Chapter 2: Dust on a Clear Day
Copyright© 2006 by Gina Marie Wylie
Lieutenant Gamelin of High King Kalvan's Western Mounted Rifles pulled his horse up at the break of the ridge. He raised his arm to signal the halt and heard the command shouted by his senior sergeant.
Twenty-five dusty, sweat-soaked troopers pulled up with a creak of leather and a rattle of equipment.
"Take a break! See to your mounts! We'll walk for the next palm-width!" Gamelin's voice was clear and sharp in the early morning sun.
Early in the patrol, Gamelin had forgotten to take a sip of water just before the break and his voice cracked when he called the halt. No one had laughed out loud, but he'd seen the smiles. He would never forget that again! You had to remember the little things as well as the big things. There were so many things to remember as a junior officer!
There was more clatter of gear as everyone climbed down from their horses. Most of these country militia were too tired for anything other than doing what they were told, but a couple of them still grumbled about having to walk so often.
Gamelin smiled to himself. Two days before, he made two of the loudest complainers ride while the others walked. Sure enough, their horses had nearly collapsed before the next break. This desert wasn't the Grass Sea that they were used to. Since then the arid, rugged terrain had kept them mostly quiet. The parched desert and barren mountains had a way of bringing out the worst in anyone, much less militia, even the High King's militia.
Gamelin tended to Hellfire, his well-named black gelding. First he wiped the dust and sweat from the horse's nostrils, then doled out just a little water. Soon they'd be at the river, but it never hurt to be careful. Once he finished taking care of his horse, a quick glance showed the pickets were where they belonged. He leaned against a rock, using Hellfire as a source of shade. He dozed for a couple of minutes.
Count Tellan, the commander at Outpost, had not cared that Gamelin was the eldest son of the Count of Trygath or anything else about Gamelin's past. Only the bare fact that Gamelin had passed out of the High King's Junior Officer School in Hostigos. The Count had made it clear that the mission was what was important and how well he, Gamelin, carried it out. Gamelin had been treated with deference all of his life and it had always left him feeling uncomfortable. This felt comfortable.
What mattered to these soldiers was what kind of a soldier he was, not who his father was. Count Tellan had been quite definite about his requirements for a new officer posted to the frontier: "I want an officer who does what he's told, done in the time he's told to do it in, with no complaints. If you can't do that, then I suggest you get back on that fancy eunuch of a horse and ride east, not west."
Fair enough, Gamelin thought, except about his horse. True, Hellfire was a eunuch and his gear fancy but...
Gamelin had never faulted his father for the decision to neuter Hellfire. The horse had killed two grooms as a yearling and crippled another within a week after gelding. Everyone counted that as an improvement in temper. Still, he and the horse had some sort of communication, as Hellfire did whatever it was that Gamelin wanted him to. Where anyone else would risk their anatomy to kicks or bites or worse, Gamelin experienced either boredom or petulance.
From his older sister discussing the advantages and disadvantages of her various suitors, Gamelin had learned patience in the face of boredom. Having three younger brothers, who, if they put their heads together, could lace their own boots; he had learned the futility of anger and frustration when faced with petulance and stupidity. Patience had been useful there, as well.
So, here he was, commanding his first patrol as a junior lieutenant, more than a moon-quarter away from Outpost! By Galzar, he was going to do his duty and do it right! He was not due back until the end of the moon! On his own! His duty was to patrol from Outpost -- a poor name for a town that was, no matter how descriptive -- southwest until they reached the Dextra River thence southeast, skirting the deep Canyon of the Dextra until they could turn north and return to Outpost. A moon, if you didn't waste any time.
Count Tellan had told Gamelin that he would dock his pay a gold Kalvan for each day past a moon that his patrol was out. Gamelin's regular pay was the least of his income, but it was the principle that mattered. He had no intention of losing anything.
Few folk lived in these mountains and those that did were quiet farmers or herdsmen, not looking for trouble. There was a growing series of nominally independent communities south of the Dextra River, in the area called Two Rivers by the locals. Most were farmers, but some were goat and horse herders, intermixed with a few small traders. The area they lived in was too hard for most and as such was not formally claimed. Nonetheless, when the patrols of the High King came through every moon, they were fed, their horses watered and grain and fresh food was provided for them without demur... and the locals always refused payment.
