They waited for a deeper cover of night before making their move. They tied the horses to a tree, then left the woods and crept up to the camp, approaching it from near the river bank. The Berrumin had set up a ring of torches in a perimeter about the camp, allowing them to see anyone who approached, so Maruk and Gamma waded into the river a short distance, treading carefully and keeping their bows out of the water. They had divided their remaining arrows equally, and each now carried five.
Before long, they were around the torches. They moved slowly back towards the bank, where willow trees drank from the waters, offering them precious shadows from which to peer amongst the tents.
The prisoners were all sat down in a patch of grass between two groups of tents with a ring of stakes hemming them in. Only two Berrumin stood watch, and the enclosure was dimly lit.
Gamma met Maruk’s eyes, his expression querying. Maruk nodded and they moved as silently as they could out from beneath the willow leaves to up against the walls of a tent.
Maruk barely dared to breathe. He listened as hard as he could for anyone approaching, but his own heart seemed to pound in his ears, each beat like a marching drum. He steadied himself, took as deep a breath as he dared. He gestured to Gamma to nock an arrow, then pointed around the corner of the tent. “You… shoot… left… I… shoot… right,” he mouthed. Gamma nodded.
Maruk nocked an arrow of his own, sliding it slowly out of the quiver, lest even that make a sound. He met eyes with Gamma again and saw that his face was grim set.
“One…” he mouthed. He drew the string, prepared to leap from behind the cover of the tent. “Two…”
But the sudden sound of tramping footsteps made him hesitate and he drew back. A thickly-accented Berrumin voice spoke in Landisilann.
“These are the prisoners we have taken,” they said. “These three bore marks of nobility.”
“Thank you,” said a second voice, speaking with a Landisil accent. Maruk’s eyes widened. He recognised the voice. It was Great Lord Deroshto himself. Gamma’s own eyes were equally wide. Something wasn’t right.
“Back,” mouthed Maruk. They slunk away back to the willow trees and watched from there. Deroshto sat upon his horse at the entrance to the prisoners’ pen. He was very clearly not a prisoner and indeed looked quite at ease. Ten Leffanwa stood with him as a personal bodyguard. He was still speaking with one of the Berrumin, and Maruk couldn’t hear him. Then Deroshto raised his voice.
“You three, come with me. We will talk privately,” he said.
He dismounted as three of his accompanying Leffanwa helped three of the prisoners to their feet. Dyamma was one of them. Deroshto strode around the side of the tent where Maruk and Gamma had been hiding just moments before.
“Cut their bonds,” Deroshto said to the guards, who obediently drew daggers and freed the three prisoners’ hands.
“I have something of a proposition,” said Deroshto, speaking gently. “Where are you all from?”
“Planassi,” said Dyamma.
“I’m from Felland.”
Deroshto nodded. “I think I remember you,” he said to the man from Kavirro. “Weren’t you in Landisilo with Great Lord Yal three months ago?”
“I was, Great Lord,” the man replied. His sash denoted that he was a Lord; just one rank below Deroshto.
“I’ll get to my point,” said Deroshto. “The war is as good as over already. There is a clear road between here and Landisilo after they take this fort. The rest of our late King’s troops are scattered or dead.”
The Fellandi man rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably.
“Our Berrumin hosts know they have won,” Deroshto continued, “but they are not conquerors for the sake of conquering. I have been speaking to King Jayu. He has agreed not to sack any of our cities that open their gates to his army. Their land is dying, and they do not want to spoil this land too. They seek shelter in Landisi for their people, and will even allow Landisil nobles to keep our rights and lands. I strongly suggest we take it.”
The man from Felland spoke up. “When did you make this deal?” he asked. “Before or after the battle?”
Deroshto paused. “Before,” he admitted. “We knew there was mutual-”
“So when the Leffanwa retreated rather than engage, that was you, was it?” The man’s voice was raised now. Some of the commoner prisoners back in the pen craned their heads to try and see what was going on. The guards around Deroshto
Deroshto’s eyebrows rose. “Yes,” he said. “Our cause was always lost. We simply do not have the numbers. Our men fought to keep our King in power. The Berrumin fight for the survival of themselves and their families.
“Had we won at Pallesk,” he continued, “we might have driven one army back behind the mountains. But what would we have done a year from now against their next army, or the one after that? What about when the Berrumin came across both mountains and the plains in hordes hundreds of thousands strong, desperate to escape the famines in Berruma? No army could fight a mass migration like that. This was the best way.”
“This is treason,” said the Fellandi. “I want nothing to do with it.” He spat at Deroshto’s feet and was immediately taken by two of Deroshto’s guards and forced onto the ground, a dagger against his throat. In his hiding place, Maruk tensed, waiting for Deroshto’s response.
“I should have you executed for that,” said Deroshto, looking at his shoes and back to the man’s eyes. His voice was cold as iron. “Send him back to the others,” he told one of the guards.
