Shadow of Hope 33

“A noble conclusion to a notorious life,” Erellia said of the bonfire with a faint smile, “But we must continue to look to the horizon.”

If she noticed the tension within the ranks of the party, the Elven woman gave no outward indication.

“We must depart,” she said, eyeing Thorum’s hasty retreat, “No doubt my efforts will bring undo attention upon us. We ride for the hamlet of Anquilla as soon as possible. Break camp and prepare to head south along the river.”

Marcus looked over to Kurn. “I can help pack the horses for traveling. We will also need to fill the water barrels.”

“As you will,” Kurn nodded. By the sheer quantity and varied types of supplies Marcus had procured, Kurn had determined either Marcus did not travel much and so insisted on overpreparing, or exactly the converse and had traveled enough to want to be readily prepared. At least they weren’t going to go hungry, if the pack horses fared well. Hopefully someone could cook.

With no need to pack, himself, Kurn went to assist Marcus.  He looked back at the man, shaking his head at Marcus’ query of which mount to select. “You mistake me if you count me an expert. Take whichever unclaimed horse you favor.”

Marcus filled the barrels and helped pack the horses for travel, using the tarps to cover the foodstuffs and making sure the barrels were tight.

“To leave this place, for that I am ready,” Cheskith affirmed, but followed the statement with a rather suspicious look at the horses. “To leave on top of one of those creatures, for that I am less ready. I have seen others riding them time and again, but this is not a task with which I am acquainted.” A pause before adding dubiously, “And my tail will not fit upon those saddles as others ride them, I think.”

Erellia looked thoughtful at the Lizardman’s words, as if adrift elsewhere for a few moments.

“Time, at the moment, is not pressing,” Erellia said, “And we will not reach Anquilla before nightfall. Our pace can suit those who would rather travel on foot.”

Continuing to address Cheskith, Erellia turned a wry glance at Rôhn and said, “I know one other among us who prefers to walk the earth.”

Haron returned to the group at a trot, with a slightly more comical appearance. The chain shirt and steel pot he musters were a little too large for his lean frame, but the axe he had slung at his waist was of quality workmanship. The lad set about preparing the horses and distributed a mount to each member of the group. He looked at Erellia for clarity when presenting a large roan to the sizable Cheskith.

“During our travels, Cheskith,” Erellia offered to the chanter, “It might serve to become familiar with this mount. If haste is required, he may serve your needs well.”

Preparations underway, Zulian rode off toward the monk identified as Deoden, who was still managing the spoils on the field of battle. She returned with a second shortspear affixed to her saddle.

Rôhn arrived leading his steed, packed and ready, by the reigns. He broke into the social circle of Erellia, Cheskith, and the others and smirked, bright-eyed, as if renewed by the activities of the day, and said, with uncharacteristic ebullience in his gravelly voice, “So, when do we move out?”

Struggling a bit to balance the quantity of supplies across the pack horses, Kurn could only reply, “Shortly,”

“Haron,” Kurn motioned the boy over. He squared Haron up by the shoulders with a practiced eye, tightening the chain shirt as much as possible to better fit the boy and making certain the undershirt was worn such that the chain wouldn’t chafe Haron or his mount. He adjusted the lad’s belt to hold the chain shirt’s fit and moved Haron’s cloak about, rolling the hood’s edge back, lifting the helmet, putting the hood back over like a fabric coif, and settling the helmet on top of it so it wouldn’t rock about.

“Thank you, sir,” Haron said to Kurn, trying to watch closely as the seasoned fighter squared him up but succeeding only moderately with such brusque and swift movements.

“Fine axe,” he nodded with approval, clapped the boy on the shoulder, and walked to his own mount.  “Ready.”

Cheskith looked at the horse that had been assigned him.  Hopefully it wasn’t going to prove to be as reluctant as most of the rest.

Haron came back over as the packing was finished. He took the reins of Cheskith’s roan again and rubbed the horse’s muzzle to keep it calm. The horse kept an eye on Cheskith but its breathing didn’t seem agitated.

“It’s okay, um, sir,” Haron stumbled over the honorific, wondering if it was appropriate and hoping it wasn’t insulting to the Lizardman. “He’ll know you soon enough, get to know your scent. Just sit astride firmly, but don’t rein him tight; give him some room to get accustomed to you. He’s a good horse and will stay with the others if you let him. I’ll hold his reins and keep him calm as you mount this first time?”

Cheskith wasn’t the least bit offended by the title, however far he might be from the knightly image it conjured. “I have seen others do this. It does not look difficult, but sure that it is as easy as it looks, that I am not,” he replied, rather carefully planting his foot in the stirrup. He could hoist himself up well enough, but the footing was less than steady because the stirrup had most assuredly been forged with the expectation of quite a different shape than his own.

Unsteady though it was, swinging over into the saddle presented another problem due to physiology.  Saddles made by Humans weren’t designed with a large tail in mind, and this one was no exception. Leaning forward helped, but it was going to be a rather uncomfortable ride as far as his spine was concerned until there was a chance to alter the thing to better suit him.

He looked down at Haron, less concerned about the dignity of the situation than he was with its stability. “This seems quite precarious. Perhaps it is best that this one will be following, so that a fall does not place me beneath another.”

