So much had changed after the Battle of the Zinchara, the lone horseman thought. Just a few weeks ago he had been able to travel the length and width of the Renuvian Plains unhindered and carefree. These days, for safety, he had to manage the paths, one-third up the slopes of the Teagriam Mountains, known only to a very few. For extra safety he wore brown trousers, a saffron shirt, and an ocher cloak. Earth colors, all of them. From a distance he blended in with his rocky surroundings, while he himself had a perfect view of who moved on the plains. Especially since the military governor of Mirkadesh — a personal friend of the little warlord — had seen fit to have his soldiers wear bright red tunics. It made them conspicuous even at market fairs, which probably was what the governor wanted. On the plains each of them stuck out like a sore thumb and was noticeable from miles away.
The young man, who looked to be in his early twenties, dismounted and led his horse to the nearest of the frequent places where the path was hidden from the plains by rocks. He secured the reins with a heavy stone, and, crouching down, inched forward until he reached a vantage point from where he could look down on the plains between the rocks. It was almost midday and the sun stood right above them. It made the soldiers reluctant to look up and scan the more elevated parts of the mountains.
He counted roughly fifty men. What the Ximerionians called a company, led by a chieftain. Five squads that could operate independently, each under the command of its own squad leader, if need be. The soldiers were armed to the teeth, and their horses looked well fed and rested. He doubted he could have outrun them if he had been traveling on the plains.
Sound traveled far here, reverberating from the mountains. He cast a worried look at his own horse, with the heavy saddlebags and the rough blanket, rolled up to hide his sword, but the animal remained quiet.
It took almost an hour before the company passed his position, and another hour before he judged them to be far enough away to risk mounting his horse again.
The next day, an hour before noon, he left the Teagriam Mountains, which had dwindled down, first to hills, and then to mere undulating grassy elevations in the landscape. He avoided the road to Mirkadesh, the head village that had given the county its name. Yet, a few miles down a seldom-used minor road that led to Dullcarry, a little place halfway between Mirkadesh and Dermolhea, he was stopped by a patrol coming from the opposite direction.
“Where do you come from and where are you going to?” the patrol leader asked, and he smiled.
The young man smiled back.
“I come from Mirkadesh,” he lied. “I’m taking supplies to my grandmother who lives in the woods near Dullcarry.” He reached behind him to pat his saddlebags. “There wasn’t much for sale, but I got a nice smoked ham and some cheese and butter. You want to see?”
He reached behind him as if to open one of his saddlebags. The patrol leader laughed.
“You’re far too trusting, lad. You’re lucky we’re soldiers of Governor General Demaxos, who would hang us if we were ever to rob civilians, and no two ways about it. Besides, a handsome young man on horseback shouldn’t travel unarmed.”
The young man looked down, as if embarrassed.
“To tell the truth, Sir, I’m not unarmed. My sword is in that blanket, above my left saddlebag. You want to see it?”
Again the patrol leader laughed out loud.
“No, I don’t. I believe you.”
“Ask him if he has a dick, Sergeant,” one of the soldiers said. “He’ll offer to show us.” The others snickered.
“That’s enough,” the sergeant replied with just the faintest edge to his voice. “And you, eh…”
“Well, on your way, young Master Berwinn. A good day to you and have a safe journey.”
“The same to you and your men, Sir.”
He wasn’t really called Berwinn, of course, but it was a common enough name in the region to avoid raising suspicion. He frowned. The soldiers had been all relaxed and their leader hadn’t put much effort into interrogating him. The sergeant had even declined to inspect the saddlebags. Lee-Lack had made the offer on a dare. Not that it mattered. If the soldiers had wanted to see the contents of his bags they could have forced him. The officer would have asked, no, ordered him to open them first thing. The fact that he hadn’t done so had told the young man they weren’t all that interested in him.
What were they looking for? More importantly, who were they looking for? Well, obviously not a clean-shaven young man in his twenties. Even so, why had they been so easy-going, almost nonchalant?
Was it because in one night the whole of Mirkadesh had been beaten into submission and presented no danger whatsoever anymore? Strangely enough, it had been the Mukthars who had done the beating, but it was the little princeling who had reaped the rewards.
He gritted his teeth. It seemed the Mirkadesh Home Guard had begged the prince-warlord to let them assist him in a foolishly dangerous maneuver in the first stage of the battle at the River Zinchara. It was tantamount to treason. It made no difference Prince Anaxantis was fighting the Mukthars. Yes, they were the same Mukthars who had reduced Mirkadesh to ashes barely a week earlier, but it was also the same prince who had put an end to the home rule and relative independence of Mirkadesh by abrogating a centuries-old charter, granted to the county by its last ruler, Count Mandihar III, and ratified by King Herruwold Long-Sword of Ximerion.
His chin sunk to his chest. He had made mistakes. Big mistakes. To begin with, the trap the Mukthars had laid for the young warlord. The warlord had fallen for it, but so had he. There was a difference, though. Unlike himself, the prince had managed to turn the tables on the barbarians and he had exacted a terrible revenge. For the recent attack, the raids of a dozen or so years ago, and for the destruction of Mirkadesh.
Contrary to the warlord, he had trusted the Mukthars. That was his second mistake. He had trusted they would keep to the age-old agreement Mirkadesh had with them and that the county would once more emerge unscathed from yet another barbarian raid. Yes, he had been betrayed, but he had also been a fool to trust a Mukthar chieftain.
His third mistake didn’t bear remembering. He had destroyed his power base with his own hands. He must have been mad. But who could have foreseen that Prince Anaxantis would be the victor? Everything he knew, everything he had ever been told, had led him to believe the Mukthars would snatch the Province of Amiratha — maybe even the entire Highlands, the Duchy of Landemere included — out of the little warlord’s inexperienced hands.
Not all was lost, though. The gold. There still was the gold, amassed over centuries. If the soldiers had taken him up on his offer and searched his saddlebags, they would have found an infinitesimal part of it under the ham, cheese, and butter. But they hadn’t bothered. He had been lucky.
He shook his head, not believing his own irresponsible rashness. Luck like that couldn’t last forever. He’d better try to curb his reckless impulses. They already had cost him too much. They had cost him his men.
He rode on for more than two hours, concentrating on the gait of his horse, moving and breathing in sync with it. It felt like days gone by — not so long ago — when he had roamed the Plains. It felt familiar and it calmed his mind.
On the main road that connected Dermolhea and Mirkadesh he met many travelers. Natural feelings of distrust between people who didn’t know each other made them keep their distance. They only nodded in passing by way of greeting.
On the byway to Dullcarry he met nobody.
In the early evening he came to a fork in the road. To his right he could vaguely make out the rooftops of the village of Dullcarry, but he took the road — nothing more than a path, really — that led into the woods.
So near his destination, his spirits picked up. He rode another five miles down the path into the forest and came to a clearing. In the shade of some old oak trees stood a house. Through its open windows came a mouthwatering waft of freshly baked almond cookies.
No, not all was lost, he thought. He still had a fortune in gold and nobody was looking for him. They were looking for a man in his thirties with black hair, a black beard and a limp. Nobody was looking for a young man with light brown hair who looked in his early twenties, although he was actually twenty-seven. He smiled to himself. They were looking for the leader of the Renuvian Plains Robbers, and he looked nothing like Lee-Lack Scarminckle.