It was Hávarðr who finally came up with the solution: pretend they had already sold everything to a relatively wealthy and powerful buyer and were just the delivery team. He dug through the small mountain of booty to find the leather pouch with papers that had been taken from the two units’ bodies. Among them were general orders, letters of introduction and credit, a few personal letters, messages obviously in code, paymaster lists, requisitions, and sundry other items. With them they were able to piece together who was in each group, where they were going, and what the overall picture looked like in the region, a much better picture than Sir Andronikos have been given to believe while traversing portions of the two countries recently trying to be hired. Crimea needed the mounted troops more, but had less ready money than Argentain. Both had some intrigue problems with unhappy nobles and disputed crown inheritance lines, and the notes illuminated these problems somewhat. Both sides had been trying to foment insurrection among one of the opposing border baronies.
Neither side would be happy to hear that the possibility of treason was high. Both sides would like to know who was being bought, or might be, and who was reliable. Given the names and unit designations on the papers, they’d be able to create a good story, and possibly forge some documents to go with it. The writing was all Greek to Jispin, or at least would have been were Greek a language in his world. Bow, blade, and horse he understood; scribbles on paper were a mystery. As they devised the proper inspiration for the details, Andronikos undertook to start teaching Jispin the mysteries of writing, and a few words and letters of the Kilpan language as well, while Jispin passed on what he knew of the local wilderness and its inhabitants.
They spent the next day cleaning and drying the captured equipment as best they could, and preparing it to look usable, well-maintained, and valuable. Between scouting, keeping watch, retrieving the coins he’d cached a few days before, hunting, gathering firewood, and tending to the animals in the icy rain, Jispin was constantly moving at a near run. He was eating nearly as constantly, too, much to the amusement of the knight. At lunch he brought in a freshly-killed porcupine. Not a glorious conquest, but simple, safe, and close at hand. The two Kilpan’s were dubious, but he fried it in its own grease in one of the larger pots they had, pulling out bits to eat straight up. Andronikos observed it tasted like turpentine; Jispin explained that it was because their winter feed was mostly pine, but it was still perfectly OK to eat even raw. Then he added water and some wild greens he’d come across to boil into a simple stew with the rest of it; Andronikos added some onions they brigands had thoughtfully provided them with, and Hávarðr threw in some of the hardtack.
In spite of the constant rain, the world looked like a much better place with a roaring fire, hot food filling their bellies, a half-respectable shelter from the weather, and the prospect of reasonable payment for their hard-won treasures. Jispin wondered how long it could last.
They set out as early as they could the following morning. There was little left to eat in the corral, and not a lot more they could do given the current conditions to repack or make the gear more presentable. Squire Hávarðr had a better hand in Crimean with a pen, so he’d been the forger of documents that they hoped would get them through their sale. The load each animal now carried was relatively light, and they took to the trail in a column well. Hávarðr led, Sir Andronikos Math-Martin was in the middle, with Jispin bringing up the rear, dressed in a mix of Kilpan and his native garb, and all had what looked like bandages wrapped where a fighter might get a minor injury. The lead pack animals were the donkeys – they’d be the slowest, so the column would be less likely to get strung out that way. Their load had also been lightened considerably since the day before.
It was just past mid-day when they passed their first village, by the size of it likely not more than a score of buildings inside a sturdy-looking palisade wall, behind a generous ditch, with fields extending well beyond bow-shot of the walls. They did little more than pause to ask its name – Bastonell – and confirm the direction to their goal. Nobody was in the fields – not that they normally would have been spending much time out there this month of year – and the militia had been called out and lined the walls. But the knight had a definite serious “I know what I’m doing, where I’m going, and I’ve every right to be here” air, so after naught but a brief dialogue, exchanging minimal pleasantries with the mayor cum militia commander they were left completely unmolested to continue.
The gist of the story was they were part of a mercenary detachment which had met up with a Crimean company, vanquished a small Argentain unit and an incidentally met band of thieves, and were taking spoils back for payment so they didn’t weigh down the fast-and-light company, and to carry messages. The mayor would be happy to have the three spend their money in his town. But the heads of supposed horse-thieves the youngest man had hanging from his saddle carried a distinctly barbarian air the mayor didn’t like. When he inquired Sir Andronikos said was he was a half-breed scout loaned to him with high recommendations from Jarl Werhauser, the mercenary unit commander. Uncouth and illiterate, but reliable. The knight offered little by way of details as to who they were or what they were doing, but as they didn’t cause any problems and didn’t appear to be a threat, the mayor was more than happy to see them go. What could three men do? It sounded like the war would generally be moving away from them, instead of toward them. The company of two-score volunteers going the other way four days previous had not been so disciplined, and the militia heaved a collective sigh of relief to see the strangers moving on.