Sahl continued to make good time. He was not too concerned about being followed by a single horseman. As long as he stayed alert he should not be in danger of being ambushed. He kept his eyes open for a break in the terrain – open ground followed by some cover, where he might wait in hiding and observe his pursuer without being seen himself.
As Sahlman continued down the road to Maelbourg, he saw an occasional farmhouse and stockade, surrounded by farmland, on both sides of the road. The road itself was well maintained this close to town, bounded by a narrow run-off ditch on either side, and hedges and trees to mark the field boundaries. The way ran fairly straight, both ahead and behind, but every few hundred yards it would bend a little or rise or fall a little, so that one could not see further than the last bend, dip, or elevation. After some time, two hours or so out of town, Sahl came to a place where the road bent slightly to the left. The hedge was dense and the road ran through a small copse of trees, which shaded the entire path and would make spotting anything very difficult from any distance.
Sahlman proceeded smartly round the corner, and then brought Zephyr to a halt under the trees. Dismounting, he tied the horse to a stout branch in the hedge and walked back the few yards to the corner. He removed his burnoose which could maybe have been picked up against the dark background of the copse, and then peered carefully around the corner, back up the road. He waited five minutes, then ten ….
The road was silent to begin with, then Sahlman heard a slow clopping of hooves in the distance, then it stopped.
Sahl eased back from the corner and walked the few steps back to Zephyr. Then he mounted his horse as quietly as possible and turned to face the corner. He waited for his pursuer…
Sahlman heard no sounds other than those of the forest for ten minutes. He was obviously up against a tracker who was too skilled or cautious to be caught this way. Presumably the person stopped every now and then to listen for the sound of Sahl's horse, and kept his distance when the sound stopped.
Sahlman had turned Zephyr about to continue down the road, when he heard an almost inaudible clopping of hooves far ahead of him.
Sahl found some cover to the left, behind a copse of oak trees about fifty yards from the road. It would be sufficient for a hiding place and observation post. As he approached the trees, the riding behind him began again in full force. He had barely hidden himself and Zephyr before a man on horseback passed him on the road.
The man slowed down and stopped a hundred yards up the road from where Sahl had been, and closed his eyes in concentration. He was tall and lanky; that much was easy to tell even though he was wearing a thick, hooded coat to keep out the cold. He rode a horse that matched his stature: tall, long-legged, long-nosed and dark-furred, bred perhaps for racing or perhaps for stealth. The horse was simply saddled, as it would be by someone who was used to riding bare-back but who had to make a journey, and it wore two light and efficient saddle- bags. From the way the man carried himself, he had to be wearing many pieces of equipment outside his clothing, and a few on the inside. A short-sword's sheath was attached to his right side, and a quiver and short bow to his back, hanging outside the coat. On his left side was a coiled rope, or perhaps a whip, along with a water or wine skin. As the man passed, Sahlman got a glimpse of his face; long, with a straight brown beard and thin moustache. His eyes were squinted even when they were open, like he spent every moment concentrating intently on something far away. More detail than that was difficult to tell from fifty yards, but Sahlman was pretty sure he had never seen the man before.
Sahlman assessed the stranger and found the calculation to his disliking. The man was well armed and confident or he would not be traveling alone. A warrior then, of some ability, or perhaps an assassin. His horse and equipment were stripped down for speed, and while Sahl judged Zephyr to be faster in the sprint, he was sure that the stranger's horse could stay ahead in a long chase. Worse still, the man was trailing him with some skill, and was probably up to no good.
The most sensible action would be to shoot his horse from cover, a relatively easy target. Even if it was not killed, it might throw its rider, and in any case would be slowed by its wounds. If Sahl had known for sure that the man was an enemy, he would have made the shot without hesitation. But he was not sure, and he could not bring himself to strike from ambush until he knew for sure.
Sahl made his decision. Letting the stranger ride past, he urged Zephyr to a canter and approached from the left side and from behind, calling “Hold! I want to talk!”
Sahlman's first move sent the stranger's hands gripping at the reins, but he remained still, facing up the road towards Dunweig. When he heard Sahlman's voice, he spared him a quick glance and said, “No time. I'm in a hurry,” and set his horse galloping up the road, quickly building up speed.
Sahl sent Zephyr into a gallop after the stranger, and brandished his scimitar over his head. “You are following me to do me harm! Stop and talk or we will fight!”
The man pulled his horse to a stop, and waited a few seconds. When Sahlman was only ten yards away, he turned around to face him, then drew his short sword, and tossed it on the ground. He then dismounted quickly and fell down on his knees, with his head bent down and his face hidden under his hood. “Please, I had no plans to hurt you in any way,” he said in a rapid and nervous voice. “How could I?”
