[As always, comments, typos, corrections, thoughts, and feedback welcome!]
It was barely the earliest of first light when Jispin woke the other two. All three were sore and stiff from the hard labor of the day before, but none complained. It was a harsh world they lived in, where sore and stiff was the rule rather than the exception. The squire wanted to make a fire and cook some hot food, but Jispin and Andronikos dismissed the idea out of hand, though for different reasons. Cold but generous portions of food was the order of the day. Jispin’s comment about the marvelous quality of it drew sincere mirth from Sir Andronikos, and his squire as well when the knight translated for him. The idea of typical soldier trail rations being high quality fare gave them a glimpse at how hard life in the Kurgen mountains really was.
While they ate, the two Kilpan’s set about altering Jispin’s appearance with a haircut, a change of clothes into the dead squire’s breeches, vest, boots, and tunic, with a plundered Crimean-style rain-cape over it all. The clothes of the nearly full-grown man were a much better fit than the ones he’d been outgrowing, and were tough, warm, and quite serviceable. While it wasn’t a complete transformation, it altered his looks considerably so he’d draw less attention should they encounter anyone on the trail to whom appearances would matter.
Once the horses and mules were ready to be loaded by the Kilpan knight and squire, Jispin snuck ahead to check out their surroundings, alternating jogging quietly and listening carefully. Hitting the trail he trotted back to the field they fought in the day before. The sun was barely up – the overcast to the east was slightly brighter. The grass was already recovering, and the smell wasn’t too foul. Checking a couple of the corpses told him that in a few days nearly all traces of the carnage would be gone, and all the predators and scavengers in the area would be sated for a week. Crows were circling but not calling.
He returned to where they’d left the trail, and reported what he’d seen to the knight and squire, who’d brought down a wild turkey while awaiting his return. He helped load the last of the supplies, and returned to the trail to scout ahead the other way. Seeing nothing for the mile he covered ahead, he quickly returned to find the other two ambling down the trail as if they had not a care in the world beyond the weather, leading the pack-train and wearing only breastplate and pauldrons, helms, plundered leather greaves, and weapons, with their slung shields.
“There is a clearing – well, more like a wide place in the trail from a windfallen patch of trees – a half day’s ride ahead,” said Andronikos. “Some good seasoned wood there. We can stop there and build a fire, cook the bird, and dry out.”
“Maybe, if it’s safe. Drying out can’t be done this time of year. Not outside. Not likely anyone behind us, but the Crimeans were traveling through the woods as I was, not the trail as you were. I don’t know what they sought to avoid, nor what the two scouts I killed shortly before you arrived were watching for.”
They walked in silence as Andronikos thought over those details. He sent his squire ahead to scout on the one saddled and lightly burdened horse, with strict orders to leave a small drag mark every two hundred paces or so, and check back after investigating the windfall clearing.
“Why are you here?” asked Jispin after a mile or so had passed quietly beneath their feet.
“My father sent me negotiate for hiring out to Argentain. They have few heavy cavalry, and my father’s squadron is not in demand at home right now.”
Jispin pondered the claim. He knew the dynamic between sides in a war was constantly changing as each side sought advantage, making and breaking alliances regularly. A hundred skilled heavy cavalry might not make a huge difference in one of the massive battles of legend, but it could make a significant difference in any of the many smaller unit engagements like the one the day before, or even a significantly larger action. Just the three knights had accounted for nearly a third of the dead. They’d make no difference to mountain folk like himself, for whom the sturdy ponies and sure-footed donkeys were far more useful on the steep trails and rugged terrain that didn’t allow much room to mount a line, let alone a charge. But it would make a difference in how much hate those two warring nations could send into Kurgen. He’d been fighting them for survival his whole life, as had his father, grandfather, and all before him.
“You are not as I have heard of knights of the west.”
“Oh? What have you heard?” Andronikos asked, amused.
“You are brave, but foolish to stand still as you did. And you soil your hands with after-battle work.”
Andronikos laughed, an honest, mellow sound. “Perhaps. But a knight is expected to show no fear, and sometimes that requires foolish things. It would hardly do to seek a high price to hire out a squadron when I cannot sit still facing an obviously bluff charge. As to work? I am the fifth son of a poor and very minor nobleman. We hire out from need, not seeking glory. I’ll inherit naught but a name. Not even a title, barring calamity. My father’s squadron isn’t his, it’s just the one he is in. He leads ten of the hundred, and they are all sons or nephews. I’ve been handed every bit of scutwork my brothers or uncles could pawn off on me my whole life. In fact, that is why I was sent. I’m willing to get my hands dirty, and I’m completely expendable. The fact I’m well educated helps the undertaking, and makes me a threat to my older brothers to be dealt with.”
“Are they not all educated?”
“To a degree. But in different things. They know more of food and women and music than I, but less of history and language and steel.”
“Father would say knowing women isn’t nothing.”
“True enough. But it depends on how your know them.”
Another hundred paces passed in silence.
“It didn’t look like your first time scouring a battlefield.”
“It wasn’t for me. It was both Stígandr and Hávarðr, though sadly also his last. Was it your first?”
“No. Fourth to watch and scour. Second I fought in. Your nephew did well.”
“You should tell him. He still looking a little green, and he didn’t eat much this morning.”
“I doubt it would mean much. He clearly doesn’t think much of me. I’m just a Kurgen.”
“To the contrary. I think it would mean a great deal. He’s actually jealous of you, in a way, though he won’t admit it. We talked while you were gone. You killed more with your bow and knife than he did with horse, lance, and sword, and he’s five years older than you. And the pace you set at clearing the loot and dead near to broke him.”
Jispin snorted. These city-folk were strange, and weak. Wouldn’t last a week in the mines. But for the moment there was no reason to say that, since he’d likely be able to take advantage of them as much as they expected to do so with him. He nodded understanding, and continued to eat and walk, leading the lead horse of his pack-train, one of the Argentain mounts they’d taken. Behind it the line of donkeys followed placidly along. They didn’t know they’d changed ownership by coin or battle six times in the last two years as the winds of war blew, only that their life of carrying things around the back woods trails of the two nations hadn’t changed a whit.