Thursday, May 21, 2020

RoH: Away, and Away, and Further Away

Remant made a careful circuit around the edge of the wagons, letting Peregrine choose his own footing and watching the warhorse for signs that he might have missed something. The sun was setting in the west, and the late afternoon winds stirred the thress-grass into waves and currents that could hide almost anything, but the caravan had settled at the midpoint of one of the arches, well back from the points where gentle ramps descended from the raised road to the surface of the grasslands. Overhead, a handful of small clouds stood stubbornly in the empty sky, and birds of various sizes circled nearby. Most were too small to threaten humans or draught-animals.

Nothing seemed out of place, and with the four wagons positioned so that two stood at either end of the small camp, they were about as safe as it was possible to get. And despite the one voice at the back of his head, screaming that this was all a trick and they would be attacked at any moment, the night seemed peaceful. Finishing his course, he swung down from Peregrine's back, patted the warhorse on the shoulder, and let him over to one of the carts where he could tie him in place. The supply cart had grain, and a feeding-muzzle, and while Peregrine ate Remant strolled over to the tailgate of the lead cart, where the merchant Teldis was cooking a bowl of stew over a spirit stove.

"Here," said the older woman, and handed Remant a pewter bowl full of the stuff. "There's more if you need it."

"Thank you." He took the bowl and a spoon and walked away, looking for Ikara.

Dark-haired and dark-eyed, Ikara nodded as he approached. She was in charge of the caravan guards, a good fighter and a competent leader. "Anything?"

Remant shook his head. "Nothing."

"Enjoy it while it lasts," said Ikara, and Remant nodded.

"I plan to." He scooped a spoonful of stew into his mouth, found it heavy with grain but also some meat and vegetable, and swallowed. "You want me on early watch, or late?"

"Late," she said. Her eyes narrowed. "Let Lemanth take the early watch."

Remant nodded. Of the six guards who traveled with the caravan, he and Lemanth were the only men. Ikara, Javill, and Itren were women, and Dandris fluid. Lemanth was a war hero, a survivor of the disastrous action at Kol Diurov and -- to hear him tell it -- a leader in the spear-charge that shattered the grey flank at Noribdis. Perhaps not a great hero, he admitted, but a hero still.

That was common, and not; common, because among the living men of fighting age, most had seen battle and survived horrors. Uncommon, because most of those who had seen battle had not survived the horrors. There were women who were war heroes as well, Itren among them, but for the most part they had joined the fighting later and spoke more quietly about it. And those who remained in the world were for the most part the very young and the very old: the one family group in the caravan had a single daughter of marriageable age, and she was sitting with her family while Lemanth regaled them with a tale of his time as a soldier.

Remant looked away, and stepped back out into the darkness at the edge of the raised road.

"You don't look very impressed with the dashing young hero," said a voice, and Remant turned to see Itren standing two paces away. She hadn't turned her head to look at him.

"We're two days into his bragging," said Remant, well aware that neither he nor she was particularly older than Lemanth. "A lot of stories, a lot of details." He shrugged. "Most of the ones who were actually there don't want to talk about it at all."

He hadn't intended to get involved with this at all. Keep the caravan safe until they reached Doblim, then find another job and keep moving: that was all he had signed on for. But Teldris, the merchant, had hired Lemanth as one of her guards, and Remant was increasingly wary of the fellow. Ikara seemed to share his feelings, which was reassuring, but he wished he was more certain that she knew what needed to be done. He wasn't sure he himself did.

"I'll be keeping the early watch," said Itren, and Remant nodded slowly.

"Good," he said.

He wasn't entirely surprised when Lemanth was gone in the morning. They made a search of the camp, then rode out; but his mount was gone, along with his packs and himself. They rode a little ways back along the road, but found no sign. Remant avoided looking down into the thress-grass, and noticed that the other guards did as well.

"Enough," pronounced Ikara at last. "We need to move on." And the caravan broke camp, with Teldis shouting directions and the Mornmith family scurrying to gather their belongings and make sure the smaller children were all accounted for, while the guards patrolled the perimeter and waited for everyone else to be ready.

No, the surprise came in the late morning, when the marriageable daughter Telra hailed him from the back of her family's wagon and beckoned him over. "What do you know about Lemanth?" she asked, when he was close enough that she didn't need to raise her voice.

"Why?" asked Remant, keeping his face expressionless by an act of will.

"Itren says he was a liar." She sounded strained, tired, hurt. "She says she confronted him about his time in the war, and he'd made it all up."

Remant kept his face still. "I didn't know him," he said after a moment. "Itren was there. I would believe her. But more than that... no, I didn't trust him. The ones who lived through those battles don't talk about them -- not willingly, and not like he did, turning them into some grand adventure."

She looked away. "So I was a fool."

Remant shrugged. "You were young, and he told a good story. Did something happen between you?"

Telra shuddered. "I'd come out to give him a kiss. He wanted... more. I wasn't ready." She looked away again. "Itren was. She took care of it."

Remant nodded. "Good."

Telra turned back to study his face. "You were there, for those battles?"

Remant shook his head firmly. "I was elsewhere."

Telra frowned. "But you fought."

Remant felt himself go stiff. "If you can call it that." Then: "Don't pin any ideas on me, child."

"I wasn't," Telra assured him, though he wasn't sure he believed her. "You like her, don't you? Itren, I mean."

Remant tilted his head. "Not the way I think you mean, no. But beyond that, yes." Actually, quite a lot, after all this.

Telra nodded, though she still looked puzzled. "All right. Thank you."

Remant nodded to her and rode on. He had no doubts that Lemanth's corpse was out there feeding the grasses somewhere, but then he hadn't much doubted it before. And he didn't doubt that Itren had made the right decision, either. Keep the caravan safe until we reach Doblim, he reminded himself, then find another job and keep moving. That was what he'd signed on for.

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