There were a few brave settlements a little further south, then an arm of the Great Desert, hundreds of miles of trackless waste. Buried someplace in that vastness were the northern strongholds of the Mexicotal. Nobody had ever marched a column into that desert and returned to tell the tale. Oh, you could take a ship, coastwise, and reach the Heartlands of the Mexicotal God-King's Kingdom. There they were polite enough if you'd brought enough ships, soldiers and cannon. But that was a long way to the south.
The Mexicotal, as they called themselves, had lived in the far south long ago when Gamelin's legendary forbearers had first come to this place from the Land of the Gods. His ancestors had forced the native tribes who originally lived in the new lands they were conquering south and east as they spread across the continent from where they had crossed the Cold Lands. That time was long ago and was mainly known from tales of great battles and brave deeds. This corner, hot, desolate and dry ten months of the year had not appealed to the newcomers and they had stayed further north. Finally his ancestors had pushed on to the Great Ocean to the east. This corner of the world hadn't appealed to many of those who had been forced to move either and they had mostly continued south. The few who survived the journey across the desert regretted their choice as the Mexicotal had enslaved them and used them as sacrificial material in the worship of their God-King.
So the people here had stayed isolated, not worth conquering by his forbearers. The original natives were called the Ruthani, and these were called the "Lost Ruthani" as they had gone a different direction than the rest of their forbearers. Time passed on and the survivors among the Lost Ruthani managed to eke out a bare living, mostly using the new ways stolen from their more successful neighbors. Gradually they had mixed with a few Zarthani, as Gamelin's people called themselves. Trade developed. Fighting cost too much and the fighting had been with people not much richer than they were, but far better armed. There was no point, nothing to be gained. The Lost Ruthani had gradually adopted iron, and then steel tools, long after their cousins who still lived north of the Grass Sea had done so. Horses were a Zarthani transplant and few of the Lost Ruthani had them. This country wasn't nearly as good for horses as Trygath was.
Everything had changed a few hundred years before. A priest of Styphon discovered fireseed and the division between the peoples became as dramatic as when the first iron-armed Zarthani had come off their ships. The priests of Styphon used fireseed to control kings and princes; no weapons or fireseed were traded to the heretical Mexicotal, or even the independent Ruthani in the south and mountain west.
The Mexicotal, never friendly, had quickly grown even less tolerant, ever more jealous of their neighbors to the north. The Mexicotal had vast resources of gold and silver, but above all, they had people. The Mexicotal had not been able to buy more than a few fireseed weapons and even less fireseed. That had not stopped them from coveting these riches or now and then, trying to take them.
The priests of Styphon had not been unduly concerned. The Mexicotal were a long ways off, and were, practically speaking, powerless for all of their resources in men and gold. The Mexicotal would attack with bows and primitive armor, to be met with musket and cannon shot, used by men wearing steel armor. It was never much of a contest.
Then, just a few years ago, a strange foreigner by the name of Kalvan had raised a bloody standard near the Eastern Ocean. Crying "Down Styphon!" he had exploded from Hostigos, a minor principality within Hos-Harphax, a Great Kingdom along the Eastern Ocean, close even, unto the heart of Styphon. The Princedom of Hostigos had suffered under the Ban of Styphon; they had refused to do the will of the Great God Styphon and had been refused Styphon's Holy Miracle, known as fireseed.
Common wisdom said they were doomed.
Kalvan quickly became Lord Kalvan. Lord Kalvan knew how to produce fireseed, something that had until then been reserved for the priests of Styphon. Hostigos began making its own fireseed, and what's more, using it to great effect against their enemies.
Hardly more than two moons passed, with everyone talking about this amazing new prince from a distant land, and then abruptly, he was Great King Kalvan. The armies of three neighboring Princedoms were shattered, the remains of their armies scattered to the winds, the Princes of those Princedoms reduced to flogging their horses in desperate fear for their lives. More battles followed and Styphon's House was broken and the Kingdom of Hos-Harphax destroyed utterly, then completely remade in a new image and form by the new Great King.
