Getting stuck in a siege didn’t appeal, so he headed out of the city against the flow of refugees. The stories of the invading Tarks sweeping all before were common knowledge, but he hadn’t expected them to be quite so fast across the uneven terrain to the north. Neither had the defending armies, some of which were stuck east and west and would not reach the city in time for a fixed battle. Still, while he could understand that the farmers and villagers from the open vulnerable plains around would want to find comparitive safety, the city was not that well fortified. His own habits preferred the mobile option anyway.
He moved easily despite the clogged roads, weaving through the traffic with a long accustomed travellers stride and carrying only a tall light staff, a small backsack, and a long hunting knife under a brown lightly oiled cloak. The weather here was fine and would be for a few more months, and by then he expected to be through the mountain forests to the south and in Markesh. And from there, a ship away from this mess…
So he was pleased when he breasted a rise to see the road branch to Arlene a mile or so further on; that road looked relatively clear. He’d cut off it later into the foothills and find somewhere to camp amongst the beech and the oak, away from the smell of fear and quiet desperation that surrounded him now.
That small anticipation didn’t last long as he headed down the incline. A cloud behind the close hills on the western horizon was too dark, too brown… and too hazy. The Tarks were already here, and closing – and the refugees were starting to notice. Panicking now, some turning to go back, some trying to push on, the queued traffic quickly deteriorated into a broiling mass of a more lively angry desperation. Whips were turned on people as indiscriminatly as animals, and he left the road for the rough ‘baby heads’ of sodden bogland to the side. The going was slower but sufficient, and others soon had the same idea.
He was cutting the triangle to join the Arlene road and, seeing him, others followed. By the time he reached it, it too was busy but at least everyone was heading in the same direction, and with some alacrity. He fell in behind the leading cart, a light one carrying an old man and his children, two grown lads carrying short sticks and looking worried but determined, and some bundled dirty children. Two stolid and well-cared for mules hauled it at a good fast walking pace, and they drew steadily away from those more burdened .
They were around a mile from the branch, rising up the bowl where it lay, another mile to go before it crested and he knew would bend left into more open rolling country, when they heard the Tark hit the refugee train on the main road behind them. Most people turned to look – he didn’t, nor the old man on the cart.
He spoke to the children on the cart: “Don’t look. It will give you nightmares. Look at me instead, and I will tell you a story?” It was a stupidly ineffective gambit; they hardly heard him, their eyes wide and mouths open. At least they wouldn’t see the detail, he thought. The two lads were now angry and spoke to the old driver in a language he didn’t immediately recognise; it took him a moment to sort through the sounds to realise it was just a strong local accent. The old man was spitting back something about ‘it being useless’. He could guess: the lads were young, invincible, and wanted to Do Something, but they held their restless place.
They climbed over the ridge and he glanced back. The Tark had stopped on the road, and were picking their way amongst the bodies, the huge devil-hounds they brought with them already tearing at the corpses. Nobody was following them yet, but even as he watched they broke up into three groups; one small one heading up the Arlene road, a slightly bigger one heading south and the largest heading towards the city. The small one was only small compared to the total size though; there might be a hundred horsemen and half as many hounds, more than enough to finish the small clusters of now running refugees.
Two hours later a small band of them were jog trotting their way up trails through light woodland, climbing into the foothills. They’d been out of sight by the time the Tark were hacking through the thin trail of people behind them, and maybe they had stopped before thinking of looking for more; whatever, they had more time than they had expected. Still, they could hear the hounds now; they would have found the cart and the trail of discarded belongings would have stopped there.
Dammit again. His mouth had started talking before his brain would stop it, and he’d pointed out the trail to the small ragged breathless band around him, suggesting it might be better than the open road. Nobody had said a word, merely turned and taken it.
Now the hounds were on the trail after all of them, including him, rather than losing him in their chase after the rest. And he was carrying a small but increasingly heavy snot-ridden child. How could something so small produce so much? Even if it was just a small human-shaped bag of the stuff, it should have been a lot smaller and lighter by now. He switched it to the other arm. Old injuries nearly forgotten started to make themselves remembered again. He almost started to limp from ancient habit.
