Sivrei, the first month of summer,
has long been the time when kings go to war.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Ivan was a dull, taciturn man who spoke little and answered questions not at all. The only thing they could get out of him was an inarticulate grunt now and then. He led them out of Halburn’s growing defenses, several leagues west and up into the foothills around the estate. After two hours of hard riding, they arrived at a small pass in the hills. In the middle of the tiny cut was a squat, stone pillar about four feet high, one of the boundary markers Halburn had mentioned. Grazing around it was a small herd of twenty head of cattle. On close inspection, all of them turned out to be ancient bulls, no longer any use to anyone and too tough to eat. They were the perfect decoys.
Ivan indicated a small hollow where they could dig in and wait for the onslaught from Morgrim, then turned and left.
“Thanks so much for everything,” Jon called after him. “Don’t forget to write.”
“Forget it,” Elric told him. “You’re wasting your breath.”
They turned to survey their new home for the next three months and let out a sigh of disappointment. The hollow was barely ten cubits long by 6 or 7 cubits wide. There was just enough space for them but none for their horses. They’d have to find somewhere else to hide the horses, which meant a long hike each day to take care of them. The hills beyond their post climbed upwards like a staircase into the mountains.
They finally found a place for the horses in a nearby ravine. It wasn’t quite as far away as they’d feared, but it was still a good distance.
After settling the horses in, they turned their attention to the hollow, trying to make it as home-like as possible. They carved little seats into the hard, dirt walls and used branches to form arm and backrests. They scraped stones and branches aside to make room for their bedrolls, using the stones to build a low wall around the top of the hollow for additional protection from both incoming arrows and the incessant, chill wind blowing through the little pass. The hot winds from the Midbar rarely made it this far north before turning to the east and the chill in the air reminded them that Tevrei was still the last month of winter, not the beginning of summer.
There weren’t any trees in the pass and the wind moaned through the branches of the shrubs and around the numerous rocks. It was as bleak and desolate a place as any of them had ever seen.
Horace clambered up out of the hollow and surveyed the scene, shivering and pulling his cloak around him. “Now I know what Hell looks like,” he grumbled. A gust of wind blew down his back and he shivered violently. “And feels like,” he added miserably.
Jon climbed up to stand beside him. “Now you know why I didn’t want to go adventuring,” he told him. “It’s nothing but pain and misery and discomfort and hunger and a thousand other things. And all of it a long way from home.”
“You didn’t want to come because it was too disorganized,” Elric snapped at him. “You never said anything about discomfort!”
Jon’s face turned red with anger. “Look who’s talking! The boy who tried to run away in the middle of the night.”
Elric’s fists clenched and he leapt to his feet. His recent growth spurt gave him nearly a span’s height over Jon. “Take that back!” he cried.
Mira jumped between them. “Whoa! Whoa! Knock it off, you guys! What is–”
They didn’t give her a chance to finish. Both launched an instant verbal attack on her. Within moments, all three were in a yelling match. Tempers flared and they almost came to blows before they settled down.
Horace continued to complain about the cold and when Katrina tried to practice a new tune on her lute, the others began bickering about sour notes. She defended her playing staunchly then played even louder, now and then deliberately hitting a false note.
Aaren sat and watched his friends wearily. Getting arrested for brawling their first night in town, having to suffer three months of servitude to an idiot like Halburn, the desolation of the pass, and the prospect of spending their whole servitude there, guarding against an invasion by an unknown number of hostile soldiers was taking its toll already. The friends had never really endured this kind of hardship together before and this, their first time, was especially difficult considering the circumstances. A discordant note twanged loudly and the bickering increased as he watched. He shook his head, it was going to be a long three months.
Halfway through their first month on watch, the six of them were heartily sick of each other. Tevrei was gone and they were more than a week into the month of Adrei. They’d done nothing but gripe, complain, and argue the whole time. The never-ending wind whipped the fire around, blowing smoke and ash in every direction, stinging their eyes and nostrils. No sooner would they move to avoid the smoke than the wind would shift and blow it at them again from another direction. Their eyes grew red, their lips became chapped and raw. The cold never ceased and even huddled close to the fire they couldn’t get warm.
They began discussing the possibilities of abandoning their post and getting as far away as possible before anyone discovered they were gone. Even Jon, a stickler for the rules, was intrigued by the idea. But before they could implement anything, the decision was taken out of their hands.
He didn’t come at night. He didn’t sneak in with a raiding party. He didn’t try to approach unnoticed. He came in broad daylight – with an army.
Jon heard them first. “Hey! Listen, what’s that?” He held up a hand and cocked his head warily.
The rest stopped their ongoing argument and paused. The thin wail of the wind was the only sound for a long moment, then they heard a faint clip-clop of hooves.
Several sets of hooves, over a dozen or more.
They scrambled out of the hollow and raced for the west side of the pass, their bickering forgotten. They skidded to a halt at the lip of the pass and looked up at the foothills descending from the Blue Mountains that separated them from the Tagil Sea.
