Sea of Grass, part seven

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Late in the morning the caravan slowly resumed its snaking trail across the plains. Traders and drivers were silent; subdued but also looking ahead with eyes that shone with a new firmness.

Arthur could see the resolve they had gained, and it made him sick. Only those few who had joined them early on seemed to share his sentiment, but they were too few and too frightened to voice their thoughts about the justice meted out the night before.

He spent as much time as he could with the vanguard, especially when the escort under Captain Laiden had the duty. Arthur knew he was trying to avoid Harbend as much as possible.

Of the soldiers, those hired in Verd and the smaller contingent arriving together with Captain Weinak's men, hardened as they might be, talked little about the horrid executions. In difference from the more heavily armed soldiers making out the majority of Nakora's command they boasted nothing about them at all.

They rode in silence, slowly ascending and Arthur could see apprehension in faces that had been grave and solemn, and after a while he also started to share their enthusiasm for whatever they expected to see on the other side of the summit. They reached the crest and for the first time Arthur could see for himself where they were heading. Far, far away a town spread out like a dark rug on the snow. It was surrounded by walls, wooden most probably. The town was closer to the mountains than they were and he guessed the mountainsides were covered by trees here as well. The palisade looked small and insignificant, but so did everything watched from a distance out here. He guessed it would tower above them when they came close, but from here it promised heat, blessed heat, and shelter from the wind.

Not all of them would be allowed inside of course. At least not at the same time, but he hoped the people living there would want to make some money and sell them food. If they were lucky there might even be a tavern or two somewhere inside.

He rubbed his beard with the back of his hand. Short enough to be coarse through the leather of his glove, it was still a beard; the first he had sported for over thirty years, unkempt, dirty and rough, and he wondered when the stubble had found time to grow so long. His wife would never have agreed to his appearance, but on days like these anything covering his face was protection much needed.

It took them the better part of afternoon to get there, and daylight was giving way to dusk before he could get a close look. During the day anticipation grew in the caravan. It was almost tangible, a feeling of increased safety. It was as if they all forgot what had happened less than a day earlier, and Arthur slowly accepted that some things were very different on Otherworld.

They rode closer, snow creaking under the hooves, and as he had guessed the stockade grew to dominate his view when they came close. A closed wooden gate, flanked by two watchtowers, was the only entry point he could see. This close he could see that there was indeed a narrow river flowing through the town. They would have fresh water after all, and maybe, just maybe hot baths. He would pay a lot for a tub with steaming water even if they had no oils or aromatic herbs.

When they were almost at the gates they opened and riders rode out to flank the wagon train. Startled Arthur wondered about the reception, but as he looked backwards he could see that not all of the caravan had made it to the crest where he'd first seen the town. The seemingly endless line of wagons, however familiar to him, with its armed escort was a threat to anyone not expecting the sight.

Arthur started searching for Gring but couldn't find her. He wondered if the people here spoke any language they could understand. Then Captain Weinak suddenly was beside him.

"I talk with ... to ... caravan," she said to him in De Vhatic, and without bothering to make certain he had understood she moved forward and addressed someone he assumed she had identified as being in charge. They spoke for a while in a language that had to be Khi, but apart from a few words Harbend had translated for him, Arthur was too unfamiliar with the language to be certain.

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