“What’s a cohort?”
“A thousand men, Your Majesty. Narasan went all to pieces after that happened—even after Gunda and I hired several assassins and had every single one of the plotters killed. Revenge was sort of appropriate in that situation, but Narasan was still overcome with his grief and his guilt, so he broke his sword over his knee and set up shop as a beggar in one of the seamier parts of Kaldacin. Then Veltan came along, and somehow he persuaded Narasan to put his grief aside and go back to work.” Padan sighed. “Narasan’s grief is still there, though, and that’s why he spends so much time going over and over all the picky little details. He most definitely doesn’t want to make those same mistakes ever again.”
Trenicia’s eyes filled with tears. “That’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” she declared.
“I can tell you some even sadder ones, Your Majesty,” Padan said. “If a good cry will make you feel better, I can fill your eyes with buckets full of tears any time you want.”
“You’re outrageous, Padan,” Trenicia said, laughing in spite of herself.
“I know,” Padan replied in mock modesty. “I think outrageousness is a gift from some god or other. One of these days maybe I’ll look him up and thank him.”
They started out early the next morning, and it seemed to Trenicia that if Narasan’s army moved as rapidly as they were marching now, they’d be able to cover much more than just ten miles. After about an hour, though, things began to slow down quite noticeably. The problem Narasan had referred to as “bunching up” began to appear very frequently, and the pace slowed to a crawl.
Trenicia was not emotionally suited for plodding, so she began to range out farther and farther in front of Narasan’s army. The forest to the west of the beach where they’d come ashore was quite extensive, and, since it was autumn now, the leaves of those trees were red and gold rather than the bright green of summer. She encountered several deer in that forest, and, more to entertain herself than out of any real interest, she began to move very quietly to see just how close to one of those animals she could get before the creature caught her scent or saw her move. Her experiences on the Isle of Akalla had given her a lot of opportunities to practice sneaking, so she was frequently able to get close enough to one of the grazing deer to be almost within touching distance. She found the panicky reaction of a deer when she said “Hello, Sweetie” to be quite amusing. She soon realized that a startled deer could jump much higher and farther than she’d have thought possible.
There were quite a few other animals in the forest as well. There were many hares and foxes as well as flocks of partridges scurrying through patches of bushes. Once, she even encountered a huge grazing animal that she assumed was one of the bison Red-Beard had mentioned. She was more than a little startled by the size of that creature. It was truly massive, with a shaggy coat and huge horns flaring out from the front of its head. Trenicia prudently backed away from that particular animal.
As evening settled down over the forest late each afternoon, Trenicia went back to rejoin the plodding Trogites who were following Red-Beard and Seven.
“Did you happen to encounter any people out there?” Narasan asked her on the third day of their march.
“Quite a few deer, and many, many hares,” she replied, “and I think I saw a fox, but no people.”
“Any more bison?” Padan asked.
“Not today, no,” she replied.
“Are we getting anywhere at all close to the western edge of this forest?” Andar asked her then.
“I don’t really think so, Andar,” she replied doubtfully. “I climbed up a fairly tall tree, and as nearly as I could determine, we’ve still got four or five days of woods in front of us.”
“She makes a pretty good scout, Commander,” Brigadier Danal said. “She knows how to move quietly, and she sees just about everything we need to know about.”
“You could get your name in a lot of history books, Narasan,” Padan said then, “and you’d probably send the Church of Amar up in flames if it became known that you’d enlisted a woman to serve in your army.”
“That would depend on how much Narasan would be willing to pay me, Padan,” Trenicia said slyly. “I’m sure you remember that I don’t work for gold.” Then she looked at Narasan. “How are you fixed for diamonds right now, old friend?” she asked.
“I haven’t checked lately,” Narasan replied blandly. “There might be a few diamonds and pearls bouncing around in the treasury, but I couldn’t say for sure.”
“There goes your chance at fame, Dear Heart,” Trenicia said in mock sorrow.
“Ah, well,” Narasan replied with a feigned sigh of regret.
The forest began to thin out a day or so later, and Red-Beard and his horse, Seven, led Narasan’s army up through a wide pass that led on into the gently rolling mountains quite some distance to the west of the seacoast. Trenicia found the area rather pleasant, but so far as she was able to determine, there were no people living in the region. Trenicia found that more than a little strange. The Isle of Akalla wasn’t densely populated, by any stretch of the imagination, but there were people living all over the isle. A completely uninhabited region seemed most peculiar.
“Is there some reason that nobody lives here?” she asked Red-Beard late in the afternoon of their first day up in the mountains.
Red-Beard shrugged. “There might be, I suppose,” he replied, “but there’s nobody here to explain it to us. The hunting might not be very good, or the ground might not be fertile enough to grow good crops, or maybe the word’s been going around that this part of the Land of Dhrall is haunted by ghosts or something. Then, too, it might just be that nobody’s ever gotten around to settling here. There are vast regions in Zelana’s Domain that don’t have any people. I’ve always sort of liked open country without people cluttering it up. People can be awfully messy sometimes. Does empty country bother you, Trenicia?”
“Not all that much,” she replied. “I was just a little curious, that’s all. How long would you say it’s likely to take us to get through these mountains?”
“A couple more days is about all. There’s nothing in the way, and the peaks—if you want to call them that—aren’t really very steep. If you think this country’s empty, wait until we go on down into Matakan. There’s almost nothing there but miles and miles of miles and miles, waist deep in grass and neck deep in bison. When Seven and I were crossing the meadowland while we were leading the Malavi to Mount Shrak, I saw herds of bison that were spread out almost to the horizon. I wouldn’t mind hunting bison—except that my arrows would probably just bounce off them.”