,” said Bran, and meant it, but he felt the peaceful mood slipping away in the presence of his visitors, particularly Kiran’s. He remembered his dream.
“Do you mind taking a few steps?”
They left together. Kiran stood a few paces away, holding the reins and looking a bit nervous. He followed them with his gaze, eyebrows gradually coming together, lips sealing tightly.
For several moments Bredan watched the emotions passing over that fair face like ripples on the surface of water. Truth be told they were not quite that obvious, but his eyes had been trained from childhood to read people’s faces. There was something about this person…
“It’s good to see you again, Kiran,” he said in a cordial tone, trying to ease the young man’s tension.
Kiran turned to him and forced a smile. “Good morning, Bredan.”
“So you remember my name, after all.”
The smile tilted. “I never said my memory is bad. It just seemed an unnecessary effort.”
“Point taken,” conceded Bredan, amused by his honesty. “Do you travel often?”
“More often than you, probably.”
“That would not be too hard. We are bound by our duty to the Royal House. Some of these boys have never stepped outside Ardaena.”
“I could see that,” replied Kiran with an almost mocking upturn of lips, looking towards the soldiers they had helped the day before.
Bredan followed his gaze and smiled. “So, is this a business journey?”
There was a brief hesitation. “Yes.” Then the lips sealed again.
Kiran shifted on his feet and his gaze drifted in his father’s direction. The two men were talking in low voices and he could not understand a word, but he could watch them. Although the captain had not donned that stern look Kiran had expected to see, his posture was erect and, being a full head taller than Val, he looked imposing and difficult to win. Another would have been discouraged by now, but Val’s assured demeanour—straight shoulders, quiet hands resting on the belt, small gestures and eyes meeting Bran’s without hesitation—seemed to challenge the man whose arms were stubbornly crossed over the chest, refusing to yield. And then Val said something, with an unaffected smile, and the arms slowly unfolded, pulling down the stiff shoulders. Both men turned to face east, pointing in the distance.
Bredan’s voice startled him. “Your father is a very persuasive man.” It almost sounded like a praise.
“Whatever it is that he wants, it didn’t take him long to convince Bran.”
Kiran was confused—was this man serious or was he mocking him?
“It appears to me that we’re going to travel together for a while,” clarified Bredan. “How far are you going? Keln?”—Kiran stared perplexed—“Damerling? Fiodhin?”—His lips parted—“Fiodhin.”
“Are you reading lips?”
Bredan burst into laughter, the same boisterous, infectious laughter that had brought a smile to his face the last time they met. “That is my secret. But don’t worry, I’m not going to use it to learn yours.”
Kiran’s eyes narrowed only slightly, but then they looked over Bredan’s shoulder at the man coming towards them.
“What’s happening?” asked Bert. “Are you not coming to eat something?”
“Is everyone up?”
“Up and ready.”
“Watered, just need tacking up. We were waiting for you and the Captain.”
“Go ahead and eat. We’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Yes. Hello Kiran.”
“Bert,” said Kiran, nodding.
When Bert was gone Bredan turned back to him. “You do have a good memory.”
“We met only yesterday,” scoffed Kiran.
“True, but you remember me and Bran from Ardaena. That was a year ago.”
How did he know? Kiran had done his best to hide it, yet this man had seen through his mask. He was dangerously sharp. His manner was friendly and open, but his words and look seemed to have double meanings.
“Please, there is no need to be so guarded,” said Bredan, “I was just teasing you. As a matter of fact I like you.”
There, that easy smile again. So deceiving.
Val and Bran were coming back and, to Kiran’s surprise, none of them seemed nervous or concerned. Not even Grim-face, which was curious, to say the least.
“We shall ride together,” announced Bran.
“I guessed that,” said Bredan, glancing towards Kiran.
“Are they all up?” asked him Bran, looking towards his men who were having a hurried breakfast.
“Would you like to join us, Doctor?”
“Thank you, Captain, but those are your provisions. As I said earlier, we shall not trouble you. We came prepared. But I would like to check your men before we go, if that is fine with you.”
“Certainly. And thank you for that.”
The news took the soldiers by surprise, but none appeared to be unhappy about it. The five convalescent were rather glad to have a doctor among them. They were obviously better that morning, especially since they had been exempted from night watch, but being city folk they probably feared other effects of their ill-fated adventure. After a brief check Val assured them they were going to be fine and half an hour later they were on the road.
