Mountain pass, part one

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Harbend felt pride soaring through him. He'd managed to get everything sorted in the end, and now he led well over three hundred wagons toward the mountains. Hiring scouts almost handled itself. Four hunters were headed for their winter cabins and didn't mind taking a long detour in exchange for some money. Luckily coins minted in Verd were universally well accepted. He even managed to split the escort into two separate units with Captain Laiden in overall command without hurting anyone's feelings too much.

Arthur's new associates were another matter though. They had paid the required fee to join the caravan, with the exception of Gring, the Khraga, who worked as a translator for Arthur. They even bought one wagon and two horses to go with it, but it was painfully clear that they knew nothing of driving it, and in the end Harbend forced them to hire a driver and buy another pair of horses. A male couple from Khanati, and one of them had to be a Transport Khar. There was no other explanation for them being here. Master and slave if Harbend was right. Well, Arthur's idiocy had paid off in a way. Three battle mages from Rhuin opted to join the escort after Harbend promised to pay the Transport mage from Ira who brought them here.

Then there was the Khraga. She should have been the least of the problems. Harbend knew an entire tribe of them lived in Ri Kordari, and from what he had heard they were held in very high esteem. But he should have known he could always trust Arthur to find a harder way to solve an already difficult problem. Of course he managed to attract a Khraga from Gaz. Gods! That man wasn't picky to say the least. Why invite a hairy giant who made most of the men uneasy when you could invite a hairy giant who was sworn to the ancient enemy of those who weren't already unsettled?

As if that wasn't bad enough, Arthur now spent most of his time with the female Khraga. So much time in fact some mercenaries from Ri Khi had hinted at a conspiracy when they believed Harbend couldn't hear them. He'd been forced to hammer them out of that misconception as harshly as possible before things got ugly. They didn't complain after that.

Yes, he definitely had a reason to feel proud of himself.

They were on the road again, if the narrow trail deserved the status of road, that is. Three full days from the Roadhouse with a caravan so vast half a morning passed between the vanguard reaching a milestone and the rearguard leaving it behind.

Trees still grew tall here, something that would change as they meandered their way upwards during the days to come, but at the moment they were still surrounded by a forest somehow looking wilder than those they had passed through in Erkateren. The trees here were not planted, not as straight and ordered in long lines as those he'd seen earlier. This was not a supply for timber men and carpenters.

Harbend slowly started to accept that he was heading into unchartered territory. The last caravan had trudged its way from Braka to Verd over a hundred years earlier, and a lot could have happened since. He knew that from the moment they parted with their scouts he could no longer trust any knowledge he thought he had. Not until they reached Braka itself, which meant spending over a season in the unknown. They were testing the borders of that unknown now. Not even the mercenaries from Ri Khi knew their way around here, and the hunters hired as scouts only used this trail sparsely.

He dared his horse into a slow gallop. If he could catch up with the vanguard he would get the latest news of their progress, even if that news was only reports of yet more trees. As it was it didn't turn out that way.

He found Captain Laiden overseeing the hacking and sawing of a great log fallen across the trail.

"Windfall, Captain?" Harbend asked the stern commander.

"No, just old age, M'lord. We'll be through soon."

"Good to hear. Anything else?"

"Not really, M'lord. My man, Terwin," Trindai pointed at a heavyset man handling one end of a huge saw. "thinks someone's watching us. I don't know. Want me to tell you when I'm more certain, M'lord?"

"Do so. I have absolute confidence in your judgment when it comes to matters military."

Trindai gave Harbend a speculative look, and Harbend wondered what had earned him the thoughtfulness of the captain.

"Will do, M'lord," Trindai finally answered as if having made his mind up about something during the silence.

Harbend rode back along the line of wagons and grabbed something to eat. He'd become a lot less concerned about eating among people since leaving Verd, but then you could hardly expect a private room while on horseback. He watched as soldiers departed to replace the vanguard and noted Arthur and the Khraga joining the troops riding away. So did Chaijrild.

The girl flaunted an interest in Arthur that Harbend realized grew out of spite, but there wasn't much in his powers to do about it, and he no longer harbored any interest in trying.

A while later Captain Laiden returned with his men and reported that the log was cleared away and made into firewood. With little else to do Harbend joined the captain in hope of passing time a bit faster.

"There's something out there, but I don't know, and I don't like not knowing, M'lord," Captain Laiden said almost as soon as he saw Harbend coming.

"And your suggestion?" Harbend looked at the captain.

"I'll sweep both sides of the caravan. With your permission, of course, M'lord," he added almost as an afterthought.

The scouting missions resulted in nothing but unpleasant rumors among the mercenaries from Ri Khi, and Harbend marked his dissatisfaction with the new problem in a way that had Captain Laiden growling before he ordered his men to be ready. Harbend was about to counter that order when a glimmer of threat shone from Trindai's eyes, and Harbend quickly rescinded his decision and rode on.

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