“HA!” Sahlman let out with a loud cry to his restless steed, leading the other three men back toward Maelbourg. At the next possible chance, Sahl would cut back on a different road toward Grenzig. He didn't know what Ziedon was up to, but trying to take a town by storm with an army of three didn't seem like a good plan.
The sun was setting before he saw Maelbourg in the distance. As soon as he spotted the town, Sahl slowed and stopped, wheeling his mount to speak to the two soldiers, “Bahlban is to speak. It is to Grensiig. For go to Maelbourg, will not be good. Yes?” The men stared at the idiotic foreigner, trying but failing miserably to understand what he was trying to say. Sahl could clearly see their incomprehension, and tried again, “Go to Maelbourg, Gahlguu has men to kill us. Go to Grenzig, let Bahlban fix.” The soldiers seemed to more or less get the gist, so Sahl didn't press his luck any further. He'd begun to think that the less he tried to speak the wetlander tongue, the better of he'd be.
Waylad was the only one who could offer a suitable response. “Are you saying that we're not going to Maelbourg? Ziedon told us that was our job.”
Worry cast a cloud over Sahl's features as his brain worked to formulate a reply to Waylad's matter-of-fact statement. Ziedon had, indeed, issued those instructions, but Sahl had no idea why. They certainly didn't reflect the consensus of the group. And Sahl also knew that his language skills would be a severe hindrance if he launched into a complex explanation. That path was definitely off limits.
“Gahlguu being the bad men, sahib. Grenzig for you,” Sahlman said, gesturing at Waylad. He then put his fist on his own chest. “For me, to be away from here. Now. There being Gahlguu's guards, mebbe.”
The wiry man had long since discovered what not riding for a while can do to a man. Once accustomed to remaining on the backs of camels, easily the least comfortable mounts in existence, for days of travel, Sahl was now aching to get down from his horse. Nevertheless, he steeled himself, and trotted on. Ulan's two, one shrugging his shoulders mockingly, followed closely behind.
Waylad looked to the departing group, then toward Maelbourg. He paused for a time, contemplating, then spurred his horse and rode to the town with all speed.
Half an hour after Sahlman had begun, it was too dark to ride. He found an acceptable campsite, tied up his horse, and set up camp. Once the fire was lit, Sahl sat down for a moment and watched his horse. Zephyr had not been eating. Used as he was to barley and oats, he didn't even consider the small, scraggly patches of grass and moss that the other horses ate eagerly. Sahlman pulled some grass from the ground himself and approached the horse with it. Zephyr did not eat. The horse's obstinacy worried Sahl, but there was no time to go back for fodder. Very annoying, and certainly not conducive to patience in dealing with buffoonish infidels. The warrior decided that, at least for now, he would have to trust that the animal would eat once it got hungry enough. Or, maybe going back to the town would be for the best? He'd have to think a moment or two more on it.
While he was struggling with his horse, the two soldiers came up behind him, one of them chewing on a strip of something that was difficult to identify, no doubt from his less than top quality soldier's rations.
“Where did you learn to talk like that?” the larger one asked.
“Oh, he's not all that bad,” said the other. “I've met infants who can't speak half as well.”
The bottom of Sahl's robe swished as his head jerked up to look at the soldiers. He quickly took stock, deciding that the two men were probably spoiling for trouble. They had an unkempt look about them that spoke of their lax discipline, but it was obvious that they made up in meanness what they lacked in intellect.
“Yes, am being from far away, m'salah.” Sahl grinned, his white teeth contrasting starkly with the deep brown of his skin. Despite his smile, Sahlman's eyes were two hard, gleaming black stones shining out from within their twin caves. “Is being a placed call Tchu'dan. Sahlman leaving that place, long time.”
“Tuhoo'dan?” said the soldier. He tried a few times to reproduce the guttural pronunciation of the city's name, before the back of the other soldier's hand touched his chest to silence him. “I've never heard of such a place.” He turned away, towards the fire. “Just like Ulan to send us following an imbecile.”