They started with a jog to warm up the animals, riding in pairs. The captain and his friend were leading and Glen closed the column with Bert and Rowan. Val and Kiran were riding in front of them. Less than two miles further they passed through a small village and after that they picked up the pace, settling into a working trot. The meadows were replaced by crop fields, where people were already up and working, their carts pulled on the side of the road, at the edge of the fields. The rolling clapping of hooves made them stop and turn heads, following them with curious eyes and hushed words, seeming to wonder about their small group when a larger company had already passed the day before. They paid no heed to them and pushed on, concerned only with the road and catching up with the others. The sky was promising a beautiful day and the sun was not hot yet. The land opened before them and the road was dry and good, cutting its sinuous way through fields, pastures and settlements.
After a few more miles they slowed down to a walk and there were some changes in the formation. Some of the pairs shuffled and Bredan came to ride alongside Kiran, while Val moved to the front, because Bran wanted to talk to him.
They said nothing for a while, Kiran still a little tense after their uncomfortable exchange earlier, but eventually Bredan broke the silence.
“Would you say now is the right moment for introductions?”
Kiran huffed, amused despite himself. “You have a fixed idea.”
“It’s nice to know the people you meet. It’s better to know those you travel with. Learning their names is a good start.”
“I suppose in our current circumstances it makes sense.”
“I’m glad you think so. Which ones are you acquainted with?”
Kiran relaxed his back a little, before pointing with his chin, “The ones behind Bran are Cai and Owein. Cai is the skinny one.”
“But never call him so. He is stronger than he looks, and clever.”
“He ate the berries.”
“…He has an inquisitive nature.”
“Ha! What about Owein?”
“He is a good man. Just a bit… innocent. He and Cai are close.”
“Behind me is Bert.”
“Bert is a reliable fellow, very level-headed for his age. As is Glen, the bearded one in the back. The oldest of us and the only one married.”
Kiran turned to look behind. “They both have beards… more or less.” The ginger lad’s was wispy and rare, and too short to deserve the name.
“That would be Rowan, the youngest. Odd pairing, I know,” said Bredan in answer to Kiran’s raised eyebrows. “Glen has a fatherly attitude towards the younger ones, though he is not old. Perhaps because he has a son. In a way he looks after Rowan.”
“Just eager. He is inexperienced.”
Right, remembered Kiran. He was the one who had asked him about the use of charcoal and—he bit his lip.
“The big one behind Cai is Rhun. The most quick-tempered, especially after a few drinks, but otherwise friendly. You can count on him. The blonde fellow is Toph. A bit self-absorbed, he loves to talk about his many conquests. At least he doesn’t lie, women line up for him.”
The man had indeed a handsome profile. Not to mention ladies fancied blonde hair. Kiran glanced at his chatty companion. He, too, was fair haired, though his was a darker shade, and the jade eyes had not escaped Kiran’s attention, nor did the finely chiselled bones. He had noticed them the day before, just as he had noticed Bran’s noble features, only he never cared for such things. Now he smirked. “And for you?”
“I prefer to keep that private.”
“You seem to know a lot about people, but I get the impression people don’t know much about you.”
“I cannot imagine why,” said Bredan with a sly smile, revealing white, even teeth, with a small gap in the front.
‘Some eyes see deeper than others.’ Kiran reminded himself not to let his guard down around this man. “Who is in front of me?”
“Ceri. Don’t let his quiet air fool you, he is shrewd and quite ruthless sometimes. Next to him is Anwyl, the entertainer. He has a gift for storytelling and a pleasant voice… They are very different, but they are good men and work well together.”
“How long have you known them?”
“A few years. Rowan is the newest, he came about two years ago.”
“What about your Captain? What sort of person is he?”
“The best sort, once you get to know him.”
A brief grimace touched Kiran’s lips, but it was gone in a moment and he just nodded without a word.
“You don’t like him very much.”
“I think it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual.”
Bredan chuckled. “You may have… rubbed him up the wrong way that evening.”
“You don’t say!”
“Not on purpose, I’m sure.”
“Of course not.” Who was he fooling?
“That’s what I thought.” At the front of their group, the man in question was absorbed in conversation with the doctor. “He is not the easiest person to deal with, until you win his trust. But he is not as severe as he looks.” Bredan turned to Kiran. “Bran is one of the most principled men I have met.”
He was so earnest, and his words in such opposition with his own feelings, Kiran could not help blurting, “That is a remarkable statement.”
