Maruk’s horse slowed to a trot, panting. The battle was far behind, but the crashing and screams of the slaughter still under way still carried over the wind. Maruk could barely hear it or he was deliberately blocking it out. He couldn’t even tell himself. Etched on his mind was the sight of Torru’s last moments. His voice still rang in Maruk’s ears.
Gamma was there too, but they were otherwise alone. They were concealed amongst a small but dense patch of scrub, bushes and small trees.
“Where’s everyone else?” Maruk asked him.
“I don’t know,” replied Gamma. “Jonal was just behind me when Torru…” he trailed off. “Lerro is dead.”
Maruk nodded, stoic, but the news was like a dull blow to the stomach. He turned away from Gamma, hiding his face.
“We’ve lost,” he said, steadily. Gamma was silent. He continued. “We have to get away from here.”
A great cheer rose from where the battle was being wrapped up, several kilometres away. A thin plume of smoke was rising, visible through the branches. The Landisil camp was ablaze.
They dismounted and walked rather than tire their horses unnecessarily, picking their way through the bushes. As they neared the tree line, they halted. Maruk handed the reins of his horse to Gamma and crept forward cautiously to check if they were clear to make a break for the cover of the next patch of trees. He could see nothing, so he and Gamma mounted once more and galloped across.
“Maruk,” said Gamma, once they had reached safety, “the horses. They need watering. I need watering while we’re at it. We can’t get much further if we don’t head to the river first.”
Maruk agreed and they turned Eastwards towards roughly where they knew the river would be. It took them several hours to actually get there, darting from one copse or small woods to the next, but they saw no Berrumin. When they found the river, they chose to go down to it near a bend, where they would be able to see anyone approaching. They led their horses to the water and let them drink as they had the day before when they had come across the enemy scouts.
“Did you see the one who unhorsed Torru?” asked Maruk.
“No,” said Gamma. “What about them?”
“He was with the scouts yesterday. He was the young one who kept chasing us after I killed his friend.” Maruk paused. “He was aiming for me with the spear that hit Torru’s horse.”
Gamma looked him in the eye. “Don’t even think about that kind of thing. It’s not worth it. We were surrounded. If he hadn’t hit Torru, someone else might have. If you must blame someone, blame whichever bastard ordered the Leffanwa to withdraw. We could have won if it weren’t for that. Who was commanding them?”
“Great Lord Deroshto,” replied Maruk. Rationally, he knew Gamma was right that he should not to dwell on Torru’s death like that and he tried to push away the thought, but he couldn’t and found himself almost not wanting to. He had caused Torru’s death. Not directly, not deliberately, but he had all the same. To try and rid himself of the responsibility would be to dishonour Torru’s memory.
“If I ever see him, I’ll kill him,” said Gamma. There was real anger in his voice.
“If he’s still alive,” said Maruk. Gamma was breaking both taboo and law by saying such things about a nobleman, but Maruk privately didn’t disagree with the sentiment and was glad of the diversion.
The sun was setting and the air was getting cooler. They had no tents and the warmest clothing they had were their cloaks. The sky was again clear and the nights at this altitude, being just below the mountains, could become unexpectedly cold despite the high daytime temperature. Maruk shivered.
“We need to find some kind of shelter,” he said.
Gamma nodded. “We can’t stay here anyway. We should get away from the river. Don’t want to have our backs to it if we’re spotted.”
“We’ll settle down for the night in another copse,” said Maruk. “Tomorrow we can ride hard for the ford and hope the fort there is still ours.”
They rode slowly back up from the river, finding just such a copse not far away. Gamma fetched firewood whilst Maruk built a small pit and cover to protect it from watchful eyes. The heat of the fire was welcome, and the horses lay down not too far away, warming themselves like dogs might in front of an open hearth. Maruk and Gamma ate some of the meagre rations they had with them. Even after the fire burnt down, the embers still radiated enough heat to stave off the cold night air.
Maruk took the first watch. The night noises here were different to those he was used to. The night bird calls were harsh and croaking rather than the soft hooting of owls found in the forest near Plannasi. They put him on edge. Every snapping twig, every rustle of the branches could be an enemy and on more than one occasion he drew his knife in response to a small movement nearby, but there was no one there. When he could feel his eyelids drooping and he could take no more, he roused Gamma and finally got some sleep. But when he closed his eyes, his dreams were of death.