It had been raining since I set out for the last push up the pass. The trail had been uphill for days and days and my horse was tired and I was tired. As we gained altitude, it had grown steadily colder. I hoped the pass would top out soon or we'd be in snow, which for a southerner like myself was not a pleasant thought.
It had been clear from the beginning of the grade that someone was ahead of me in the pass. The signs of a single wagon were unmistakable. Ox-drawn, at least four people, two of them women. No horses, no other livestock. It was probably a demented trader or itinerant peddler hoping for an early spring. There were no other signs that anyone had come up here this early in the season. At the bottom of the last push to the crest, the other trail had been at least a week old. It had been raining for five days now, and now near the top of the pass, the trail looked fresh. Perhaps it had been made in the early morning of today.
It was near dusk when I topped out. There was a chill wind blowing down from the snow only a few hundred feet higher on the mountain. Ahead a fire flickered, perhaps two hundred yards away. They were peddlers; I could see their wagon clearly enough. Nonetheless, before I rode forward, I reached down and pulled my small crossbow from the pannier and cocked it, notched a bolt, laid it offside on the withers of my horse.
I stopped well outside the light of the fire, and helloed the camp. Unless they were blind and deaf to boot, I was no surprise.
A voice called me to come on ahead, and I did slowly, coming at an angle to hide the weapon. One man stood off to one side of the fire, looking in my direction. He was tall and gaunt, wearing a buckskin shirt and pants of some coarse woven material. Another man stood further back, in the shadows; I couldn't see him well at all. I laid my hand casually across my saddle, my fingers nearly on the grip of the bow.
"Good even, travelers," I said in the formal greeting of the caravans.
"Good even to ya, good sir!" the man closest to me said. He was standing so I had a clear view of his empty hands. The other man could have had anything in his hands; he was hard to see at all.
A woman came around the corner of the wagon, drying her hands on the apron she wore over rough buckskin breeches and tunic. "Light and set, good sir," she said pertly. "We have some stew, not much, but on a cold night like this, anything warm serves." She was not as old as the closest man, but no spring chicken. She wasn't ugly, but time had used her rather hard. Still, she stood erect and looked me in the eye.
I finally found the fourth member of the party. She was just a girl, youngish, in her mid-teens. She was sitting on a barrel, one leg cocked under her, the other dangling down and around behind the barrel. She was wearing a thin dress, damp from the misting rain. The dress wasn't very long and the way she was sitting revealed quite a bit of her legs. She made a small movement of her hand. I ignored her, looking around, ostensibly to check out the lay of the land in the last failing light of the day.
"Ride fast!" she'd said in the sign-talk of the caravans.
I didn't meet her eyes, instead I returned to the man and his woman. "Thank you, good sirs and ladies; however I am of the south. I am allergic to that white stuff on yon hill." I gestured with my rein hand. "I have yet a half hour of daylight, I should be well down the other side before I make camp."
The man closest to me sniffed the air. "Could be it'll snow tonight; rain for certain. You might be right. Our beasts are done in; we'll stay here tonight even though we've topped the pass. Doubt if it'll come down very hard, if it does."
Which squared up well with the light drizzle occasionally spitting from the sky and my own prognostications. "I'll being going on then, thank you for the offer, travelers."
My horse stepped briskly past the camp and I made sure I stayed well away from any of them, my hand lightly on the stock of the crossbow. As I rode by the young girl I heard a faint sound and I turned my head just the slightest amount. The foot I couldn't see around the side of the barrel was visible now, as was the dull gleam of her slave shackle. My hand closed on the crossbow and I watched them very carefully until I was well past.
I clicked my tongue to speed up my horse -- not overmuch, just a little. And when it was finally full dark, I did not pull up and camp, but swung down and continued yet a bit further, before spending a few more minutes moving well off the road.
I found a largish clump of rocks, and moved around behind them before picketing my horse near a decent clump of grass. I hauled my gear a few yards further from the trail, to a gap between two rocks that was just a bit wider than a man. I put my pack and sleeping roll there and used a saddle blanket to simulate a lump under them. I took myself off twenty feet higher in the rocks, overlooking my horse. I wrapped myself in my blanket and settled down for the night, crossbow in one hand, dirk in the other. It was a dark, wet and cold night.
