Darius stretched, rolled out from under his blanket and slid his hatchet from under his pillowed clothes, then slipped the wineskin from its hook on the tent-pole. He crawled out of the tent, rose to his feet, slipped the wineskin onto one shoulder and took a pull, rinsed his mouth and spat. Leaving the wineskin slung by its thong he rubbed his face, scraped sleep from his eyes and studied the campsite.
The raised earth mound gave the illusion of an island in a sea of mist, with just a few treetops visibly taller than the mound top where the three tents stood. Darius knew the danger of this illusion. Most of the surrounding forest grew a good deal taller than the mound, and a lightly built archer could snipe from a position up a tree down into the camp. He hoped Kilp and Celo were also aware of this: they should be fixing breakfast about now.
Walking over to the sunken bed of embers, Darius found a pot of crushed oats seething. Bending and expertly flipping a round of wood onto the chopping block, he used his hatchet to cut kindling, while looking around surreptitiously. Everything looked reasonably well ordered. He wouldn’t have tethered the horses just where Vorel had decided, but the rangy Bossonian no doubt had his reasons, and no-one had gainsaid him at the time.
The nature of his employers was still something of a puzzle. Although Vorel was notionally the hirelings’ boss, he sometimes deferred to one of the others in deciding duties. Bardic the Royal Guard didn’t act or talk like a military leader. Edric the Friar wasn’t even in the pay of the Border Kingdom. Darius shrugged, decided that so long as everyone knew what to do when a crisis arose, it didn’t matter that much.
Stacking the wood into a tidy pyramid, Darius paced over to the horses where the heavier equipment was piled. Kilp met him, sloshing up out of the mist with a full bucket of water. The little man looked peeved, Darius thought with a private grin: fetching water probably meant getting dirt on his hands or mussing his jerkin. Darius raised his eyebrows at Kilp:
“I’ve seen cleaner streams. And with better access. And safer approaches.”
“So apart from everything, no problems.”
“You want to fix breakfast then?”
“Hey, we all voted – you got breakfast shift because you can cook.”
Theodora’s elongated shadow fell across them as she appeared from the path below. Darius fell silent as he realized that he hadn’t heard her leave the camp at all. She favored them both with a suspicious glare, but moved past them and to her mount, feeding it a bunch of sweet stream-side grass. Recalling his own intent, Darius nodded to Kilp and checked over the baggage. It didn’t look as though any light fingers had been at it. His battleaxe was where he’d left it. He unwrapped it and found that the damp had gotten in.
He’d almost forgotten about Theodora as he re-oiled and wiped the blade and dried the haft. Her normally-harsh voice seemed subdued as she interrupted his thoughts:
“Darius? What do you know about this pass?”
“Oh – uh… it’s the first pass of the trail through the Graskaals. Just a cleft between two great hills, from what I heard. No great drop to worry about. A good, well-founded road, built in the time of the last Barus maybe a century ago.”
“We all heard wild talk back in Duristan and I suppose, I did hear stories over in Nemedia where I was a couple of months back. What do you think?”
“You mean, do I think there really is a gigantic monster with huge teeth and claws? Well, I remember back when the first stories were heard that I thought it was just made up to excuse that young King of the Border Kingdom running away. But on the other hand, the Nemedian hero Vivo slew the last of the great lions of Nemedia within living memory. By some accounts, those were true monsters. And something has killed a lot of good men up there. Maybe what we’ve got here is something like that: some time-forgotten survival that’s found its way down from strange Hyperborean climes.”
“What do you make of them? – I mean, those five.”
“They’ve seen plenty of action, but they don’t brag much about it. Celo’s the talkative one and I can tell there’s something on his back-trail. But then, that’s the same for any mercenary. Right, Theodora?”
“That’s true.” The tall Aquilonian seemed to be about to fall into a gloom.
“You mentioned Nemedia,” Darius said, changing the subject. “Were you right over on the west? I hear the nobles over there are pretty arrogant. Must have made life interesting for you sometimes.”
“Nobles! I hate them all,” Theodora replied darkly, forgetting her worries for the time being. “They take what they want and care nothing for their people. I served with a fair employer, and kept my distance from his prince. Peace was made with the noble he was feuding with. I would have traveled north to one of the big hiring fairs but needed better equipment. The stories about scouts being needed brought me here.”
“It was much the same with me. So you hadn’t met Quinn then?”
“No, I met him on the road east. I think he’d just left his traveling players. But I think he can use his sword.”
“Breakfast! Come get it!”
The call to eat interrupted any further confidence between the two. Giving their horses a last pat, they wiped their hands in the grass and joined the others.
“Hello, you two!” Celo greeted them. “We should make that other flea-pit K’markor today, and then we’ll decide on pushing on to the pass. I think the weather will hold?” No-one dissented.