October 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
He came upon the dead his fourth night following the heavy tracks of horse south from Agath. His own horse, huge and grey and accustomed to armored weight in the saddly, snorted and shook its massive head. A scratch behind the ears and some murmured praise steadied. Clean shaven, the rider’s face was pallid in comparison to the skin around his eyes, dark from years outside.
Scythior Gran-Hallan Manjeur was his name, but almost no one had used it in years. He hadn’t been home since his second daughter was born. Didn’t even know what she looked like, although the last letter his wife sent indicated that she looked like he had in younger days. Return was impossible, or nearly so, and yet he wondered what his children looked like. Even with that distracting him his slate eyes kept following the tracks.
Twenty on horse. Four times that many on foot. Wagons. It meant either mercenaries or bandits. Mercenaries didn’t do what he saw ahead of him as he rode Ransar forward. The mud meant he could track them easily, and could follow in the wet sloggy mire they’d pounded hard with hooves and wheels. He could go faster, could overtake, or could ride back as he was and never worry about them seeing him.
The smell of smoke made Ransar uneasy. Mark had called the horse Old Man, when he’d been Scythior’s chief groom and page. When he’d grown, he called both the horde and its rider by that title, and that was more than a decade ago. Scythior snorted as his horse had earlier, knowing it was true. The sky above was as grey as both horde and rider, its belly dark and swollen with the threat of more rain to come.
The village had been burned as sloppily as it had been raided. Bodies lay where they fell. Not all were the villeins, either. If they’d had at least a hundred men riding in here, they’d lost some. Five horses lay dead on the ground, and at least fourteen bodies that the Old Man knew had never seen an honest day’s farming in their lives. He counted the hands with the wrong callouses, legs bowed from years in the saddle, taking count of a few tall, copper haired Naeths that in no way had belonged in this quiet little corner of Aghat.
He saw no survivors. Tracks led south, towards the Enerthyri Mountains and Nullgate, and east deeper into Aghat. The ones going east were all on foot. No carts, no hooves. Not even cows or pigs, they’d fled with nothing. They didn’t even have goods weighing them down. The wagons going south left heavy ruts. It occurred to him that more than five horse might have fallen. Meat is meat, after all, you wouldn’t leave it to rot unless you simply didn’t have any room for it.
Flies climbed over the neck of a once magnificent mare. Human bodies did little to him now, but the horses smacked of waste and idiot tactics, and made him angry. If farmers could kill so many armed bandits, it meant the bandits were even less than he’d believed. Not that it mattered. Enough numbers makes even those that think with a sword risky.
Ransar smelled it before him. Of course, his joints creaking in wet clothing, eying the sky with trepidation at the expectation of more sheeting raid to come, he was occupied with unbecoming self pity. The massive horse kept swinging his head around and snorting, sucking in great bursts of air. It was a familiar way to act, and the old man heeded it. As the big horse stopped moving, he slid from its back and stifled a groan.
Kashin kept the arrow nocked, watching the shaggy grey horse and shaddy grey man come to a stop. They’d come from the east, and so she at first thought they might be stragglers a day behind. But they were cleaner, the horse bigger and better fed and groomed, the man surprisingly large and clearly not a bandit once he dismounted. His cloak was rich, with what appeared to be white bear fur along the edge. Her father had once bought some white bear skin from a passing trader, a short Benari whose wagon creaked and jingled and held all matter of things she’d never seen before or since. The memory of that day no longer had the power to move her to anything.
She had six arrows left. She’d gone hunting with twenty. She’d killed two rabbits and a large doe, and had counted herself lucky, when the smoke had reached her. She could remember with acute sharpness her run back through the woods, her feet light on the mud despite her haste. She’d known as soon as she could hear the screams that she would not get home in time.
Ten families lived in the settlement. Each was as large or larger than her own, with grandparents and cousins and other relatives living under the same roof. A little more than two hundred people had lived there, and they’d fought for their homes. They fought hard and they’d fought smart, but those attacking them had real weapons, horses, longbows and fire. Kashin watched from the woods and picked off who she could, sending arrows into eyes and throats in the general chaos, but she knew her father’s lessons well enough to know that dying with him wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Other families had survivors. Hers had not. She did not count herself as one. She’d watched as people fled, with nothing more than what they were wearing. She’d watched a man with hair entwined with leaves and twigs and feathers barking orders in no tongue she spoke. She’d wanted so badly to shoot him in the face, and knew it would be her death. So many, they would find her. A few stragglers wandering the edges of the woods were all she could manage, waiting patiently for one to leave the scavenging to relieve a bladder swollen with stolen drink or bowels clogged with the food harvested by her and hers. Three dead.
Dark as tree bark, her eyes and hair the same shade as canopy shadow, Kashin waited with her arrow drawn back and watched the newcomer. If not for his size she would have noticed his age first. Everything about him was faded out, his skin, his expensive looking clothes, his hair all some shade of grey. Even the weatherburned skin around his eyes was seamed with wrinkles and a few scars, puckered pallid lines of skin. He moved well for someone who looked like he could have fathered her father. And he clearly knew someone was watching him, moving carefully to keep structures or objects between himself and the woods as best he could.
Shooting him didn’t feel like it would accomplish anything. So she didn’t. She wasn’t fool enough to come out, either. A day and night spent in the woods watching everything burn, watching insects crawl over the bodies, watching rats come out of the empty tithe barn to chew on limbs had set her in a cold, quiet place. She didn’t know how yet, but she knew that she was going to kill that orange fire haired cackler of orders.
And she felt the granite man and his granite horse were the way to do it.