He only knew this trail by hear-say; it was supposed to close up into broken gulleys somewhere up ahead, but he didn’t know how far away. The mountain tops seen through the trees seemed detailed enough to touch through the clear air, but yet impossibly too far away. Here it was too open; the Tark didn’t like dismounting and they could reach them on horseback. He concentrated on putting one foot quickly in front of the other. Ahead of him the old man moved sprightly enough, carrying one child in his arms and the last in a curious child-bag on his back. By his side almost ran a young girl, not yet a woman but with eyes that looked serious rather than scared when she glanced back.
He knew the two lads were at the rear, carrying those sticks that even they must have known would be useless but presumably made them feel better. In between were the surviving dozen or so, the ones fit and strong enough to have been so well ahead of all the others.
The hounds sounded strong but muted. He had no idea how well sound travelled in this kind of country.
They straggled on.
An hour later and the path was gently switchbacking up a rise, hard on the exhausted runners but hopefully too difficult for horsemen. The hounds unnervingly hadn’t sounded since. He’d handed the child to someone else and drifted to the rear to harry the stragglers from relaxing and keep his hearing clear of the gasping and stumbling footsteps. The two lads, grim faced, ran a good rear scouting pattern – they weren’t complete farmers then.
It was one of them that called a soft warning – another pleasant surprise that he didn’t have much time for. Turning he saw two of the hounds, loping along the path beneath them. They hadn’t been seen yet. He gestured to the lads to fall in up the trees to above the path, and joined them. Thankfully, he reflected, the Tark and their hounds must have covered a fair distance already today and despite their legendary endurance were no doubt feeling it.
The hounds rounded the bend onto this stretch of the path on his right, and there was still no sign of any behind them. Damn they were big. His left hand already rested on the tip of his staff; he didn’t want any movement or glint now to give away his position. The two lads were similarly motionless. The hounds were moving steadily enough but their mouths frothed and their tongues lolled – and they were still big.
The two lads leapt silently, clubs overhead, and the hounds were turning, hind legs down and jaws opening even as the lads dropped. But he was moving too now, the staff tip cleared to reveal a foot of bright steel, and the lads landed clubs first. The hounds sprawled and were up again – gods they were fast – and gathering for a spring when he ran his staff at full sprint into the side of the nearest – a good side-on target, and in just behind the forelimb, through the lungs and if he was lucky, the heart, and out the other side.
He wasn’t that lucky but still lucky that he had caught it sideways – despite the bright red foaming through both chest holes, the hound fought to get to him and tear him apart. He grounded his spear beneath his foot and struggled to keep the spear straight and in control until its wounds finished it, as it dragged itself back and forth across the path, trying to rip the spear from his grasp. If he’d hit it front on he had no doubt it would have hauled itself along the shaft.
It took all his concentration and strength, and he couldn’t check to see how the broiling melee on the other side of this huge snarling furball was getting on. He had a clue when two clubs emerged from the dust to batter it down.
They took a moment to catch their breath, staring down to the path below. How much time had they bought? The hounds had not had breath or time to call. He looked over at the two.
“I’m – Tody”. They didn’t seem to notice the hesitation. “Mik”. “Alan”. They had somehow found two new bits of solid wood; the broken remains of their previous weapons were scattered around and in one case stabbed into the other still-twitching hound. They surveyed the wreckage. The hounds were notoriously difficult to kill, so much so that reputation had it no mortal weapon could do so. It was plain to anyone who saw it – or who would see it – that whoever had managed this were not amateur fighters. That might help or it might not.
“Let’s Go” he said
“Right behind you”.
Alright then. He fitted the top of his staff back and set off, gently at first to ease his battle fury back into loping.
By the time they reached the others the going was getting more difficult, thankfully. Their fate would depend now on whether the Tark would think it worthwhile to pursue them on foot…
It seemed only a short while later that a howl echoed up the hillside after them. More hounds had found the dead ones.
The survivors were coming to bits now; the way was steeper, the stamina running out. The howling brought a short burst of fear-fuelled drive, but they were struggling up a long rocky scramble between two cliffs and it was hard going. At the top they were all gathered around, gasping and sweating and wild.
“Bottleneck!” managed the old man, still carrying two children, looking down at the chimney. ‘Tody’ looked down; it would be a good place for a suicidal last stand, but he wasn’t feeling suicidal. One of the lads shook his head and said “Not really” and pointed to one side of the slope – there was an open area of steep grassland. A longer way around but manageable. Dammit.