"Dralm taught, Galzar sent!" everyone said. The priests of Styphon had been unspeakably vile and cruel. Most people, even Great Kings, had paid them lip service only and had taken pleasure at their discomfiture and rejoiced when they were overthrown.
But the other Great Kings did not take kindly to anything else Great King Kalvan did. The new Great King was a genius with weapons, strategy and tactics. His new rifles shot further, straighter, faster and cheaper than anyone else's. His cannon were light, mobile enough to keep up with cavalry over almost any kind of ground. They also shot further, straighter, etc.
The way Lord Kalvan treated his soldiers was nearly as revolutionary as his weaponry. Mercenaries were employed, but only reluctantly, usually only after they surrendered to his arms. Individual mercenaries were given grants of land and settled as new yeomen and minor barons. Later they took Great King Kalvan's colors in the fashion of yeoman soldiery rather than mercenaries. By the time the spring thaws sent the rivers gushing in their banks, and not a few over their banks, Great King Kalvan had done something no other Great King had ever done more than dream of -- he'd neutralized nearly half of all of the mercenaries in the Seven Great Kingdoms.
The other Great Kings organized to attack him in concert, only to find that once again while they were sitting and talking, Great King Kalvan was doing. Everyone had known that Great King Kalvan did not tolerate slavery and serfdom and had abolished both in his lands.
Kalvan, with the proceeds from his success against Styphon's House, started purchasing empty land and livestock. Any soldierly family man, anywhere, could petition the Great King for the Soldier's Reward -- a horse or mule and two cows and a piece of land six hundred paces on a side. All a man had to do was have a wife, pledge repayment of ten gold Kalvans over twenty years and pledge not to take up arms against Great King Kalvan. There had been no pledge that said they couldn't take up arms for the new Great King. Most did. Ex-slaves and ex-serfs were particularly welcome.
The result had been hard and bitter for some of the former Great Kings, but they finally recognized a High King, someone whom they all, however unwilling, gave precedence to. The resulting peace had lasted nearly seven years now.
Gamelin stopped daydreaming, stood, and raised his arm and shouted. The men of his patrol troop shook themselves from the ground, formed up and once again began moving forward, now walking and leading their horses. They were finally coming out of the mountains, nearing the Wen'rotos River.
Gamelin still had a little time for thinking as he walked, careful watching where he put his feet.
Twice in the last fifty years the Mexicotal had come north in force. The last time had been eight years before, thinking to catch the High King still disorganized from his conquests.
It had taken almost a year for the High King's Army to come west, but he had sent one of his chief generals, Captain-General Harmakros, in his stead. Harmakros' First Mounted Rifles had stopped the Mexicotal and when the main force and the High King arrived, they sent the Mexicotal reeling back to the south after a moon of hard campaigning and two great battles. The Mexicotal had never been a match for the weapons of Styphon and faced with the weapons and tactics of the High King, the struggle had been brief, bloody and decisive.
The fighting, though, could start up again tomorrow. Or today. That was something that Count Tellan had emphasized before Gamelin had left on patrol. The Mexicotal had never loved any of the Northerners and the High King had hurt them badly. Rumors were afloat that the Kingdom of Zarthan on the Western Ocean was going to combine with the Mexicotal to attack the High King.
The Kingdom of Zarthan was the lands their ancestors had first conquered. After many hundreds of years of fighting, the last of the Ruthani, the natives were driven eastward. The Kingdom of Zarthan had some of the most fertile farmland anywhere, plus mild weather and gentle rains. A great many people had been born, and there was a steady push eastwards. It had taken Gamelin's ancestors a very long time to subdue the continent, and in truth, there were parts not that subdued. But that was then and this was now! Now something amazing had happened!
Lord Kalvan, the High King! Now there was a man! The High King had shaken the whole world! And in shaking it, brought down the House of the Great God, Styphon, tossing the armies of the false god aside like twigs in a great freshet. Great Kings had found it easier to join the High King than fight him. It was far safer to swallow one's pride than lose one's head. Galzar knew, there had been enough examples of what happened if pride exceeded caution. And the High King's Mercy was as famous as his vengeance.