Much later I heard a whicker and came wide awake quickly, listening to the darkness around me. It was snowing lightly and it was much colder. I could hear nothing and see nothing. Even so, my mind's eye pictured the younger of the two leading my horse away, his hand over the beast's mouth to muffle any more noise.
A moment later from where I had left my pack, I heard a short "wheet" of a blade, followed by a dull thump. A voice muttered softly, "Damn you!"
It was a trick my uncle had taught me as a boy. He'd beaten it into me, actually. The men of his hall would hang small bells in a darkened room, then take us in with our bows. With a string they would make a bell ring; we were supposed to hit the target we could not see. I had gotten rather good at it. The flat snap of my crossbow echoed over the hills, followed a second later by a muffled grunt of surprise from below. Then, not a sound.
Deftly I cocked the bow again, using the borderer technique that does it without any sound. After a bit I eased as quietly as I could to one side, then went motionless once more.
In the first dull gray light of dawn I was tired, but still alive. I glanced over at my packs. Sure enough, the older of the two men was tumbled in the rocks, a quarrel heart-high, but a little to the right of the heart. That was his right, centered in his torso. My uncle would have nodded and cuffed me once again for being too timid. A light dusting of snow covered the body, but the snowfall was slowly picking up steam. I had been a day's ride from Yergan Camp, now I was two or three, on foot.
I moved back uphill slowly, at an angle away from the road. It had not snowed hard enough to obscure the horse tracks leading upwards and I stayed well to one side of the road as I continued slowly, wary of an ambush.
I was nearly back to the summit two hours later when I heard them coming. The wagon wheels were loudly crunching the gravel and snow on the road. I found a sizable boulder and hid against the downhill side and waited. Sure enough, when the younger man passed, he was attentive in all directions, except behind him. I didn't know what kind of thieves these were, but they should have stuck to peddling. Horse stealing was dangerous. Robbing living people was even more dangerous. Not being curious about what happened to the other man, lethal. And he was riding my horse.
The wagon was a little past even with me when I shot the young man from his seat on the horse. I aimed low and the bolt took him in the middle of his back. Centered again. My uncle would have been very irritated with me. But this was about life and death, not making a perfectionist happy. Five quick steps and I had the reins of the wagon in my hand, pulling hard. The woman pitched forward, helpless to stop her motion.
She came up, dagger in hand, sweeping overhand at me. I blocked with my left arm and put my own dirk in her gut. She never uttered a word, but spat in my face, after she looked down.
I pushed her away with my now empty right hand, letting her fall.
"Boy tol' me he kilt you," she said, wrapped into a ball of pain.
"He took the horse and ran like a jackrabbit," I replied.
"Stupid. As stupid as his old man." She coughed, gushed blood and died.
I toed the blade from her hand and tossed it a few feet away, in the middle of the road, and retrieved my own.
The wagon had turned in obedience to my pull and the oxen had stopped, facing a scree of rocks down a steep slope. I moved warily towards the back of the wagon first, not wanting to trust anyone.
The girl was in the back. I cursed softly when I saw her. She had been badly beaten. There was blood and bruises everywhere on her body; she no longer wore a dress or anything else. There was a bloody mess between her legs and more bruising still. Evidently somebody had taken failure out on her.
On top of that, she was still shackled. What kind of person shackles another in a wagon moving over the mountains? That was like tying them to a rock and dropping them over the side of a ship. The same kind of fool, I supposed, who left with his father to kill a man and steal his horse and showed no interest in what had happened to anything but the horse.
I owed the girl nothing. I would never, ever, have shared a camp with these folk, no matter what the circumstances. But one of them had either seen her warning, or suspected it.
I made sure the wagon brake was on, and then lifted myself inside. Her eyes opened briefly and there was a hint of life in them. "Am I dead?" The voice was small and weak.
"Then they are."
.... There is more of this story ...