Sahl brought Zephyr to a halt a few yards from the stranger and sheathed his scimitar. “Stop groveling!” he ordered. “Get up! But leave sword on ground and do not try any tricks. I hear you follow me. You stop horse when I stop, you follow when I move. Why do you sneak behind me?”
That question seemed to relax the man a bit. He immediately stood up, but still tilted his head, looking at Sahlman's neck rather than his face. He waited a few seconds, then spoke. “I work for Townsman Batarel. He sent me to track you until I could find you defenseless, and then capture you and bring you back.”
Sahl grimaced. “That sounds like truth. You may live. Ride horse back to Batarel. Tell him I have spared his life once. Tell him to leave me or I will kill him. But leave your weapons here, your bow and quiver and the rope. Now look me in face and tell me your name so that I remember you. Leave now! And do not follow me again.”
The man finally looked Sahlman in the face and his nervousness was almost tactile. “But – but I can't go back without you. If I have to go back empty-handed, I may as well go to Dunweig.”
“Batarel is a harsh master. If you want to travel to Dunweig, then travel with me so I not worry where you are. But give me your rope, bow, and sword first.”
“Fair enough,” he said, the nervousness not entirely gone from his voice. He picked up his sword, wiped off the blade, and handed it to Sahlman hilt-outward. Then he slid off his bow and quiver, and unhooked the rope from his belt, handing each to Sahlman in turn. He kept his distance at all times, and looking at the position of his legs, he was ready to run at any sign of trouble.
Sahlman asked for the sword's sheath as well, and then examined all the gear. The sword, although well-sharpened, was of ordinary make, as was the bow. The quiver was divided into three upper compartments, one on the left, one on the right and one at back, and one compartment at the bottom, secured with a tight button. There were six arrows each in the left and right compartments, and five in the rear, whose tips were shaped somewhat more aerodynamically, and whose shafts were of a higher quality, and were no doubt considerably more expensive. The bottom pouch contained two small vials of clear liquid, and some dried berries wrapped in cloth. The rope was of a quality that made it equally useful for climbing, securing animals, and any number of other mundane activities.
Sahlman had him remove his hood, revealing a full head of short, black greasy hair. With his head uncovered, he looked younger, probably no older than mid-twenties. Sahl then patted his chest and back, feeling for armor and finding none, although his coat may have been heavy enough to absorb some damage.
“What is your name, stranger? And what is your work? Why do you work for Batarel?”
The man's nervousness rose again at the flurry of questions, and he started off stuttering. “He-hebabelt… Hebabelt Forester. I've worked for…” He opened his mouth and paused, possibly taking a breath. “Batarel as a tracker since he took me from the woods where I was forester. Tracking pays better. I took my former profession as a surname when I knew I wouldn't go back.”
Sahl smiled grimly at his prisoner. “Hebabelt Forester… understand me. If you not lie to me or make trouble, then I will release you at Dunweig. If not, then … you understand?” Here Sahl made a slow slicing gesture across his throat. The man's eyes bulged in fear and he nodded vigorously to show he understood the penalties of non- cooperation. Sahl continued, “First we ride. You go first. There are riders ahead. Do not let them know you are prisoner.”
As Sahl and his prisoner started down the road, Sahlman riding close behind, he continued the conversation. “Now tell me your story again. I do not think you are simple tracker called Hebabelt Forester. These berries and liquids you carry, I think they are poison you mix. Why is simple tracker carrying expensive poison. Also it is crime surely to have this poison. Big risk you take for simple tracker. So tell me your story again, and this time tell me true.”
“I tell the truth. The liquid is a tranquilizer and I have a special license for that. And the berries…” he paused a good five or six seconds. “Batarel will make the constables look the other way if I'm caught with them, but I won't be caught.”
“So you say… make no trouble on journey. Actions speak louder than words.” When Sahlman pointed ahead, indicating that they would continue down the road, Hebabelt Forester was visibly relieved. Sahlman followed the tracker, anxious to see who was approaching from the east.
For a moment, an air of mystery was thrown on the eastern horseman, as he was nowhere to be seen. Soon, however, Sahlman spotted a farmer dismounting his horse near a chicken coop, quite a ways off the road. Hebabelt laughed in a whiny way that didn't seem to match his appearance. “Years of tracking and hunting, and I'm fooled by the wrong horse.” While Hebabelt was laughing, the farmer poked his head inside the chicken coop. After a few moments, he stood up, lifted a stick off of a hook, and began to thrash someone who was hidden from view by the building.