After the Mexicotal had been driven back, a great peace had fallen across the whole world. Only Zarthan, far away on the coast of the Western ocean refused to join the High King's liegemen. And it was there that the remnants of False Styphon had taken refuge.
Tremosh, Great King of Zarthan, aided by Lomax, the new Supreme Priest of Styphon, had taken the events under consideration and reached the conclusion that the High King fought only in defense. They realized that if they refrained from attacking him, they could bide their time in peace.
Everyone was amazed that the High King's Peace had lasted for more than a half decade. Everyone knew that Tremosh and Lomax spent every waking moment (and probably a lot of sleep) plotting against the High King. Someday they would try to regain what Styphon had lost. Many hoped that the few doddering remnants of False Styphon were too tired and demoralized to ever aspire to their former greatness; Zarthan had been great long ago but no one really thought much of them any more.
But that was the view in the East, far from these lands. Here the danger was an immediate, dangerous presence, hovering just beyond the western and southern horizons.
That was why Gamelin was patrolling this territory. The High King felt that so long as he remained strong and prepared and let everyone know it, his enemies would realize that they couldn't win and so they wouldn't try. It had worked so far, but not even the High King expected it to work much longer. But that didn't mean his soldiers didn't stay alert and on watch.
The column descended out of the last of the hills on an easy trail and again Gamelin was pleased with himself. Most of his men, no doubt, thought it was an accident that they were walking downhill, but he had been timing this for days. The path was certainly ridable, but the flat lands before the river were covered with broken lava, a difficult trip for a laden horse. They would reach the river in time for the High Sun break and then they could cross the river well rested, both men and horses.
Taking care of the men and horses wasn't something he'd learned at the High King's school for officers, although it was certainly taught there. The Trygathi were the world's greatest horsemen and Gamelin counted himself as one of the best in all of Trygath. Taking care of your horse and yourself was something Trygathi learned sucking on their mother's teat. As for taking care of the troops who were his responsibility: his father had more than once striped his back when he had erred learning that!
A movement in the brush in front of him shattered Gamelin's reverie.
One of the Ruthani scouts, a short dusky man named Tendai, appeared in front of Gamelin, stepping from between a pair of bushes.
"Lord Gamelin, as we approached the river, we saw a flash of light from armor, from the other side of the river. Tubai remains on watch," the scout reported. The column had come to a halt with the advent of the scout.
The two scouts were brothers, local folk, who lived near Outpost. They disdained the use of horses, being able to travel as fast as men on horseback. Count Tellan had told him so; Gamelin had privately doubted it. But, no longer.
"Return to the river and keep watch. Wait until we come up and we'll cover your crossing," Gamelin ordered.
The scout frowned; obviously, whoever went across first would be subject to the most risk. "I'll send a couple troopers with you as well," Gamelin continued. The other nodded and as abruptly as he had appeared, vanished back into the brush.
"Sergeant Tremos!" Gamelin called. The newest sergeant at Outpost came running up to the newest officer. "The scouts have seen something suspicious on the other side of the river. Take three men and all of the packhorses. Make your way to the little hill over there." Gamelin pointed at a small rocky knoll a quarter mile away. "If everything is okay, we will flash the mirrors three-one-three, and you rejoin us at once. Anything else, or if you have not seen the flashes by the time the sun is so," Gamelin pointed two palm-widths past High Sun, "You will return with all speed to Outpost and report to Count Tellan."
Gamelin looked at the sergeant for a moment and then added, "Take your time getting to the hill. No dust." The other saluted and gathered his men and animals and headed away.
Armor was an important bit of intelligence. Hunters could easily be out here, but the locals didn't have anything in the way of armor. Armor, though, was something soldiers would wear.
"Sergeant Vosper!" The other of his two sergeants, an old veteran, had already moved up to his elbow a few moments before.
"Lord Gamelin," the other reported smartly.
