Lee-Lack looked up, shading his eyes. As far as he could judge by the position of the sun in the sky it was about an hour before noon. He was surprised at how long he had slept.
“I must have been really tired after all those sleepless nights,” he thought.
He looked down again into the plains. The Mukthar horse was still grazing, calm and unperturbed.
His inclination was to continue on his way home and let the horse be, but then he got curious. What had happened to the animal’s owner? He wavered and in the space of a few minutes changed his mind half a dozen times.
In the end, he persuaded himself he had to know. He had heard what the warlord had done to the captured barbarians after the battle, but he had never considered that some of them might have deserted the battlefield. That was definitely not honorable conduct for a Mukthar, let alone a high-ranking one. Another thing bothered him. The battle had been fought almost two months ago. What was a Mukthar doing here? Why hadn’t he fled to his tribe over the Somertian Mountains? And why was he alone?
“Is he alone, though?” Lee-Lack thought. “He must be. Why else is nobody looking for this horse?”
Perhaps someone was. Maybe a group of Mukthars was.
He became worried. What if there were, say, ten of them looking for the horse of their leader? And he was all alone.
Lee-Lack decided to stay where he was, roughly one-third up the mountain, and wait to see from his vantage point what would happen next.
He ate again from his now-dwindling supplies. While munching on a handful of nuts he wondered whether he should go down into the plains and take a closer look, or not. By the time the last nut was gone he was looking for a path that would take him and his horse downward.
He took a swig from his leather drinking-bag, and instead of hiding his sword again in his blanket, standing up, he girded the belt and put the weapon in its scabbard.
He realized he felt better than he had in days, weeks even. It must be some of the old fire was running through his veins again.
There was no more or less straight path leading down, but he could descend in stages. He had to take his horse into account, and when he finally reached the plains he was about two miles away from where he had seen the Mukthar horse grazing. He rode back until he could discern it in the distance. Then he dismounted and proceeded on foot, taking his own horse by the reins, but the animal whinnied and refused to stay behind him. As they neared the Mukthar horse, Lee-Lack’s steed nickered softly. The former robber chief was experienced enough to see that the stray horse was nervous and wary, but nevertheless the animal didn’t run away. The stallion let Lee-Lack approach close enough so he could grab the reins. He stroked the animal’s neck, which seemed to calm him down.
“So, where is your rider, boy?” Lee-Lack whispered softly. He looked at the tracks the horse had made. He had come from the direction Lee-Lack was going in. The horses didn’t seem to mind each other’s company, which probably meant the Mukthar steed was at least as well-trained as his own stallion.
With the reins of a horse in each hand, he started walking in the direction the stray horse had come from.
By mid afternoon he could tell by the tracks that the horse had been galloping.
“Something frightened you, didn’t it, boy?” Lee-Lack thought.
The horse must have bolted away, slowed down after a while, and finally stopped to graze.
It took another hour before he arrived at a place with a lot of tracks. From here the stallion had run away, witness not only the deep marks his hooves had made in the sand, but also a broad line going toward the mountains and disappearing between the rocks. Some of the sparse, leathery bushes had broken twigs.
“What a fool,” Lee-Lack thought. “He should have taken some branches from a bush hidden by the rocks, and, walking backwards, erased his tracks.”
He investigated the marks on the ground again. Whatever else they were — murderous bastards being one of them — Mukthars were usually smart enough to cover their tracks. Maybe this one hadn’t been able to erase them. He closed his eyes. The rider had fallen off his horse, because it had bucked. It had bucked because it had been frightened. It had been frightened because… He opened his eyes again and let them wander over the rocks at the foot of the mountain range. Snakes. That must have been it. Maybe the rider had meant to dismount and in doing so startled a snake lying under one of the rocks. The stallion must have panicked. The traces weren’t erased because the rider was hurt.
Wounded or not, that didn’t mean this Mukthar couldn’t be dangerous.
Lee-Lack tied both horses to some of the tougher bushes and drew his sword before following the tracks among the rocks. He proceeded cautiously, but he didn’t have to search long before he saw some leather boots sticking out from behind a large rock. The owner of the footwear must have thought he had crept far enough to be completely covered. From the position of the Mukthar’s feet, Lee-Lack could deduce that the man lay on his belly. Still, he never left the boots with his eyes, wary of falling into a trap.
When he noticed the man was slowly turning onto his back, Lee-Lack stopped. He heard a clanging noise of some metal object being thrown away.
Cautiously he took a few more steps. Before him, lying on his back, his upper body halfway raised, supported by his right elbow, was the owner of the horse.
He could have been only in his early twenties. His hair was a bit longer than Lee-Lack’s and dark brown. The Mukthar wasn’t going anywhere fast. His left shoulder was dislocated.
The robber grinned and kicked the man’s left leg, making the Mukthar involuntary move his shoulder and grimace in pain.
Lee-Lack walked a few yards up the mountain, and there, behind a knoll of grass, he found a dagger with a jagged blade, ending in two sharp upward points. It was beautifully crafted. The hilt wasn’t the usual iron or wood covered with leather, but was made of polished bone. The handle was specially fashioned to give the owner’s hands a secure grip. This was not a cheap standard weapon. The saddle pad too hadn’t been shoddy, he recalled.
The injured man had followed Lee-Lack’s every move with growing concern. The former robber chief kicked the Mukthar in his left side. This time a suppressed groan of pain escaped through the Mukthar’s clenched teeth, and from his half-upright position he fell onto his back.
Lee-Lack sat down on a rock, right across the wounded man, feigning to study the dagger.
“A fine piece of workmanship,” he said appreciatively after a few minutes. He looked the Mukthar in the eye. “From whom did you steal it? Did you have to kill your brother-in-arms for it?”
At first the young man’s eyes shot bolts of fire, but he calmed down quickly when he realized he was being provoked.
“I didn’t steal it. It was a gift. Who are you?”
“I’ll ask the questions,” Lee-Lack sneered. “Let’s see… what do I remember about Mukthar customs? Ah, yes… A present, or so you claimed. A dagger like this could be a present from a father — a rich father — to his son when he comes of age and becomes a warrior.”
The young Mukthar’s face betrayed no emotion.
“Or…” Lee-Lack drawled, fondling the knife. “It could be a gift between rouwining. One of them would have to be high ranking or very wealthy.” Again he looked the wounded Mukthar in the eyes. “Which is it? Father or rouwin?”
“None of your business,” the Mukthar grumbled. “Your hands defile the dagger and your curiosity profanes the memory of the one who gave it to me.”
“Ah, so, whoever it was is no longer of this earth.” Lee-Lack smiled and rose. He gave the young man a vicious kick in the ribs. This time the Mukthar cried out in pain. “Mind your manners, boy. I’m trying to decide what to do with you. Stick my sword in your guts and kill you, or cut your throat with your own dagger and kill you.”