Sahl rode up to the side of the chicken coop and stopped his horse, looking down at the farmer and whoever he was thrashing. The farmer was dressed in cheap cloth that had been repeatedly patched and resewn, and his trousers were muddy right up to the waist from traveling over melting snow. His hair was long and unkempt, with tangles of gray and black, and his mouth was set in a permanent frown. The farmer's victim was a boy, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, dressed in a fashion similar to the farmer's. His face, hair and clothes were incredibly dirty, but Sahl couldn't make out any distinctive features since his head was lowered.
The farmer stopped thrashing the boy as soon as he noticed Sahlman's and Hebabelt's approach, but he made no effort to hide the stick, which was peeled into strips at its end. In fact, he held it as if it were a weapon when Sahlman got too close. He squinted at Sahlman under eyebrows so thick that they made his eyes invisible from Sahl's height atop Zephyr. He looked the warrior up and down and said, “You have no business here. Get off my land.”
Sahl reined Zephyr in and sat perfectly still. His cold eyes held the farmer's, and he spoke softly but with chilling emphasis. “This is highway, and I go where I will. Who is there to stop me?”
The farmer's resolve nearly broke when he saw the look in Sahlman's eyes, but what really dissuaded him was the nervous expression in Hebabelt's, and the two steps that the tracker's horse took backwards. The farmer lowered his stick. “What do you want?” he said with resignation.
“I like to talk to fools,” Sahl said, smiling equably. “You are great fool. You have gray in your hair, and farmer's life is hard. In just few years you will be old man and your boy will be young man. If you treat him bad now, then who will save you when you are old?”
The farmer seemed to regain some of his resolve. “If he doesn't stop losing chickens while I'm gone, there won't be anything to save. What business is it of yours?”
“Not my business,” agreed Sahl, still smiling, “but I don't like to see boy hit. So I try to show you what you do will be bad for you. I can only tell you, not give you wisdom. The choice is yours. I will go now. Do not be angry with boy.” With that advice, Sahl turned his horse towards the road with his companion Hebabelt.
“I thought you'd kill him for a second,” said Hebabelt, looking back to see the farmer thrash the boy one more time out of spite.
Sahl smiled wryly at Hebabelt. “My father, who was prince of wisdom, told me that… the father is the hand of God (who we call Ay'wah) held in protection over the child….” Sahl fell silent, musing for a moment, then continued.” I will not strike the hand of Ay'wah unless I see that Ay'wah himself has removed it first.”
Hebabelt pondered that for a few moments. “So you leave fathering to the father, or something like that. A good philosophy. We can get to Dunweig by tomorrow night if we hurry. Or tomorrow afternoon if we ride for part of the night.”
Sahlman rode side by side with Hebabelt and kept up friendly conversation, trying to draw the man out about his background, while avoiding all specifics of his own. Hebabelt was also hesitant to provide personal information, giving brief answers to questions, and often pausing mid-sentence. Sahlman soon realized that the majority of the pauses were before saying something about Batarel.
Despite the tracker's hesitation, Sahlman got a good feel for him during their ride. He stuck to his story about being a tracker for Batarel, and from specific incidents he described, Sahlman decided he was a pretty good one. He had also been a good woodsman for a time, but he'd been poor, and was grateful when the townsman spotted him in the forest, took him in and trained him as a tracker. Now he lived as well as any journeyman. Still, when he wasn't working, he preferred the forest over the stifling atmosphere and closed spaces of Maelbourg.
Hebabelt seemed a good person in general, and although he had killed a few people, most were genuine criminals. Generally, his job was to keep track of people, not kill them, though his poisons, particularly the tranquilizer, had come in handy enough times to make them worth the cost and risk.
Halkak was the only moon even close to full that night, but the night was clear, and Sahlman and Hebabelt were able to ride, albeit with more caution than usual, for quite a few hours after the sun set. The night was so clear that the quarter-moon of Zabrigar helped cast a faint double-shadow, which followed the two travelers on their journey. At one point a rotted log lay diagonally across the road, which the two men rolled aside, but there were no other obstacles. Finally, they stopped for a few hours rest. Sahl took the first watch, and used that time to throw away Hebabelt's poison berries and pour away the liquid in his vials. He rinsed out the vials and replaced the liquid with clean water before returning them to the bow case.
Before Hebabelt's watch, Sahl tied him securely, leaving his mouth free so he could shout a warning if required. Sahlman slept only two hours that night, with all the weapons under his blanket, and his scimitar at hand.
This turn was revised on 8/28/03.