The sun was warmer here than it had been in Elenia, and the breeze that skipped puff-ball clouds across the intensely blue sky smelled almost spring-like. The fields around them, untouched by frost, were still green, and the road unwound like a white ribbon, dipping into valleys and snaking up verdant hillsides. It was a good day fora ride, and Faran was obviously enjoying himself.

Sparhawk had already begun to make an assessment of his companions. Tynian was very nearly as happy-go-lucky as Kalten. The sheer bulk of his upper torso, however, and the professional way he handled his weapons indicated that he would be a solid man in a fight, should it come to that. Bevier was perhaps a bit more high-strung. The Cyrinic Knights were known for their formality and their piety. They were also touchy. Bevier would need to be handled carefully. Sparhawk decided to have a word in private with Kalten. His friend’s fondness for casual jesting might need to be curbed where Bevier was concerned. The young Cyrinic, though, would obviously also be an asset in the event of trouble.

Ulath was an enigma. He had a towering reputation, but Sparhawk had not had many dealings with the Genidian Knights of far northern Thalesia. They were reputed to be fearsome warriors, but the fact that they wore chain mail instead of steel-plate armour concerned him a bit. He decided to feel out the huge Thalesian on that score. He reined Faran in slightly to allow Ulath to catch up with him.

‘Nice morning,’ he said pleasantly.

Ulath grunted. Getting him to talk might prove difficult. Then, surprisingly, he actually volunteered something. ‘In Thalesia, there’s still two feet of snow on the ground,’ he said.

That must be miserable.’

Ulath shrugged. ‘You get used to it, and snow makes for good hunting – boars, stags, Trolls, that sort of thing.’

‘Do you actually hunt Trolls?’

‘Sometimes. Every so often a Troll goes crazy. If he comes down into the valleys where Elenes live and starts killing cows – or people – we have to hunt him down.’

‘I’ve heard that they’re fairly large.’

‘Yes. Fairly.’

‘Isn’t it a bit dangerous to fight one with only chain mail armour?’

‘It’s not too bad, really. They only use clubs. A man might get his ribs broken sometimes, but that’s about all.’

‘Wouldn’t full armour be an advantage?’

‘Not if you have to cross any rivers – and we have a lot of rivers in Thalesia. A man can peel off a mail shirt even if he’s sitting on the bottom of a river. It might be a little hard to hold your breath long enough to get rid of a full suit of armour, though.’

‘That makes sense.’

‘We thought so ourselves. We had a preceptor a while back who thought that we should wear full armour like the other orders – for the sake of appearances. We threw one of our brothers dressed in a mail shirt into the harbour at Emsat. He got out of his shirt and came to the surface in about a minute. The preceptor was wearing full armour. When we threw him in, he didn’t come back up. Maybe he found something more interesting to do down there.’

‘You drowned your preceptor?’ Sparhawk asked in astonishment.

‘No,’ Ulath corrected. ‘His armour drowned him. Then we elected Komier as preceptor. He’s got better sense than to make foolish suggestions like that.’

‘You Genidians appear to be an independent sort of order. You actually elect your own preceptors?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘Not really, no. We send a panel of names to the Hierocracy and let them do the choosing.’

‘We make it easier for them. We only send them one name.’

Kalten came back down the road at a canter. The big blond man had been riding about a quarter of a mile in the lead to scout out possible danger. ‘There’s something strange up ahead, Sparhawk,’ he said tensely.

‘How do you mean strange?’

‘There’s a pair of Pandions at the top of the next hill.’ There was a slightly strained note in Kalten’s voice, and he was visibly sweating.

‘Who are they?’

‘I didn’t go up there to ask.’

Sparhawk looked sharply at his friend. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

‘I’m not sure,’ Kalten replied. ‘I just had a strong feeling that I shouldn’t go near them, for some reason. I think they want to talk with you. Don’t ask me where I got that idea either.’

‘All right,’ Sparhawk said. ‘I’ll go see what they want.’ He spurred Faran into a gallop and thudded up the long slope of the road towards the hilltop. The two mounted men wore black Pandion armour, but they gave none of the customary signs of greeting as Sparhawk approached, and neither of them raised his visor. Their horses were peculiarly gaunt, almost skeletal.

‘What is it, brothers?’ Sparhawk asked, reining Faran in a few yards from the pair. He caught a momentary whiff of an unpleasant smell, and for some reason a chill ran through him.

One of the armoured figures turned slightly and pointed a steel-clad arm down into the next valley. He did not speak, but appeared to be pointing at a winter-denuded elm grove at one side of the road about a half-mile farther on.

‘I don’t quite –’ Sparhawk started; then he caught the sudden glint of sunlight on polished steel among the spidery branches of the grove. He shaded his eyes with one hand and peered intently at the cluster of trees. He saw a hint of movement and another flash of reflected light. ‘I see,’ he said gravely. Thank you, my brothers. Would you care to join us in routing the ambushers waiting below?’

For a long moment, neither black-armoured figure responded, then one of them inclined his head in assent. They both moved then, one to either side of the road, and sat their horses, waiting.

Puzzled by their strange behaviour, Sparhawk rode back down the road to rejoin the others. ‘We’ve got some trouble up ahead,’ he reported. ‘There’s a group of armed men hiding in a grove of trees in the next valley.’

‘An ambush?’ Tynian asked.

‘People don’t usually hide unless they’ve got some mischief in mind.’

‘Could you tell how many there are?’ Bevier asked, loosening his Lochaber from its sling on his saddlebow.

‘Not really.’

‘One way to find out,’ Ulath said, reaching for his axe.

‘Who are the two Pandions?’ Kalten asked nervously.

‘They didn’t say.’

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