He turned back to Dyamma and the man from Kavirro. “Apologies,” he said. “Let me make myself entirely clear. I will not harm either of you regardless of your answers, but I want your support during the reorganisation of our country and there will be rewards if you do follow my example. You will become my vassals and vow to try and persuade your people to come around to the idea of supporting the new regime. This way, we are all better protected, both from those amongst our own people who would seek to undermine us and from the wrath of our new king if he is met with resistance.”
Silence. The Great Lord seemed to study the two men before him, waiting for an answer.
Dyamma spoke first. “Alright,” he said.
“If,” added Dyamma, “I get Planassi. I want a Lordship.”
Maruk’s jaw dropped.
“Out of the question,” Deroshto said.
“Lord Torru was killed in the battle,” said Dyamma. “Now, his six year old daughter is technically Lord, and she’s effectively the ward of the Priest-Triarch. Declare me Lord-Regent and then-”
“Let us be quite clear,” interjected Deroshto. “You do not make demands from me. You are a minor noble in a minor village I have barely even heard of in a border province. Your internal squabbles are frankly beneath me, and the fact that I deign to speak with you at all is entirely because I want stability, not to aid your petty grasping for power.
“As it happens,” he continued “I do indeed believe that having a strong and loyal leadership in the border provinces is advantageous. Do what you must. I will recommend that the Berrumin grant you some men to help you seize this girl of yours. But speak to me that way again – making demands like an equal – and I will have you executed.”
“Yes, Great Lord,” said Dyamma, humbled.
“Bastard,” said Gamma, next to Maruk. He dropped to one knee and drew his bow, but before he could loose Maruk thwacked it aside. Gamma twisted in surprise and overbalanced, but Maruk stopped him falling and making too much of a noise by grabbing him roughly by the arm. Gamma struggled, but Maruk pinned him against the tree.
“Stop!” hissed Maruk.
Gamma’s face was a picture of indignation and confusion. He tried once more to break free, but Maruk had him firmly.
“You heard him!” whispered Gamma, “What he means to do!”
“Don’t be so stupid!” said Maruk through gritted teeth. “What do you think would happen if you killed him in plain sight of Deroshto and his guards? Do you want to bring the entire camp down on us?”
Gamma glared at him but relaxed and Maruk released his grip, taking a step back and returning his attention to the discussion by the tent.
“I will not give you troops of my own,” said Deroshto to Dyamma. “If any of your men are held in that pen, I will request that they be released. I will also suggest that you be given Berrumin troops to assist you. And to keep an eye on you,” he added.
From out of sight came the sound of more troops arriving in the camp. Deroshto, Dyamma and the man from Kavirro turned and returned to the light.
“So now what?” whispered Gamma bitterly. “We just let him go?”
“For now,” replied Maruk. “We have to get home, and fast.” He paused, thinking. “We can’t cross with our horses. We’ll have to just leave them back in the woods and swim across alone.”
“What, now?” Gamma’s scowl was briefly replaced by shock.
“With luck, the ford will remain closed long enough for us to get to Planassi ahead of Dyamma, but if we wait until morning we won’t be able to cross at all until tomorrow night. We can kill Dyamma if we get the chance later, but for now we run. Again.”
They waded into the water. Their boots squelched in the silt and their leggings clung clammily to their lower legs. The current was forceful but not overpowering, and the river was shallow enough for Maruk to feel rocks beneath his feet almost the entire way except for a brief section in the middle. They emerged from the other side shivering.
“We have to find shelter,” said Maruk.
Gamma just grunted in reply, then said, “You should have let me shoot him.” His voice quivered slightly with the cold. “We could have got away and into the deeper river before they could have stopped us.”
“They would have shot us as we swam!” retorted Maruk. “In any case, I am your Triarch and-” but Gamma cut him off.
“You are my friend,” said Gamma. “You might be my Triarch when other people are watching, but out here it’s just you and me.”
Maruk said nothing, feeling somewhat ashamed at pulling rank on Gamma, even if he did still think he was quite right to stop him shooting Dyamma. They kept walking in awkward, shivering silence.
Gamma was quite right about that, he realised. He remembered how they would play as children, barely even aware of the social divide between them, of the authority Maruk had over his playmate. They would even brawl on occasion, though Maruk was the better fighter, having benefited from the training of Old Hallin Nouros, the Triarch who had been veteran of a dozen wars. All a million years ago now, it seemed.
He looked absent-mindedly back across the river. Then, as he watched, a new star flicked into existence.
“Look!” he said.
“What?” asked Gamma.
“It just appeared!” said Maruk, pointing.
“Are you sure?”
It sped across the sky, much faster than the others he had so far seen. But even as they watched, it slowed down to about the normal rate, passing beyond the Eastern horizon less than a minute after first appearing.
Then came another, emerging in the same place in the sky. This time Gamma saw it too and gasped his own amazement.
“How many are there?” wondered Maruk aloud. They both kept watching the spot to see if more would show up, but none did.