Bredan opened his mouth to reply, but the men in front took off at a quick trot. “You’ll see,” was all he could say, before the noise drowned their voices.
I won’t hold my breath.
They rode like that for the rest of the morning, with a couple of sprints and short periods of walk to wind down the animals. But other than a break for water and fodder, they kept them moving until midday. They were strong, endurance horses and Kiran could feel their enjoyment with the exercise. During walks the men took the opportunity to chat among themselves and they tried to pull him in. He would sometimes answer, out of courtesy, but for the most part he preferred to keep to himself. He was comfortable with long rides, but usually it was just him and his father. Never before had they travelled in such large company and he liked it that way.
Val did not return to his side. He and Bran seemed to get along and the surly captain was more relaxed than in the morning. His seat was straight and tall, but not rigid; there was no stiffness in the level line of his shoulders and his occasional gestures were natural. Val had an unaffected, pleasing manner and his conversation was intelligent and effortless, particularly when he respected his interlocutor. Kiran imagined he could speak to the king himself and manage to hold his attention, without losing his usual composure.
He almost envied that in his father. Not that Kiran was awkward with people, in fact he enjoyed talking to them when they were not stupid or nosy, neither of which seemed to be the case there. Had it not been for that evening in Ardaena, he would have felt less uneasy and more inclined to converse. Although, if that were the only reason for his sullen mood, perhaps he would have made an effort. For Val’s sake, at least. But that morning’s dream…
Kiran had had strange dreams for years. Some of them felt foreign, as if they were not his, but some seemed to spring from the depths of his own consciousness, born of fears and memories his mind was fighting to forget. That morning’s dream, where he had found himself trapped in the obscurity of his room, unable to move or make a sound, a sense of great danger taking hold of him, was not the first of its kind. Nightmares often plagued his sleep, darker with each passing year and, lately, all the more terrifying as it felt that he was not even asleep. When he was just a boy, Val had been there to wake him up, speaking in that gentle, reassuring voice of his until Kiran stopped quivering, but he had since learned to recognize the nightmare from within and force himself awake before it was too late. It worked, most of the time.
That morning’s dream, though… its intensity had blurred the edge between reality and illusion more than other times and, while he kept reassuring himself it was only the effect of Ermid’s letter, he could not shake off a sense of foreboding. He knew—had slowly come to understand—that the malevolent will was not an extraneous influence, but a manifestation of his anxieties, heightened by the darkness of night, fading away with sunrise. Even after assuming a form, it had sparked off no particular recognition. But something about the gleams of gold and red on its finger tugged at his memory, despite his wish to dismiss them as illusion. Surely that could not be…
Kiran gripped the reins tighter. He would have preferred to be alone with Val, but since he had agreed to this, the fast pace suited him. Of course it would have been even better had Bredan gone back to his captain’s side, but he did not, although he did not try to press him to speak either.
“Have you been to Fiodhin recently, Doctor?”
“Valan, please,” said Val. “Not in the last years, no.”
“You did not pick the best moment to visit.”
“It cannot be helped, Captain. I have a friend who needs my assistance… It also happens to be the perfect time for harvesting healing herbs.”
“Perhaps. But it is not a good place to be right now.”
“The woods around Fiodhin are splendid. There are species of plants that grow mostly in those parts. Since we must be there anyway, it would be a waste to forgo such an opportunity.”
Bran turned to him with a quizzical look. “Do you always go to such lengths in your work?”
“Knowledge does not come to those who sit comfortably at home,” said Val. “You must search for it.”
“Do you search a lot?”
“…I have seen many places. Both of us have. We spend half of the year travelling.”
“That must be interesting,” said Bran.
Perhaps there was a faint note of jealousy in that… perhaps not.
“It has its ups and downs. It certainly is not for everybody… Would you like that?”
“I have my share of travelling. It comes with the duty.”
Val untied his waterskin. “I was under the impression you are not accustomed to the countryside.” He took a few seeps. The water was already lukewarm.
“Most of these men are not. Given my position, I had more opportunities to travel than them.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
“Do you ever go to the capital?”
“Quite often, actually. We need certain supplies for our work. But we also supply others. You see, the advantage of travelling is you come across a lot of things you do not find at home. In our case it is mostly medicine ingredients. Most apothecaries will not do that themselves, so they rely on those who are willing to make the effort in their stead. It is part of our business.”