"Have everyone see to their priming. Pick four men for point duty and put them about three hundred paces to our front, mounted and well apart. The rest of us will stay in a dismounted column of twos until we get closer to the river. Then we'll form a skirmish line abreast, still dismounted. We'll advance that way to the river. Caution everyone about raising dust."
On the Great Sea of Grass you could afford to be careless about dust. Here, not so. Here, if you raised dust, it was as if you sent a message telling your whereabouts, your speed and how many you were, to your enemies.
The veteran sergeant nodded briskly and went back along the line giving the orders. It was still a couple of miles to the river and if possible Gamelin wanted to walk the horses most or all of the way. There was no telling how much work they would have to do later this day. There wasn't much chance of approaching unnoticed, even walking their horses would raise dust, but they would certainly be spotted sooner, mounted. You didn't need to be a military genius to understand the importance of surprise.
It didn't take long for the troop to start forward. Gamelin only paid marginal attention to where he was putting his feet, mostly scanning to the front. They had nearly reached the flats along the river when Gamelin saw a flash of light from something shiny, about a mile beyond the river.
He halted the column and quickly scrawled a quick drawing on a sheet of paper that he carried in his pocket. Another of the High King's inventions, like so many others. Paper, the pistols and carbines they carried, their swords, half a dozen refinements in saddles and other equipment were his inventions, too.
Even the slow approach was one of Lord Kalvan's normal ways of doing things that had been uncommon before his advent. In the old days, a young officer in Gamelin's position would most likely have led a charge all the way to the river, arriving with exhausted horses, exhausted men and no surprise. Not to mention a river yet to cross.
Several of the men had seen the flash as well, and there was a quiet murmur behind Gamelin as they started moving forward again, towards the river. They too knew what could be out here and the thought of riding into a trap was on everyone's minds.
They hadn't gone far before Gamelin again had to halt the column. Now there was a towering plume of dust from near where he'd seen the flash earlier. Sergeant Vosper came up next to him, also straining to see. On the plain here, it was difficult, however.
"A dozen horses, I'd say," the sergeant opined. They watched in silence for a second. "They are moving very fast." The older sergeant turned to the young officer.
"The locals don't have armor, and they wouldn't have that many horses." The sergeant waved at the plume of dust. "When they hunt, it's usually one or two, at most, and always on foot. They never gallop their horses."
Or, Gamelin translated, not good. "We don't have any other patrols out?" He'd been told there weren't, but it wouldn't hurt to be sure.
"Not this far south," the sergeant told him.
"Move out!" Gamelin commanded and the patrol started forward again.
Another half palm-width and they were at the Wen'rotos River ford, where the scouts and point guards were waiting for them. Everyone checked their weapons again and then the two scouts and the four point men crossed the river, the rest in position to cover them.
Nothing happened. The scouts vanished into the brush, and the point men moved a few paces away from the water and took up covering positions.
"Okay men, first section crosses with Sergeant Vosper. When you're safely over and in covering positions, the rest of us will cross." River crossings were good places to ambush someone. One couldn't be too careful. Of course, you still had to cross the river.
The caution seemed to be misplaced. There was no ambush. The whole troop formed up again and Gamelin passed the word to recheck priming after the crossing. Everyone was nervous and most had already checked, but it always was a good idea to show the men you hadn't forgotten the simple things. When you got rattled, you forgot everything.
Maybe it had been a party of hunters, despite what Vosper said. At home, Gamelin had hunted with groups far larger, even, than this patrol. The area around them teemed with large deer and small animals that looked like wild boars, but had hooves like an antelope. But you don't grow old in the service of Galzar Wolf's Head, the Soldier's God, making assumptions that your enemies were far away.
They moved a few hundred paces away from the river, up the first big rise. Still nothing.
The scout suddenly appeared a few paces distant, at the edge of some brush. Gamelin could tell that something was exciting him.
"Lord, sorcery!" the short man hissed, none too quietly.
"Oh, Great Galzar!" Gamelin muttered softly. Just what his troopers needed to hear!
"How many sorcerers, scout?" he asked in his most pompous manner. He could feel the icy chill from his men.