Trees grew thickly on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains, but rain and fog from the sea easily swept over the top of the mountains, bringing abundant moisture to their eastern slopes as well. The result was a thick forest of mighty trees and underbrush. The tops of the trees swayed gently in the breeze and the sssssh’ing sound almost covered the noise from the horses approaching through them.
Mira’s sharp eyes spotted them first.
There were perhaps ten riders, lightly armored and carrying the short, horned bow favored by mounted archers. They were winding their way through the trees without any apparent attempt at secrecy.
Aaren frowned. “They don’t look much like cattle rustlers or raiders. What are they going to do, shoot the cattle?”
“Which one is Morgrim?” Katrina wondered aloud.
Jon shrugged. “I don’t know,” he started to say, then noticed that Horace and Mira were already shaking their heads. “What’s wrong?”
Mira spoke first. “That doesn’t look like a raiding party,” she said. “It looks like a scouting party.”
Aaren gave her a pained look, suspecting the worst. “Which means?”
“It means,” Horace answered him, “that it’s a scouting party as in ‘a scouting party for the army’ scouting party.”
Mira held up a hand. “Listen. There’s more of them.”
They held their breath, cupping their ears. Sure enough, the sound of more hooves sounded from further up the mountain. Horace pointed up the slopes to where an entire train of mounted soldiers, made tiny by distance, were winding their way down the mountain. “There’s got to be four, maybe 500 of them.”
Aaren shook his head at the sight. “I was afraid of that. Sivrei, the first month of summer, has long been the time when kings go to war,” he quoted sourly.
Jon looked askance at him. “The proverbs of Shedey’uwr?”
“Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t Sivrei, it’s Adrei, the first month of spring.”
Mira gestured angrily. “Never mind that. Don’t you realize what this means? It means Halburn lied to us!”
Elric looked from her to the riders picking their way down the mountainside. “No kidding.”
Horace was nodding agreement too. “Mira has the right of it,” he rumbled, grinding his teeth. “And he’s such a nutcase Aaren’s spell couldn’t tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t.” He paused, breathing heavily. “We’d better decide what we’re going to do. If we’re going to get out of here before the army arrives, we need to do it soon. Or, if we’re going to harass them or attack the scouting party, we need to do that soon too. Staying here is no good either way. We need to be on the move.” The growing sound of more horses back in the trees added emphasis to his words.
Katrina arched a delicate eyebrow. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one time in my life,” she said. “I guess danger brings out the chatterbox in you.”
Horace started to reply but Aaren cut him off. “Save it. We do need to get moving,” he told the little group. “The big guy is right about that. Which means we either attack or run for the hills.” He paused and looked around at them. “All in favor of attacking?”
No one moved or spoke.
“Running for the hills?”
Six hands silently went up.
Aaren threw a quizzical glance at Jon. “No objections from our prize law-and-order advocate?”
Jon shook his head. “Halburn lied and set us up against suicidal odds. That frees us from any obligation to him.”
“Okay then. Let’s get out of here!”
Suiting actions to words they were packed and saddled within minutes. Dirt was hastily thrown over their tiny campfire. Jon and Elric grabbed some leafy branches and brushed them over the earth where they had left footprints, tracks, and indications of habitation. By the time they were ready to leave, the scouting party was less than two hundred cubits from the bottom of the hill, and the unmistakable sounds of hundreds of men, wagons, and horses were making themselves heard in the forest behind them.
They mounted quickly. “Which way?” Elric asked, reining his horse around.
Katrina thought quickly. “We can’t go south,” she said. “That would put us back in Taeljurm. Our servitude isn’t over yet, they’d just throw us back in jail again. West is toward Morgrim, east is Halburn. That leaves north,” she finished.
Elric shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”
The rest of them nodded agreement.
“Okay,” Aaren said, “north it is. Horace, take point. Let’s move!”
Riding at a slow canter to keep from raising a cloud of dust, they headed north just below the ridge of the hills. They had to fight the urge to spur their horses to full speed. If Morgrim’s men spotted them it was even money whether they would pursue or not. There was no point in taking chances.
Jon had made a mental note of the location of other outposts on the map Halburn had shown them, and was able to direct the Knights around those guards without attracting attention. But having to backtrack and circle around them slowed their progress to a crawl. By sunset, they’d only made ten leagues. They made a cold camp that night then rode out at first light. Their morning was filled with more circling and backtracking but by early afternoon they had passed beyond the last of Halburn’s outposts and were dropping back down into Akhu Plains again.
The plains were a rough, rocky land between Taeljurm, the Rampart Mountains, and the Western Ocean. Vegetation was scarce, and water even scarcer. There were only a few scattered villages throughout the land and only one road large enough to be shown on any maps. Cold winds blew in from the icy waters of the Western Ocean but the arid weather from the Akhu counterbalanced them, so for two days, they rode under the blinding glare of the sun until the horses were stumbling along, heads drooping. The Knights sagged in the saddles, their eyes fixed vacantly on the ground before them, paying scant attention to the world around them.
So, it came as a complete surprise when they encountered a ruined caravan, its wagons still burning fiercely.