“I spent many years in the city when I was young. I learned my trade there. Ardaena is like a second home to me.”
“And your son? Does he always join you?”
There was a vague smile in the crinkled corners of Val’s eyes.
“Of course. He cannot learn otherwise… I’m not saying this because he is my son, but he has a natural talent for this work. And he loves it, which is just as important. Do you not agree with that?”
“It is certainly a desirable condition for any kind of work. Not many are so fortunate, though.”
“Would you have preferred to do something else?”
Bran’s eyebrows rose a little. “I was not speaking about myself.”
“Then I apologize, it was presumptuous of me.”
“Not at all. It was my own choice to become a Royal Guard. It’s in the family, just like with you and your son… Though I never imagined things will come to this.” That brought their thoughts back to the present. “You said the road is this smooth for the whole day?”
“If memory serves me, yes… I thought you have been to Fiodhin before.”
“We took a different route. Let’s take advantage of it.”
He spurred his horse and they sprung forwards into a canter, his men following with elated cries.
Roughly around noon Bran decided it was time to take a proper break. They came across a well and halted, dismounting and stretching their stiffened bodies. Cai, Rhun, Toph, Ceri and Anwyl, the ones guilty for the delay, seemed happier than the rest to feel the ground under their feet. The weakness in their stomachs was not completely gone, but they did not dare complain. Their captain was in a good mood and better he stayed that way. They unloaded their mounts to give them a bit of freedom and hurried to draw water. There was a trough on one side of the well, empty but not dry—A good sign, thought Bran—and the horses went straight to it. They filled that one before drinking themselves. The water was cool and tasted pleasant.
It would have been great to find some shade, but there were no trees about, only a couple of solitary blackthorn shrubs whose shadows were too small to make a difference. On the left side of the road the barley was ripe and golden, on the right the mown grass had been left to dry. There was indication of recent passage of a large number of equines, strips of ground where the hay was gone or patches of yellow stubble where the barley had been cut. And, of course, other typical signs a healthy, responsible horse would leave in its wake.
“They took a break here,” said Glen.
Resting in the sun was not ideal, but, alas, they had no choice. Their four legged companions needed that break more than them; to keep a fast pace they had not allowed them to graze during the walk. They gathered armloads of cut grass and placed them near the trough, so the horses would not wander away to feed. Then, for lack of something better, they slumped on the dusty grass that fringed the side of the road, taking out the bread and cheese.
It was as warm as on the day before and far too warm for that kind of ride, with barely a few clouds in the sky and no wind. They were sweating heavily under the thick uniforms. It had not seemed that bad while on the move, but once they stopped there was no breeze to dry their faces or cool the heating breastplates—“Why do we have to wear these blasted things on the road?” grumbled Rhun—and the discomfort spoiled what little appetite they had. The air was perfectly still and the fresh water had only made them sweat more. There would probably have been more complaints if not for Bran’s warning looks. So for a while they nibbled in silence.
“How far do you reckon we’ve come, Captain?” asked Owein when they were done, squinting his eyes. He wiped a trickle of sweat.
“Our speed was good. We passed the third camping point and it’s only midday.”
“At this pace we could catch up before noon tomorrow,” said Bredan.
“Why not tonight?” asked Rowan.
“We should slow down,” said Bran. “It’s fairly hot and harder on the horses.”
“No more gallop?” The young man sounded a bit disappointed. It had felt great, that rush of excitement, the speed, the wind on his face.
“Not today. It would be another thing if we were close to Fiodhin, but we still have more than a week on the road. Think about your horse who’s doing all the effort.”
“But we barely started!”
“Precisely. Would you rather end up walking?”
The others snickered, nudging him, and Rowan pouted, but did not argue. Kiran hid a smile—the boy was still green.
Bran produced a map from his pack and unrolled it on the grass. They gathered around him to look and he traced the road with his finger from a point that had been marked on it. There were other markings, fairly evenly spread along the road.
“That where we slept last night?” asked Glen.
“The camping places.”
“We passed the third, so we should be somewhere around… here?” estimated Bredan.
Bran paused thoughtful, studying the lines and scribbles on the paper. “There seems to be a suitable place to camp before this village.” He raised his eyes. “Doctor? Do you remember this?”
Val came closer to look. “Hmm… I’m not sure, but if the map says there is water, then we can spend the night. Chances are we shall find trees, at least for shelter, if not to light a fire.”
