The morning ground was covered in dew. The grass steamed as the sun rose, and the haze reduced the visibility enough for Maruk to feel safe riding openly across the plain for over an hour until the sun boiled it away. They made the most of it, riding as hard as their horses could take. As the air cleared, they found a grove and rested their horses while they got a proper view of their surroundings.
The river continued northwards on their right, shimmering as it meandered gently down further into the Landisil lowlands. Nearer the horizon was the barest pale glint of the tributary that cut across from the West to converge with the main river. Near that confluence was the ford the Landisil army had crossed over a week ago as they had sought to rapidly outmanoeuvre and pin the invaders against the mountains. If Maruk squinted, he could just about make out the road to Landisilo itself on the other side of the ford. The great smoothstone pillars that flanked the road were little pinpoints at such a distance, but they were unmistakeable.
That was their target. To reach the ford and get onto the road beyond ahead of the Berrumin. The King had left a small garrison at the fort there when they army crossed, but whether it would still be defended after the catastrophe of yesterday’s battle was anyone’s guess.
As they continued on, they found only a single hint that anyone else had been their way. A small camp lay abandoned, and the grass was beaten down with foot- and hoof-prints. Very little effort seemed to have been made to conceal it.
“No Landisil would make camp here like this,” said Maruk. “The fire was probably visible all the way to the river last night. They’d have to have a death wish.”
“They’re still ahead of us then,” said Gamma.
They pushed on, pausing only when their horses could take no more. The plain flew by beneath them. By early afternoon, they had covered an extraordinary distance and were within twenty kilometres of the ford when they finally caught a glimpse of another group of people.
They were Berrumin alright. Their distinctive red helmet plumes were plain to see. Each of them carried one of the enormous lances they had used with such devastating effect during the battle.
Maruk and Gamma dismounted and the moment they saw them. The only cover nearby was a small patch of heather. It would have to do and they had their horses lie down. Mercifully, the Berrumin were at the outskirts of an orchard, apparently too busy collecting the fruit to have a proper watch set up. Their voices carried over. They were laughing. One of them playfully threw a piece of fruit at another.
Maruk and Gamma could do nothing but lie absolutely still. They dared not try to make a break for it lest they be spotted. They had only seven arrows between them, so would not be able to take on the Berrumin as they had with the scouts encountered the day before the battle. But the men did not leave and Maruk became increasingly agitated as the day continued to pass them by. If they didn’t reach the crossing by nightfall, they ran the risk of being trapped by the main body of the enemy army.
It was almost an hour before anything happened. The riders were lounging against the trees, having eaten their fill, when one of them stood up and shouted. The others stood up too, and Maruk tensed, ready to leap up and ride away. But through the heather, he followed their gaze.
“Oh no,” said Gamma.
It was a group of Landisil. They were on foot, and although one of them had retained his spear and shield, the others seemed almost completely unarmed. The Berrumin mounted up and with a shout began a gallop, lances raised. One of them had a horn and sounded a blast on it.
“We can’t help them,” said Maruk. “Come on, we have to go.”
“What? They’ll be slaughtered!” cried Gamma.
Maruk mounted his horse. “You heard the horn,” he said. “There are more probably on the way. If we stay here we’ll only be slaughtered with them.”
Gamma hesitated. He glanced to the men under attack and then towards the river. Finally, with a shout of despair, he mounted up and kicked his horse towards the river, to safety and home. Maruk rode slightly ahead, glancing back at the hapless men.
Behind them, the Landisil bunched together behind the sole man bearing a spear. But the slaughter Gamma had feared did not take place. As the riders bore down upon the nearly defenceless men, they did not level their lances for a charge. Instead, they surrounded the men and came to a halt. One of them dismounted and approached the Landisil, passing his lance to one of his comrades as he did so. But Maruk saw no more of the encounter. He turned aroudn to look where he was going as he and Gamma rode down a small slope and the riders became hidden from view.
They reached the ford just after sunset. The Moons shared the sky with a few wispy noctilucent clouds, together casting a pale light on the shadowed ground. Beyond the ford, the road ran in a straight line all the way to Landisilo. Smoothstone pillars flanked it, punctuating the gloom like ghostly sentinels. That road was hope. It was freedom and safety and a chance to return home. But that which Maruk and Gamma had been so dreading had already happened. The Berrumin had beaten them and the ford was shut.
Dozens of enemy guards patrolled the array of hasty trenches and lookout posts surrounding as much of the fort as they could in a rough semicircle . The fort itself, solemn and dark atop a dirt rampart, was within bowshot of the shallow crossing point. The way across was thus still shut to the Berrumin. Their camp was near the road, set out in the open with a clear line of sight all around.
Maruk and Gamma stood just within the tree line of a small wood overlooking the camp.
“Now what?” asked Gamma. “We can’t get past those trenches!”
“It’s not their entire army,” he said. “That camp would barely hold five hundred. They don’t have the men to actually take the fort. Enough to pin down the defenders, maybe, but no more than that. These must just be a vanguard force, or scouts.”
As they watched the scene, the sound of footsteps came from the nearby road. They were Berrumin, leading a group of prisoners to the ford. One of them was familiar.
“It’s Dyamma,” said Maruk.
“The third captive, look.”
Dyamma’s hands were bound, but he looked in good enough health. He and the other six captives were each guarded by two Berrumin, some of them on horseback.
“What should we do?” asked Gamma.
Maruk closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. Home, he thought. Jorj. They had never seemed so far away. But they could not just leave Dyamma to his fate.
“We get him out,” he replied.