You heard a lot about sorcery, but few people ever encountered it, unless you counted the High King. High King Kalvan always explained that what he did was, "Simple mechanic arts, something that anyone can do with learning." Maybe so, but the question had always remained, where had he learned? No educated man admitted to taking sorcery seriously, but there were a whole lot of dead men who had opposed the High King, and the living spoke to him on bended knee. The High King had learned something, somewhere.
The scout shook his head. "They have fled at your approach, Lord."
Gamelin chuckled dryly, echoed nervously by a few of the troopers. "Some sort of sorcery if they can't handle the likes of us!" he exclaimed.
The scout shook his head. "Come, Lord, see for yourself."
They moved another couple hundred paces. Abruptly Gamelin pulled Hellfire up short. Ahead was something unlike anything he had ever seen or imagined. It was some sort of metal wagon, sitting on four wheels. A wagon perhaps, but certainly something a sorcerer would ride!
Gamelin dismounted from Hellfire and handed the reins to the nearest trooper. He drew one of his pistols and walked carefully towards it. The scouts appeared and stood off a little to one side, watching him. The hush from Gamelin's troopers he found slightly unnerving.
Gamelin walked around the metal wagon at what he thought was a safe distance and looked it over. It was the color of sand and had four black wheels, one at each corner. Cabalistic signs decorated what seemed to be doors. It was all enclosed in glass and metal. There were windows and he could see seats inside.
He leaned down and picked up a small rock and lobbed it gently at the sorcerer's wagon. There was a metallic clank and the rock fell normally to the ground, leaving a dusty mark on the metal. Gamelin stretched out his hand and touched the metal surface lightly, quickly. Nothing. It was smooth, cool and metallic feeling. He rapped the metal solidly with his knuckles. It wasn't very thick. It sounded like steel, but very thin. The glass in the windows was the best he'd ever seen in his life. Clear and even, no waviness at all. How had it been formed in curves?
Whoever had done the metal work had been a true artist. There were no traces of hammer marks. Even if the paint would hide most small errors, it could not cover them all. There were what looked like handholds on the outside of the strangely marked doors. He took hold of one of these and tugged, trying to open it. Nothing happened. There was like a little lever-like thing about where his thumb went as he tried to open the door, so he tried moving it.
It pulled out and the door swung open. There was an audible sigh of relief from the watchers when nothing untoward happened. From close up, Gamelin was aware of a wash of hot air from inside. It was very hot inside of the conveyance, much hotter than outside. He remembered belatedly that glass did that. It trapped the essence of sunlight that was the heat and held it in a room. He'd heard that in one of the Academy classes for young officers.
He looked inside and saw little beyond some seats and a few piles of goods at the rear. Small piles. For the first time he noticed some hand-written lettering on the front window, scribed in some sort of reddish paint. The letters were unfamiliar and meaningless, but he recognized some numbers. They were the same numbers that the High King taught to all men; numbers that only the High King had known, to begin with.
Gamelin backed away and called up the scouts. "Okay, how many were there? Where and when did they go?"
The head scout bobbed his head in respect at Gamelin's courage. "It is very strange. There is one man. He wears fine boots and walks around a lot. The rest are women. Maybe five or six. Young girls, we think. Some wear boots, others some kind of soft shoe." The scout pointed towards the south. "They left that way on foot, not a palm-width ago. We think they saw us coming and have fled."
Gamelin nodded. "Why on foot? Did their horses run off?"
The two scouts looked at each other, then back at Gamelin. "Lord, they had no horses."
"Eh?" Gamelin exclaimed, surprised. "No horses?"
Gamelin examined the sorcerer's wagon again. He mentally kicked himself. There was no obvious place to hitch draft animals of any sort. What provided the motive power? The wagon wasn't very large, compared to what one normally saw in wagons. Yet it could evidently carry six or seven people and equipment. Without horses? He peered inside. The seats of the conveyance made it clear. Two in front, two in the next rank and three more in the back. There was room for some cargo in the rear; it was more like a carriage than a wagon. And there wasn't very much stowage. What kind of wagon was this, then?