“Then we shall stop there.” He looked at his men, his lips curving up a little. “We’re doing well.”
“Captain, may I say something?” Val had not interfered until then.
“We stayed too much in the sun and I fear the heat might start to affect some of us. We ought to leave.”
Rowan was slightly flushed and some of the five were beginning to look drowsy again.
“Let’s put these back on the horses and move,” said Bran. “Make sure the water skins are full.”
They hurried to pack. However hard on the seat and back a long ride was, it was preferable to sitting there, boiling in their sweat, unable to eat or rest properly. They washed their faces and necks before filling the skins. Val gave them a sip of tonic—it was bitter, but no one complained—and they took off at full trot, to get rid of the languor which was threatening to take hold of their muscles and even their minds.
“Val, how did you manage to convince Bran?” asked Kiran in a low voice, when they slowed down, settling into a smooth walk.
“I told him he could use our help to make sure his men are in good physical condition when they meet their company… I don’t know much about military discipline, but I’m pretty sure what they did disregards a few rules. He will probably answer for that. Imagine what would happen if the men still showed signs of sickness.”
“That’s it?” asked his son with disbelief and a definite trace of disappointment in the voice.
“That may seem little to us—we only have to answer for and to ourselves—but it’s very important to them.”
Kiran still could not believe that was reason enough for that stubborn man, though perhaps he would have accepted it, had Val’s expression been less amused or satisfied. But he was not even making much effort to hide it.
“I may have also told him that he needs not worry about payment, neither for yesterday, nor onwards,” admitted Val, when his son would not spare him the scrutinizing look. “Given the circumstances it would be inconsiderate of us to charge for our services. In fact it is our pleasure to help in any way we can.”
“Pfff!” Kiran stifled a laugh. He knew there had to be something like that.
“Besides, compared to them, I am fairly acquainted with this road.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Four years is not that long,” said Val, a little offended.
“Four? That was Keln. I thought you were talking about Fiodhin.”
“We haven’t reached Keln yet, so that stands.”
“What about after?”
“Let’s get to that point and we’ll see… First of all, I took this road all the way to Fiodhin, more than once. Last time it was eleven years ago.”—Kiran winced—“Granted, it may look a little different after a decade, but I’m sure I’ll remember those places once I see them again. Secondly, it is not decided yet that we’ll ride together to our destination. Understandably, it is not up to Bran to make the decision. I told him we are aware of that.”
“So he only agreed with our presence as far as meeting their company?”
Val nodded. “Beyond that it depends on his superior.”
“And do you think you can convince him?”
“I don’t know, we haven’t met the man yet.” He searched his son’s face for a moment—Then what was the purpose of all this? he seemed to ask—and smiled reassuringly. “You worry too much.”
On the second half of the day they mostly walked, occasionally spurring their horses to trot, for a change of pace. And, despite what he said during the break, Bran allowed them to gallop for a mile, just to raise their spirits. The landscape din not change much: corn and barley fields, some still waiting to be harvested, endless meadows, solitary trees and villages of various sizes. Every time they met people, be it farmers or travelling merchants, they were received with the same curious, yet nervous looks and the smiles disappeared from the tanned, tired faces. It was not that people feared or disliked soldiers as a rule, it was the reason of their riding east that worried them. And perhaps the empty patches that appeared overnight in their fields. Seeing the anxiety in people’s eyes only made them aware of their own, so they kept their eyes forwards and pressed on.
It was still about two hours before sunset when they noticed, in the distance, the place Bran had pointed out on the map. It stood out in the surrounding landscape and they barely managed to hold back the joyful cries when they saw the line of trees cutting through the fields, shading the banks of a stream. It was coming from the north, as most watercourses did in that part of Laeden, running south at an angle with the road. At some point the road also turned south, going alongside its banks, as if pondering how to reach the other side, before turning back east to cross it at the edge of another village. At least according to their map. But they were not going to enter the village and, in fact, their presence could very well go unnoticed, or so they hoped. For some reason they did not feel welcome.
Right where the road changed course, on its northern side, was a sheltered flat of grass and traces of an old fire pit. It looked as if it had not been used recently. The grass was like a soft carpet—not the sort gathered for fodder. The stream was fast and its water clear as crystal. There could not have been a better place for bedding and, with plenty of time to set the camp, search for firewood and, hopefully, light the fire before the sun went down, the only thing they missed more than a warm, hearty dinner was a good pint.