“What will it bring?” asked Jispin a mile later, indicating the pack train of loot. “How much gold?”
Andronikos frowned thoughtfully and shook his head. “No way to know. Good armor and weapons are always wanted, but not everyone wants to pay, nor has the money. Perhaps a gold crown for the armor – each, of course – and another for the swords in good shape. Maybe twice that. The odds and ends maybe five silver doluers a set, likely less. If a count or baron is raising a company and in a hurry, more. Sold one at a time to militia, less. Farmers have little spare money.”
“Because it all is taxed away.”
“Of course. To buys arms and armor,” replied Andronikos without irony.
“We Kurgen make our own. Or take it.”
“Taking is time-honored method, and honorable enough in its own way. The downside is that you can never be better armed than your foe. And making your own is difficult to do well. My own armor took a proper armorer months to make, and he was highly skilled.”
“Good armor didn’t do Stígandr any good.”
“Sadly, no. Though he might have died sooner had he not worn what he did. It was heavily damaged in several places.”
“Dead at the beginning or end of a fight is still dead,” said Jispin with typical Kurgen fatalism.
“True. But living through the first part is required to live through the end of it.”
They continued in silence, Sir Andronikos deep in thought, Jispin alert and listening intently. The woods were silent but for the rain and splashing hoof-beats, and the marks left by Hávarðr were regular, though filling and fading quickly in the soft ground. In a day it would be hard to tell if anyone had passed recently on the muddy trail.
They caught up with Hávarðr at the windfall clearing just past midday, where he’d gathered some slightly less wet wood. He looked up at the leaden overcast and drizzle, frowning. He didn’t say a word, but it was obvious he didn’t think it was possible to light a fire in this god-forsaken land.
“How far ahead did you go?” asked Jispin. Andronikos didn’t so much translate for Jispin as ask for himself, seeing the evident necessity of it. The reply obviously didn’t please the knight, and shortly afterward Hávarðr was once again trotting down the path ahead.
They looked about the tangle of windfall trees that had been blown down in storm some time a few years past – three or four years by the look of it. Obviously they had been used for firewood and to camp by more than once to judge by the burn and axe marks, moss, and undergrowth. The forest was thick enough that getting far off the trail with the animals would be difficult, but not impossible.
Jispin asked Sir Andronikos if he remembered where a couple of things were packed. Upon a positive response he shed the cloak and bulkier parts of his “new” clothing, then spent a few minutes searching among the fallen trees and the damaged ones around them, finding pitch, fatwood, pine cones, deadwood, and a few choice bits hidden from the rain under overhanging limbs and debris. He noted there were many well-hidden game trails and small paths though the jumble of timber.
Andronikos dug through a tarpaulin-covered load on one of the mules, and unburdened one of the horses of its load while awaiting the silent return of his new hired hand. Returning with his flammable treasures, Jispin set about making the twigs and bits of wood into suitable kindling, placing it well above the water on a slab of bark he peeled from a fallen cedar. He was just about ready to go when Andronikos handed him the small earthenware pot of oil and hunk of salt pork. Pulling his own firestarting kit from a pocket, he produced a bit of tinder along with his flint and steel. Soon sparks had lit the tinder, the tinder lit the little pool of oil like a small lantern, ignited the pitch, which rendered the pork fat and started burning it, which dried and lit the slender bits of wood above. With gentile coaxing and attention there was soon the start of a proper campfire surrounded by steaming branches that would soon be dry enough to feed into it.
Seeing the progress, Jispin took his bow and investigated the windfall by circumnavigating and cutting through it to get the lay of the land. Satisfied, he returned to tell of a well hidden spot to corral the horses and make a simple camp that couldn’t be seen from the trail. He led all the horses and mules there to unload except for Andronikos’ charger, figuring they’d move the fire after they got the animals unloaded and a camp set up. He’d barely finished when Hávarðr came galloping back, talking excitedly.
“Bandits, or something like them,” Andronikos explained, reaching for his armor, “not far behind. A half dozen or so, many more horses.” The two Kilpan warriors donned their armor and weapons with the considerable speed of much practice, but with little room to make a proper cavalry charge they decided to maintain a dismounted position.
Jispin eyed the forest and listened to the further description passed on by Andronikos. The boy threw more wood on and around the fire, then rapidly cleaned the wild turkey and stuck the thing on a simple spit over the fire to roast. “A distraction,” he explained. “Two knights stopped for no reason, they will be suspicious. High men like yourselves, foolishly stopping for lunch with a roaring fire with lots of smoke, they’d believe.”
Jispin surprised them further by stripping off more layers and donning his grimy woolen Kurgen tunic before he took his bow and an extra quiver of arrows and disappeared into the undergrowth. They watched as he slipped away without a sound. They knew his skill with a bow – now they appreciated the silence with which the woods slipped off the material, and how naturally its browns and grays blended with the shadows and woods. Like a wraith of smoke, he was gone.