The Southern Fort

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“Out with it.”

Tess blinked at Marsh. “Out with what?”

“You’ve been quiet since we ran into my mother.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Confused, she shook her head.

Sighing, Marsh readjusted the pack across his shoulder. Silent except when necessary, Tess ignored him otherwise. He had become used to her random conversation starters even if they were mostly annoying. Now after days straight without her jabbering, it was beginning to wear on him.

He hoped allowing her to ride Dandelion would change her mood, but even then, she sat sullen in the saddle.

“Usually you’re chatty. You’ve been — you know, quiet.” Marsh waved a hand as if it could explain it all.

Tess glared at him. “I’ve walked half the county, slept on rocks, and sustained myself with a few rabbits and a hard biscuit or two. Pardon me if I don’t have the energy to entertain you.”

Marsh let out a slow breath. If willing to be honest with himself, he deserved the words. Reaching out, he hooked a finger through the cheek of Dandelion’s bit and drew the horse to a stop.

“What are you doing? I thought you had bandits to catch.” Tess tried to nudge Dandelion forward.

“Don’t do that. He’s not going anywhere with me holding onto him — you’ll just make him mad.”

“Then let’s go—”

“Tess—”

“What?” She snapped back, her face flushing with anger.

“That's why I wanted you to go with my mother. She might be a little abrasive, but at least you’d have bed to sleep in and a few decent meals a week.”

“Well, she didn’t want me.”

“She never said that! She said to bring you by in three months.” Sighing, Marsh stared at her. Something else was eating at the girl — she had beamed when complimented on her poultice. If anything, he figured Tess eager to go and would talk of nothing else until then.

“What has you so upset?”

Tess took a deep breath. She touched the fingers of a hand to Dandelion’s withers and gave him a gentle caress. They slipped through the thick black hair of his mane, pulling loose the tangles.

“Why did Arda ask if something was wrong with me?”

Marsh chuckled. “She had a valid point even though she wasn’t particularly kind about it.”

Her breath caught and Tess finally met his eyes. She narrowed her gaze. “So you think there’s something wrong with me too?”

“No.” He shook his head and laughed. “No, there’s nothing wrong with you. She didn’t understand why a man would allow a total stranger — me, in this case — to cart off a minor in his charge. That was her point.”

“But the law—”

“Tess, for the dishonorable, it’s a very easy oath to worm out of or to dispose of something you have no use for.” Marsh saw the doubt in her eyes but also the tiniest glimmer of recognition.

“You’re saying Uncle Ulric sees me as disposable?”

He nodded. “Think about it, Tess. I tried to renegotiate with him, but he wouldn’t hear it. He had no judge of my character—”

“You saved his life from that thief,” Tess interrupted.

“I did,” Marsh agreed. “But I could have easily cut him down for my own gain. A man of any measurable worth does not hand a young lady to a complete stranger. There’s a very long list of very deplorable things that could have happened to you, Tess.”

Her eyes widened at the weight of what he said. Marsh was right of course; she thought she would share a similar fate when they first began traveling together.

“But why— why did he want to get rid of me?”

“I suspect only your uncle can answer that.”

It was early afternoon by the time they made it to the outskirts of the abandoned fort. Built on top of a hill, it had the natural defense of high ground with two approaches. Three, if Marsh considered the sheer face of the fort’s partial collapse. The ring of stone that kept the man-made hill contained had given way and the building toppled when its foundation crumbled. Only the north and east sections of the fort were still in usable condition. Stone by stone, the rest was falling apart.

Marsh needed to scope out the surrounding areas and reconnaissance the fort itself. Knowing whether he was up against six or sixteen bandits would make a difference on the approach. As much as he dreaded it, the collapsed side might be his only means of getting into the fort undetected.

He pointed Tess to a small embankment and she guided Dandelion to an outcropping of rocks that had a natural notch perfect for a shelter.

“You need to stay here with Dandelion,” he said as he hung the pack he held over the broken remains of a pine tree branch.

“Why?” Tess swung her leg over the back of the saddle and freed her foot from the stirrup before dropping to the ground.

“I need to look at the fort.” Adjusting his scabbard, he tightened the belt across his chest.

“I don’t know why Irv sent me here — if these are livestock thieves, why would they pick such a place when there is nowhere to shelter the animals?” From the bag over the branch he pulled a small pouch and checked the contents. A set of finely honed throwing knives glinted in the sunlight.

“Maybe they’re hidden elsewhere,” Tess replied. She set her nails on the base of the horse’s neck where it met his chest and gave him a scratch. Thoroughly enjoying it, Dandelion lifted his head as she extended it up his windpipe.

“No fires,” Marsh warned, slotting the knife pouch in the groove on the belt.

“But—”

“No fires.” He pointed a finger at her. “They’ll have at least one scout on patrol. If he catches sight or wind of a fire, someone is going to come investigate. I can’t be here to guard you and look at the fort at the same time.”

Tess rolled her eyes and frowned. “I’m not helpless — I can take care of myself,” she said as she untied the saddlebag and bedroll from the horse’s back.

“Not against these men you can’t. Wrap yourself in the blankets and crawl into the rocks if you get cold, but no fires.”

“Am I supposed to starve till you get back?” Wide eyed, Tess stared at him.

“Eat the biscuits.” He patted at his own stock in a hip pouch. “Let them soak up a bit of water and they’ll be fine.”

“You do want me to starve to death,” Tess mumbled as she finished untacking Dandelion. Agitated, she yanked at the buckles to his girth. She slid the saddle and its sheepskin pad from his back and dropped it on the ground a little harder than intended.

“Tess, I….” Marsh sighed and shook his head. “Never mind. Stick close to Dandelion — he’ll tell you if something or someone is lurking in the shadows. If you get into trouble, cut Dandelion loose and run.”

“Fine.”

“Okay.”

Marsh watched for a few moments more as she unbuckled the bridle from the gelding’s head and slid the bit from his mouth. Once she had placed his halter on, Dandelion stepped forward and began to chew on the scrub grass. Something in Marsh’s subconscious warned that he shouldn’t leave Tess but he ignored it as he turned and made his way back up onto the path then beyond into the woods.

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