After the fifth Crimean body in a row with nothing worth taking, Jispin pursed his lips and thought, then headed for the treeline. On a hunch, he went a few paces inside the line of bowed tree limbs and started searching parallel to the glade. In the dim, watery light he spied a T-shaped furca leaning against a tree with a soldier’s bag and travel gear hanging from it. He took it out and planted it upright into the soft ground two paces form the trees. Walking inside the treeline he’d collect three or four before taking them out to prop up in a bunch together. In ten minutes he’d collected 37, then went back to helping the Kilpan fighters finish the task, eating jerky and apples taken from the supplies he’d recovered as he worked.
“I think you’re right. Making them disappear would be best, if we can. A great deal of work, though.” The older man – at least 25, Jispin thought – looked at the line of dead. “Would you like to be my squire, take Stígandr’s place? Or a page, anyway?”
Jispin and Hávarðr both looked surprised. The latter didn’t speak Argentain, but he caught the name and title. “Nothing formal for now, of course. You’re cool-headed and quick, know how to use a blade and bow as well as any fourteen-year-old I’ve ever heard of. Stígandr’s dead, and I gather the locals hereabouts don’t much like your kind. Clean you up, put you in decent clothes, cut your hair, make you look respectable. A locally hired half-breed servant if they ask. You can help us negotiate with the locals you are more familiar with for these, ah, trade goods, and we’ll need a hand with it all. Sell the Argentain gear in Crimea, and maybe vice-versa.”
Jispin thought it over. He didn’t have a very specific plan, but this was a very good start, and carrying that much armor and equipment himself would mean he’d have to stay on trails… and a boy like him trying to barter a decent price anywhere nearby would be very difficult; taking it all the way home to Kurgen for use by family and clan would be nearly impossible.
“For now. Yes. Until it is sold or traded, or could be. Then decide again.”
“Agreed.” The knight picked up the arms of a fallen Crimean soldier and waved to Jispin to take the man’s feet, and together they carried him five paced into the trees, laying him behind the trunk of a large tree. Andronikos made a sign with his hand and said a simple ten-word blessing, and they headed back for another. Jispin mentally shrugged. He’d never seen a god care one way or another about such things, but it was good to know about the knight. They alternated which of the three rested between trips; even though the distance was not long, there were more than three-score sodden and slippery bodies of grown men to haul off the battlefield and into the gloom of the forest. Before they were done they could hear wild animals already starting to dispose of the remains.
They wrapped Stígandr in a tarp found amongst the loot, and buried him in a shallow grave quickly dug in the soft ground with a mattock and shovel found with the tarp. His body was under water almost before it was covered with soil after Hávarðr said a few brief words and sung a short hymn to send him on to the next world. Then it was back to work at the never-ending labor on the field.
Packing the loot – including things Jispin had won from his first two kills of the day – onto the horses and mules took another three hours, and it left no room for anyone to ride. They had spoken little, lost in their own thoughts, and avoiding thinking about the ugly labor and broken bodies they had to deal with, but at last there was no obvious evidence of a battle left in the clearing, and the constant rain was rapidly washing away the remaining stains of war from the beaten-down grass. “Does this infernal rain ever end,” asked Andronikos, stretching widely.
“In the spring.”
“In the…? Oh. I see.” The knight put a patently false smile on his face and sighed. “Then we should be moving on.” Night was slowly falling on the dreary day by the time they were ready to pack up and leave the clearing and its metallic stench of blood and death. Andronikos thought a decent place about a league back might be a good place to camp; far enough to be away from here, near enough to reach before total blackness descended upon them.
It was a cold camp two hundred paces off the main trail that night. Even though Jispin could get a fire going if necessary, even in that soggy wood, he deemed it unwise: the smell of smoke would carry far. Andronikos grudgingly agreed. Hávarðr grumbled. Unloading the horses and mules, hanging a tarp to sleep under, and getting a simple meal of dried fruit, jerky, water-softened hard biscuit, and cheap watered wine took until full dark. All movement after that had to be done as a blind man in the total blackness, feeling their way around. They were all exhausted, though, so movement wasn’t a priority once they settled in for the night. The knight and squire slept deeply, Jispin slept with the wary lightness of all the Kurgen men away from home, but nothing woke him for more than a moment. It was a good night, with at least four hours of rest.