Stepping over a crooked pole lying abandoned where it fell onto the thoroughfare, Idris tried to pick out the canvas-fencing surrounding the horse enclosure, between stooping infantrymen and lurching, falling tents. Just under eight hundred men and women remained with the Tutelar, the bulk of the army having broken away during the journey to the capital to return to their own lands, their homes. Expecting a modicum of calm amongst a horde numbering that many was sheer folly, but the Tutelar found himself grimacing at the clattering of pots and bellows between men stood close enough to hear a whisper, anyway.
“Oi, fucking watch it!”
Idris’ head jerked towards the hoarse cry. It was quickly followed by the sound of splintering wood. The Tutelar was well out of the path of the support pole, but he felt the ground shake as it thudded into the dirt. Oblivious to the eyeballing his Lord Tutelar was giving him, the greying-haired pikeman who’d shouted the warning moments before strode two paces up to his fellow and thrust a hand into his chest, shoving the taller soldier back. He spat a tirade of insults into the man’s face, all the while Idris’ hand drifted closer to his longsword’s hilt.
Grinding his teeth, he dismissed the dispute and turned, forcibly pulling his hand away from his weapon. He spotted eyes turned towards him, quickly darting away whenever he met them, as he began to make his way through the crowd again. Passing two dusty, bay oxen tethered to the cart they would be pulling later, he patted the nearest on its thick, muscular neck, and received a grunt in reply, dark orbs judging him without care of who he was.
Idris recognised the voice immediately. Sergeant Jac Ikin’s words always had a huskiness to them, like he’d gargled with shards of metal, which rather much sounded like a hobby he might enjoy. Stepping away from the oxen, he spotted the Sergeant closing the remaining distance between them, nodding towards the edge of the camp as he did so. Idris acknowledged the gesture with a nod of his own, and together they picked their way through tent parts and supplies. When their passage was spotted, infantrymen and men-at-arms alike were quick to make a path for them.
They paused out of easy earshot of the bustling camp, just shy of the treeline, treading amongst the tallgrasses. Jac swung a mindful gaze about them before turning back to the Tutelar. Deep set eyes and prominent cheekbones gave the marksman a gaunt quality, like he hadn’t had a good meal in weeks. A greying beard, the same length as the shorn hair atop his head, did little to dampen the severity of his features.
“Caught the sparrow,” he said, looking up to meet the taller man’s eyes.
“And?” the Tutelar replied, looping a thumb into his sword belt. He broke eye contact to watch the camp’s progress.
“Wasn’t likely he was sending sparrows on the sly for good reasons.”
“Get to the point.”
“Tough to say who exactly he’s been corresponding with, but he’s more or less listed your entire itinerary for the winter.”
Idris breathed out a long sigh. “Idiot.”
Returning his attention to Jac, who was loosening the ties on one of the numerous leather sheaths attached to the black lamellar armour, he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Not now. Make it so the pathbreakers need to work some distance from the vanguard. After Rhidmere.”
The Sergeant’s eyes’ narrowed, and Idris thought he spotted a measure of disappointment there. He nodded soon enough, replacing the sheath in its rightful slot.
“You think it’s Hywen’s doing?”
“The dead don’t like staying dead.” Jac snorted, shaking his head. “And old bonds are hard broken.”
Folding his arms across his chest, the Tutelar found his toe tapping at the soil between the tufts of grass. He suppressed a grunt, clearing his throat.
“I need to know where those sparrows were flying.”
“On it,” Jac replied quickly. “There’s an old outpost at the crook in the Althing, all splinters and crumbling stone. Found a coop there. I reckon that’s where they were being intercepted and then sent on. It’s not far from our outpost on the High Road.”
Idris nodded slowly. “That’ll save some work.”
The marksman eyed the Tutelar, lips pressing together. “Aye,” he said after a moment.
The ivory canvases and striped pavilions had disappeared from the clearing the army had settled in, only a few poles jutting out of the ground like abandoned sentinels remaining between the clusters of chainmail-clad soldiers. Idris noted the horse enclosure had been removed and he could see a group of the animals being led towards the road.
“Let me know when it’s arranged,” he said as he began his own trek to the muddy trail.
Jac didn’t reply, but he knew he’d see the job done. The sergeant had been with him since his very first campaign, and though Idris resisted the complacency of trust, Jac was always as efficient and dependable as the reputation that preceded him.
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