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Escort Duty – Part 13

Simon reined his horse to a halt when they came within shouting distance of the bridge. A squad of guards, armed with spears and bows, barred their path, and an officer in armor stood before them. On the far end of the bridge, clusters of huts lay on either side of the road, but wood from a fire only rose from the ones to the right. The bridge spanned a deep valley, a cataract of white water roaring at the bottom of its steep granite walls.  The mid-day sun glinted from the sides of wet rocks along its banks far below, and the spray from a waterfall just upstream made a rainbow halfway down the gorge.

Simon raised his hand in greeting, his leather gauntlet dusty from the road.

“Well met, good sir,” he called out, “We wish to cross to Booda.”

“Go back!” the officer replied loudly, “None may come into our lands from this accursed place!”

“We’re not from Pesht,” Simon replied calmly, using his knees to urge his horse to walk a little closer. He stopped when one of the archers lifted his bow and pulled his arrow back to fire.

“Duke Kyrali has decreed that none may come from Pesht!” the officer shot back, “Now go!”

Simon looked about the border post, then glanced down at the gorge. The sides weren’t exactly sheer cliffs, but the ancient, misused trail that ran to the bottom looked treacherous enough to claim at least one horse and rider on the way down and back up, even without the detachment of soldiers watching every step.

Simon looked back at the soldiers and called out, “Is there nothing that can be done? I am the escort of Lady Piroska of Tanahuk, and she has business in Booda.”

The officer considered the three riders for a moment. Finally, he stepped forward to within speaking distance.

“Is it just the three of you then?” he asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“Why the pony? Did you lose a child along the way?”

“The lady insisted. I have no idea why she wants the smelly thing to come along.”

The officer examined the riders again.  His mouth worked as his eyes measured their clothing and trappings, seeming to weigh the situation in his mind.

“Since you don’t seem to be rabble trying to get away from the plague, here’s what I can do for you,” he finally said, “You stay here for a month. If you don’t get sick, I’ll let you go. If any of you get sick, my men will kill all of you and I’ll have your bodies burned.”

“My mistress needs to be in the capitol as soon as possible.”

“It’s either that, or you turn around and go back the way you came.”

“That’s inconvenient, but if that’s all that can be done, there are worse fates.”

The commander met Simon’s eyes with a hard gaze, “This isn’t a free service. Everything you have is mine. If you’re good guests, I’ll let you walk out of here with the clothes on your back.”

“My mistress will not want to walk,” Simon said.

“That’s not my concern,” the officer said curtly, “Those are my terms. Agree or go back.”

“Unfortunate,” Simon replied with a sigh, “but it appears we have no choice.” Behind him, Erika looked furious, but held her tongue.

The officer signaled to his men, and they retreated across the bridge. Simon and the two women followed them over the gorge, then to the unused clutch of buildings. The trio dismounted, then were herded into one of the dilapidated huts. The officer watched as Gnarlthing was handed over, as well as the pouch of coins which Erika kept on her belt and everything else they carried.

“You’ll stay in there for a month. You will touch no-one, nor shall you speak to anyone, understand?” the officer said sternly.

“We understand, good sir,” Erika said, “But what are we to do for a month?”

“Entertain yourselves, my lady. One of my men will be by to feed you every morning and evening. Tip the slop bucket out the window in the back when you use it,” he replied, turning to leave. Erika did her best to burn a hole in the back of his tunic with her glare as he went. His men barred the door, then led their horses and the mule toward the buildings on the other side of the encampment. Simon watched them go. He noted that the officer went into the hut next to the stable, where their horses were led.

“Why didn’t you fight, and where is Hollo?” Erika demanded.

“My lady, there were five men with spears, four archers, and an officer with a sword on the bridge,” Simon replied, “There are at least twice that many on this side. As for where Hollo went, he’s about. He’s a wanted man on this side of the border, so I guess he didn’t care to chance being recognized.”

“You should have found another way across!”

“Princess, this is the only bridge for a hundred leagues in either direction, and I’m sure they’re just as rigorously guarded.”

“So we just sit here for a month?” Greta said.

“It would appear so.”

“I should have taken the damned boat,” Erika hissed in disgust, “At least then I’d have had a bed to sleep in.”

Two thin blankets lay in one corner of the hut, and a bucket sat under the window. Other than that, the place was bare of furnishings. The wattle and dob walls were dingy and damaged from want of care.

“Well, it’s going to be a long month unless we find something to keep ourselves occupied,” Simon sighed as he took a seat on the packed earth floor next to the door. He could hear the guards shuffling around in the yard outside, and the caw of a crow echoed through the gorge behind their prison. The sound brought a smile to his lips.

That evening, a soldier came to the hut and lowered two buckets through the window, one with bread in it, the other half full of water. Simon tore the dense, stale loaf and distributed it to the women. They ate in silence as the light of sundown streamed through the open window, taking turns cupping handfuls of warm, sulphurous water from the bucket. Once the sun set, the darkness inside the hut was almost absolute.

“Well, good night, my ladies,” Simon said as he lay down in front of the door, “I wonder if this counts as our first day.”

Erika shook her head and muttered to herself as she wrapped herself in one of the blankets, while Greta lay down next to her. Simon lay quietly for a few moments, listening as the women fell asleep and the guards made their rounds. The last of the spring rains pattered against the hard-packed dirt of the yard outside the door and on the hut’s thatched roof.

At least the roof doesn’t leak, Simon thought as he drifted off to sleep.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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2 Comments

  1. OldNFO

     /  March 26, 2018

    This won’t end well…

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