The head scout spoke up, "I think the man is a sorcerer, perhaps an evil slaver of women. I think he is taking young girls he has captured in the east to the Western Ocean in his magic wagon."
The Zarthani still held slaves, Gamelin knew and of course, so did the Mexicotal. Why else would a man be alone out here with so many women? What should Gamelin do? There were not a few stories told of young women who vanished from the lands of the High King and found their way into slavery in the West. What the Mexicotal did to their slaves passed belief and imagination; it revolted all but the strongest stomachs and drove temperate men to intemperate rage.
Gamelin felt his stomach roil; he had a vile taste in his mouth. Duty was one thing, this was something one could take great pride and pleasure in as well!
If he left someone here to watch the sorcerer's wagon, even if there was no magic left, it was an odds-on bet they would lose their nerve and take off. Militia, called up for the three summer moons every other year weren't all that reliable. In an unknown situation like this, even regulars would not be very trustworthy. He had himself, a regular sergeant, a militia sergeant and two militia corporals. He needed them all himself. He looked one last time at the sorcerer's wagon. If the magic was still there, it was dangerous; if not, it would still be here when he returned.
"Sergeant Vosper, mount the troop. We'll pursue the sorcerer and rescue the women, if they are indeed being held against their will."
The High King took a very dim view of slaves. A very dim view. So did Gamelin. "Six men on point, they'll stay a hundred paces in front, well spread out. The rest, column of twos. And, flash the party on the hill 3-1-3, and send that we are moving south." Everyone who had dismounted swung up, and in a moment they were moving at a trot.
Every couple of hundred yards a scout would pop up and wave them on along the trail, and they would continue to move quickly. Then the scout would vanish and another would reappear a few moments later. One of the point men dropped back briefly, after about a mile.
"Lord Gamelin, the scouts says that they are on foot, not moving very fast. He thinks they mean to hole up in some rocks near the river about a mile from here." Gamelin waved him forward and the other resumed his place.
Interesting. The scouts knew of the rock pile, so must the sorcerer. If the other was familiar with the terrain, Gamelin had better redouble caution.
Gamelin held up his arm for the column to halt. "The scouts think they have gone to ground a little ways ahead. We'll advance as skirmishers. If anyone fires before I give the word, I'll kill him myself, assuming Sergeant Vosper hasn't already done it."
The High King, Gamelin and the senior sergeant, Vosper, were all big on fire discipline. It was all there in the High King's Field Regulations, read to the men every full moon.
The troopers laughed nervously, but all knew what Gamelin said was true. If you fired without orders, you could expect to be flogged, at the very least. If you hurt someone you weren't supposed to, well, maybe you would live long enough to be hanged. The High King was fair, but he didn't like stupid mistakes. Not when you should know better! His own wife had shot him once, by accident!
The double column of horsemen split into a line abreast. Gamelin watched carefully as they made the move. The troopers were getting better all the time. The prospect of this being real concentrated their attention considerably. Once they were ready, Gamelin held up his hand, and then waved them forward.
They advanced a couple of hundred paces at a slow walk. The scout appeared, moving along at Hellfire's pace, at Gamelin's side. "Lord, they are in the rocks, there." The scout pointed at a rock pile a good five hundred paces away.
Sorcerer or not, the man was no fool. There was a deep ravine on one side and then open ground for a couple of hundred yards before the broken ground near the rocks. If Gamelin wanted, he could simply order a charge, accept the two or three casualties that he would take and be done with it. There was no way he would order his troopers to charge in there and get shot at without being able to return fire.
With two dozen militia troopers shooting, there would be lead flying everywhere. He would gain little thanks for rescuing half the captives, having shot the rest. The High King was rough on soldiers who did something stupid; for stupid officers he reserved special penalties. Unpleasant penalties.
There was a smaller gully about half way to the rocks, the sorcerer could not shoot at them in there without exposing himself. Another consideration: what if the scouts were wrong and there were more than one armed enemy awaiting them in the rocks? Rash actions, without thinking, could get men killed.