He looked down the scramble. Yes… but if they came up here anyway, following the trail, with no apparent threat…
Slinging down his backpack, he pulled out a small pouch and opened it. The trail here was narrow, and the ground turned rocky above this – it would be difficult to hold scent or obvious footprint. He took a pinch of the red-brown powder and scattered it around the top of the chimney. After a second thought he took out several more and scattered them around as well. He was putting it away when he realised everyone was staring at him.
He grinned “Capsicum pepper. That might help to put them off a bit.” They continued to stare and his grin slipped to a frown “Let’s go before they see how close they are to us”. They all moved – rather quickly, he was expecting some grumbling. Even the lads were looking at him curiously.
Oh well. He offered to take the child again but the woman carrying him shrank away and hurried off. Oh well indeed. He took his place at the rear with the lads. What were their names again?
Time stretched out as they made their way along the desolate trails on the side of the mountains base. Up ahead he could see a hanging valley of trees and – hopefully – game and water. If they got time to make use of it.
There was no sound from behind them, the Tark must have bypassed that chimney after all. Probably looked too risky, especially after finding two of their best hounds – must have been for them to be so far ahead – killed.
And then, nearly an hour later, they heard it. A howl of physical pain this time, cut short and started and cut short again. ‘Tody’ grinned. Capsicum pepper up the nostril of any creature is going to sting; up the nostril of a trail-hunting hound it is going to really smart. Others looking back at the sound saw the grin and some flinched – one made the protective sign. He grinned again and they set off quickly.
They’d found a cave to the side of the hanging valley, beautifully tasty fresh water trickling down the back of it. A small fire was going, and a soup from some plants and a couple of small rabbits caught from slingshot heating slowly in a makeshift bark pot. Most of the small band were collapsed, almost unconcious.
He tended the soup with the young girl, who seemed to spend a lot of time looking at him, then away when he pretended to notice. The lads were by the cave entrance, watching their back trail; from here they could see right to the valley entrance and if need be they could be up and moving (but for how long?) into the trees in a few minutes.
“Are you a spellcaster?” asked the girl suddenly but softly into the quiet.
He looked at her, puzzled. He wasn’t fluent with the language they used here. “A what? Do I throw words?”
He thought about it “We all throw words. We are throwing them now at each other”. She looked startled, then also puzzled and then irritated.
“No, are you a —-” she used a word he didn’t understand.
“I don’t know what that means”.
“With that powder. You destroyed the hounds”
“Ah, no, it’s a spice. You put it in food, to make it… well, spicey. But if you put it up your nose, it hurts, and I thought that if the hounds sniffed it, it would make them hurt and also not so able to smell our trail”.
“Oh. Do you have lots of —- powders?” Again that word he didn’t understand.
“I have some powders yes, I don’t know if they are… what was that word?”
“It means someone who knows…. mysterious things”.
“Well, we all know mysterious things – or at least, things that other people don’t know. We tell each other what we know – aha! I see yes, we use words to describe the things we know, so we pass the mysteries inside our head to other peoples’ heads. We throw words at each other to teach mysteries! See?”
“You mean we are all wordthrowers?”
“Yes – although some people know more than others though. So they can pass more ideas around. Now you know about capsicum pepper, you see, so I have passed that mystery to you. Now you know a mystery”
He felt pleased and smiled, but she looked worried. “I don’t want to be a spellcaster. They are… nasty”
“They use what they know to hurt people”
“… like me with the hounds?”
She nodded seriously “Yes, what if you did something like that to us?”
“Why would I do that? Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they will. Look at your lads there by the entrance, they could hit everyone here with their sticks, but they won’t will they?”
“So, the same with me.”
She looked at the fire “I think the soup is ready.”
“Good. Shall I add a little of this powder?” She looked at him, startled again and worried “Really, it just makes it taste better” She looked at him suspiciously “Well the choice is yours, not mine – you have the power to decide” Her face furrowed into a squinted frown.
“Alright” She watched him carefully as he took a spoon from his pack, dipped it in, and tasted it. “I think you’re right, it is ready, here you are”
She took it gingerly and tasted it “It’s very watery”
“Well, mostly yes. That’s why spices would help to make it taste better. Still, better than nothing”.
They turned to wake the others to eat, and found the old man already up and watching them, a half smile in the glow from the coals. “Very well put there – wordthrower” he said.
It was another week before he found out quite who he’d thrown in with