Marcus examined the horses with a practiced eye, looking for faults and temperament before settling on a good-looking mare with the colors of fall.  “I will call you Autumn, for that is normally a sign that war is over, at least for the winter.” Marcus whispered to the horse softly.

Marcus checked the saddle and blanket, along with the bit, before strapping his chest behind the saddle using straps installed for that purpose. The chest seemed a little strange behind the saddle, but someone who knew woods would see that it was made of darkwood. Using another strap, he placed his mithral shield within easy reach before mounting.

Riding over to the pack animals, Marcus lead the two carrying most of the food for the journey, though food was spread among the horses in case they lost one or more of the pack animals. He then rode over to the Lizardman.

“Cheskith is it? When we have more time, I will try and adapt the saddle more to your liking. Human saddles must be a bit of a pain for you.  I should have talked to you earlier and I apologize for it. Are there any special supplies that you need? What foods do you normally eat and what do you like?”

Cheskith’s awkwardness in the saddle, born of equal parts unfamiliarity and improper equipment, was matched only by his determination to stay atop the thing in spite of it all. To an outsider it seemed likely that he would succeed so long as the horse remained still; whether he would be so successful once things got underway – and especially if sudden events distracted either the horse or its rider – was another matter.

Rôhn, conveniently standing by, helped Marcus and Haron heft the Lizardman into the saddle and adjust the various straps and buckles to better size it for him, knowing all too well the difficulties of riding these large equine mounts.

Cheskith had enough focus left to turn his attention to Marcus as the scholar rode up and offered his words of encouragement. In a slightly self-effacing tone that was clearly an attempt to find some small humor in his predicament, he offered his response. “Blood to my lower extremities is the most pressing problem of supply right now, I think. Once that is dealt with, I should not have any need that is not shared by everyone here. It is not just the saddle, you see? It is also these stirrups; they are not meant for being stood upon by toes alone.”

“We may be able to do something about that too,” Marcus grinned and said as he eyed the stirrups. “Since we are about to leave, try and put up with it. When we camp we can see what modifications can be made.”

“If food is the concern, then it need concern you not, I think. I have been able to eat these things which those of the great open do, even if they are strange in taste or to the touch. In the caverns of home, mushrooms and meat are most common, and then some of the other plants, but these are not required, I think.”

“That’s good. Let me know if you particularly dislike or like something,” Marcus said.

Rôhn looked up from his task momentarily, his eyes distant and wistful as he muttered, “Mmm…mushrooms.” He then turned back to his task of adjusting the straps and buckles of the bit, bridle and saddle of Cheskith’s horse, and then walked back to the tent to help break camp.

“I do carry with me the garments used against the cold of the surface, and these are properly fitted. If you think that other things might need to be worn by me, then they too may need some alteration as does this equipment.” A pat of the saddle confirmed the reference. “I have so far chosen to ride on a cart or walk upon the ground when that could not be managed. This is not so difficult to learn, I hope?”

“I prefer a good mule myself, though I didn’t take the one brought because this seems to be a case where speed may be important. Riding isn’t difficult to learn, but I advise you to get off your mount if anything happens unless we try to outrun the trouble. Riding and battle are hard enough to do separately, much less at the same time,” Marcus stated, “That’s what I do anyway. I will talk with you more tonight.”

With that, Marcus left Cheskith with his task and rode over the rest of the group that was forming up. He pulled up near Haron to address him quietly.

“You seem to be better outfitted,” Marcus stated. “Since you are going with us I assume that part of your duties will be to help with the horses as before. If I were you I would treat the journey as a learning experience and learn all you can. Please, for the sake of Denevor, do not go rushing into battle if anything happens. Try and take care of the horses if we get attacked and aren’t running for it. Leave the fighting for those who are more experienced. You will have to battle soon enough. If you like, I am willing to teach you to cook and letters if you have need, but I suggest you ask Kurn or one of the other fighters if they will teach you more about the axe. You can practice in the mornings before we break camp if they are willing.” Marcus shrugged, “It’s up to you what you learn.”

“I’d like that, sir,” Haron replied, “Cookin’ and letters that is. Not the fighting. I’ll stay out of the way as best I’m able and will tend to the horses right smartly.”

Without being asked, Haron then helped Erellia dismantle and pack the canopy shelter and materials back onto her horse.

“Ma’am, Kurn has said my job’s done, that I can take my earned mount and return to Honor’s Flow. If it’s all the same, and you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to still ride with you, at least for a while. I need to head south, anyway, to get to the Flow. And you’ll need me, to help tend the horses, that is. I don’t need to be in any hurry to get back.”

Kurn kicked his mount into motion, riding out towards the woods but staying a hundred yards clear of the treeline, well wary of any straggling archer or rear guard that may be more than willing to take a chance shot. He rode the edge of the field and trees once up, once back, scrutinizing it for any other signs of activity or a regrouping.

“Borlak!” Erellia called, “Lead us southward along the river, if you would please, skirting that treeline and the wood beyond,” she finished, nodding in the direction of the brigand retreat.

The large horseman nodded at her and turned Galagina toward the river, moving at a stately walk across the sloppy terrain.

“We travel at a walk until nightfall,” Erellia instructed the group, “Conserve your strength for what lay ahead. We may need to make a run for Anquilla should the Trolls show in force.”


Shadow of Hope 34

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