And of course, there was always the chance, no matter how faint, that this was a legitimate traveler who had stumbled upon the sorcerer's wagon or whatever it was, just as he had. The High King thought well of traders and would not take kindly to an accident.
"Pass the word," Gamelin called to the men on either side of him. "Advance as skirmishers at the walk. Pull up when we get to that little fold half way there. We'll dismount and see if we can end this without shooting. If there is any shooting, get to the fold and take cover. Do not fire. Repeat, no firing."
The word was passed down the line, and the two corporals, one at either wing, raised their arms signifying that they were ready.
Gamelin turned to the trooper next to him. "Unfurl the banner of the High King." The banner was swirled, revealing the halberd head of Hostigos, with the High King's Golden Sun Rising, next to it.
Sergeant Vosper on his other side reported that all was ready.
"Forward!" Gamelin commanded loudly and off they went.
There were no shots while they were crossing the open space, but when they went down into the fold, out of sight, there was one loud shot from the rocks that echoed around the hills. Gamelin dismounted and carefully made his way to where he could peek over the top of the fold and see if he could see anything. He couldn't, so he stood a little higher. This brought a hiss of disapproval from Sergeant Vosper who reminded Gamelin that he was within easy rifle shot of the rocks.
Gamelin cupped his hands and shouted towards the pile. "You there! Surrender in the name of High King Kalvan, Lord of us all! If you come forth peaceably, you will be treated fairly, in accordance with the High King's laws!"
The reply was in a language that Gamelin had never heard before.
Gamelin called to one of the scouts. "Did you understand him?"
The scout shook his head. The Gods were not smiling on Gamelin today!
He weighed the idea of a charge again. As if reading his mind, there was a sudden volley of shots. One after another, six shots shattered the early afternoon, far faster than any single man could reload and fire, too slow for volley fire. What?
Gods! Everyone knew the story of High King Kalvan's pistol! It too had fired six times as fast as he could pull the trigger. Lord Kalvan still hadn't duplicated it, "simple" mechanic arts or not! Perhaps this sorcerer was from the High King's homeland? Could this be the evil sorcerer that had banished the High King from that homeland and kept him from his patrimony? This sorcerer seemed better equipped than the High King had been. What if there was more than one pistol that fired six shots? What if the women had pistols and the desire to use them? The loud bang had certainly come from a heavier weapon. What if all of them had pistols and rifles? Styphon's Hells! He could lose his whole command!
Another consideration: the High King had been shot by accident by his later-to-be wife and High Queen, Rylla, because she did not recognize him as a friend when they were in a battle. Gamelin had no desire to make a similar mistake. The High King's hallmark was his willingness to talk, to compromise, to avoid the unnecessary spilling of blood.
Of course, the High King was willing to wade to his boot tops in blood, if someone really wanted a fight. This sorcerer also showed his unwillingness to shed blood. The shots so far had been warnings, shots that told Gamelin something of what he faced, something the other did not have to do.
Sergeant Vosper crawled up next to Gamelin. "Lord Gamelin. I can't see any smoke from his weapons. My brother fought with High King Kalvan when he took Tarr-Dombra. Lord Kalvan's pistol didn't shoot smoke either."
Gamelin nodded. Great Galzar! By the gods, it could be! Caution! Caution!
"Sergeant, I'm going out there and try to talk to him. Make double damn sure no one shoots. But, if there is any sign of treachery, open fire. Don't worry about me, just make sure you kill him."
The sergeant nodded grimly. He understood enough of the situation to realize that there really wasn't much choice for Gamelin. Only caution and patience. And it was Gamelin's job to take the risk. It wasn't something an officer could or should delegate. Vosper was deeply impressed by the young officer, in a situation that defied the experience of anyone, including veteran sergeants. And when experience was no help, there was only training and instinct. Gamelin showed considerable poise and ability for one so young. There wasn't anything wrong with his instincts, either!
"Be careful, Lord Gamelin," the sergeant said softly.
Gamelin nodded absently, busy with his preparations. Finally, Gamelin stood, climbed over the edge of the ravine, and walked forward, his palms spread and facing forwards. Ahead of him, he could see movement in the rocks.