Mountain pass, part two

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Trindai de Laiden, Imperial Colonel in the forces of Keen, rode along the track. He was disguised as a lowly mercenary escort captain but he'd experienced worse missions.

Harbend de Garak's interfering with how to organize the escort a few days earlier had played right into his hands and now Trindai was in command of two full squadrons of crack troops. Berdaler and Terwin were able enough to command each of them independently, thank all gods for small favors. With the addition of a company's strength of half-assed thugs acting out a sorry excuse for a military unit he'd need to spend most of his time helping Captain Weinak keeping her men in line. That required manipulating her so he didn't seem to be usurping her direct command.

Bastards own luck, he thought, I throw away a good third of my pay to escape a darkness cursed office command with a fancy title attached to it. Now I have a whore son's load of paperwork dropped in my lap out in the wilderness instead.

He sighed and spat. One captain and two lieutenants, neither of whom would ever have been entrusted an officers responsibility in Keen, to command a full company headed for dispersed duty. That would need reorganizing.

He'd been ordered here to command half that number. However, with a major and two captains for each of his squadrons, not to mention the lieutenant and two noncommissioned officers handling every half squadron, he had ten times the command capacity available. A necessity for a mission where they had to cover grounds normally assigned to a regiment.

Trindai led his horse along the track musing over his bad luck. A full company of heavy cavalry and almost no remounts. Out here in the cold mountains he'd hoped for more than the half cooked brain who'd come up with the idiocy of parading out into the middle of nowhere with short lances and arbalests without as much as a thought to the realities of warfare. Well, it couldn't be helped.

At least Captain Weinak seemed competent enough. She'd done better in Keen, assigned a proper command instead of the band of thugs in uniforms she'd brought. He'd help her by arranging training missions as soon as they were on the plains. Berdaler and Terwin would have to explain the real reason for those sessions to the men, but they'd complain anyway. Darkness! He'd have complained if forced to excessively tire the horses on stupid exercises every day when even a half trained recruit could see that resting made more sense.

He spat again and mounted.

The trees grew denser around them here, and with his mind off longterm planning Trindai could afford to share the discomfort his men had given voice to earlier. Something was out there prowling the caravan. He commanded some of the best scouts this side of Kastari and relied fully in their ability to give him correct information. Darkness would fall soon, and they were still far from ready to make camp. It didn't matter any longer. They'd have to make do on the trail. Driving the wagons after nightfall was too dangerous.

He disliked forests. Too many places to hide in. As if to prove him right, a shadow of something moved between the trunks. He tried to get a better look and then he identified the lurkers.

"Dragon pack!"

Trindai dropped from his horse and rolled on the ground. Soldiers followed his example, and with a coordination taking years of training and hard won experience they met the attack. Trindai backed away and began counting the creatures. Twenty, at least. Dragonlings, not as intelligent as their brethren raiding the coasts, but just as fierce.

He heard, rather than saw, a wall of flames spreading out in a semicircle. So, the gaudy foreigner from Khanati was a Fire Khar. Hissing screams marked whenever a dragonling was consumed by the roaring fire, and Trindai afforded himself a grim smile. They would only need to cover one flank. The men were already dispatching dragonlings with the efficiency he expected from them, and he concentrated on what was happening further along the caravan. He saw Harbend throwing his horse into a gallop, choosing the left side of the road where there were only charred remains of their attackers.

A movement to his right caught Trindai's eyes. Arthur! The outworlder idiot was riding into the fray.

"Turn back! You can't do anything." Too late. Arthur was already behind the dragonlings waving his right hand. A sound like nothing Trindai had ever heard before cut the scene to a halt. Soldiers and dragonlings, several of them already locked in combat, froze like statues, and then the awful noise repeated itself again, and again, and again. Trindai forced himself into action and moving closer to the outworlder he watched the ghastly display of blood and gore as the dragonlings' bodies burst open before they fell.

"You ...! Die! Die damn you!"

That was an untrained madman screaming, not the arrogant but gentle outworlder he'd come to know.

Trindai stared and now he could see how whenever Arthur pointed his hand at a dragonling the roar of death called into the air and the creature exploded in a wet shower of red and white. It was over in moments, over for everyone but Arthur who remained screaming in madness while he continued kicking at the remains of a dragonling.

The men pulled back, removed themselves from the deadly apparition turned up among them. Trindai saw their faces. There had been grim determination there before. Now they only showed naked fear. He saw Harbend approach Arthur. Someone had to. They couldn't have the men living in fear of one of their employers.

"Arthur, stop! Arthur!"

There was no visible response.

"Arthur, listen up!" Harbend yelled again. Nothing. He chanced coming closer, and in a final act of desperation he slapped the outworlder. "Wake up!"

Harbend and Arthur exchanged another few shouted words in the outworlder language and in the end Arthur stopped kicking at the broken carcass and sanity slowly returned to his eyes.

Searching for the Khraga enabling him to understand the foreign words Trindai watched as Harbend breathed in relief and embraced Arthur, knowing before the outworlder what was about to happen. Harbend barely managed to close his arms around Arthur before the older man broke down in sobs. They stood there for a short eternity. There should be another reaction soon. Harbend stepped aside and turned away when Arthur finally emptied his stomach on the ground.

Harbend must have seen combat before, but for the outworlder it was a first kill. The proficiency he'd shown in Verd when attacked by the inquisition soldier had been training without experience after all. Maybe next time Arthur would be in control of himself, and there would be a next time, maybe more than one. Trindai wasn't about to start fooling himself into believing all of them would emerge unscathed from the journey. He could only hope not too many of them died. That had always been the reason caravans paid off well - for those who survived. That had been the reason for ships to dare the dangerous waters closer to Braka. Danger raised the price of wares sold.

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