Sahlman sat completely silent for his watch, listening to the occasional crackle of the fire. The night was cold, warmer than the frozen desert nights, but with a heavy wetness in the air that made it even less comfortable. From what Sahl had heard about the wetland winters, his armor and desert robes would not be sufficient protection for long. He had never in his life imagined that a person could stay cold for such a long time. Sahl hadn't been really comfortable with the temperature ever since coming to the lands of the infidels. Ay'wah must surely hate this place.
Sahl overheard the two soldiers talking in their tent.
“You ever been to Grenzig?”
“Never been farther than Dunweig.”
“Me neither. Never expected to do it with some babbling foreigner.”
“And he didn't even take the road. That means no stops till we get there. I hope he knows this path.”
“If he doesn't, I'll kill him with my bare hands. I don't want to be stuck in this forest for the rest of my life.”
“Creepy place to get lost, that's for sure.”
A strong, cold wind blew, and a pair of rats ran by the tent. By the time Sahl could hear well enough again, the tent was silent.
“Just as well,” he thought. The more he heard of the wetlanders' talk, the worse it made him feel. That a time of reckoning would come just a short while in his future was a certainty for Sahlman. He only hoped that he would prove to be up to the task.
During each uneventful day, the two soldiers became more and more edgy. Their rations quickly ran out, and they were less than happy with the alternative Sahlman provided. They could hunt, like most trained soldiers could, but they were town guards. Their experience involved standing still for long periods, or riding alongside a townsman, and their food had been soldiers' rations at worst, which, although not the most sought-after game, were easy to catch. Neither of the soldiers had much taste for snakes, rabbits and squirrels. They couldn't complain about the lone deer they caught, and that was likely what kept Sahlman from injury through the week.
Zephyr still would not eat well, and he was showing signs of sickness, walking more slowly and sneezing frequently.
On the sixth day, the group arrived at the river. As they approached, they saw a small paddle-boat float downstream under the ancient bridge.
“That must've been empty for a while. The nearest town is two dozen miles upstream.”
“A paddle-boat can't go that far on its own.”
“Well it did. Where else'd someone be paddling from? No one lives in these forests.”
Sahl kept himself even more alert than usual as he led his rag-tag band across the small bridge. He wasn't sure if it was just the constant unfriendly pressure exerted by the soldiers, but Sahl was becoming convinced by the day that things were not right.
The soldiers kept their eyes on the boat as they crossed. When they had almost reached the end of the bridge, the boat stopped its slow progress near the bank, and twisted slightly, as if caught on a rock. The soldiers stopped as well, and watched it for a few seconds before hurrying forward and overtaking Sahlman.
Sahl was quite relieved to be viewing the backs of the two disgruntled men. He absently rubbed the nose of his mount while his attention was divided between the small boat and the two men before him. He was quite unhappy that his first sweat in this part of the world had to be a cold one.
“You're right. A paddle boat doesn't go that far on its own.” The boat rocked in place.
“Maybe someone lost it nearby.”
“Who'd be in the middle of the woods, and just happen to be rowing right near where we're walking?”
Sahl had a strong feeling that whoever or whatever was in the small boat was now under the bridge waiting to ambush the next group to cross it. So, rather than participate in meaningless prattle, he decided that he should be extra vigilant in order to thwart the plans of the ambusher. He was surprised, however, when they crossed the bridge safely and nothing happened.
The two superstitious soldiers continued to lead the way for several minutes. Every few seconds, Sahlman glanced behind him to see if the boat had released a rider, but he saw nothing. The boat continued to float downstream until it got caught on some fallen branches.
It was a full day's walk before anything of interest happened. The soldiers' spirits had risen, and Sahlman was once again in the lead, with the other two riding single-file behind him.
“Why do you do favors for Ulan?” the larger soldier asked from behind.
After careful consideration, Sahl answered, “Ulan is to being the associate of some northern man. That is the what we… doing the favors for.” Sahlman turned to study at the other man with piercing eyes, hoping for signs that the soldier was able to understand his inelegant wetlander speech.
If the desert-dweller's concerned look wasn't enough, his stopped horse was. The soldier turned around to see what his recent companion was looking at, and saw nothing. It took him a few seconds to realize that Ulan's other soldier was missing.
From the original turn supplement
I had to change your post slightly so it would make sense, given the map. Did you get the copy of the map I sent you?
Experience: 5500/8000 (Good turn)