Chapter Twenty Three- Poached and Scrambled.
Mister Angry has a terrible seat when annoyed. It’s all about the bony arse and the pointy ankles. I flatten my ears and give him a backward look of disgust, which he misses. Hah.
Harali is ahead of me by a few lengths as we move down the road, towards the woods where this poacher bloke is supposed to have a semi-permanent camp. Behind me I have the small detachment of mounted guards that caught up with us a few moments ago.
They smell of horse. I don’t like the smell of horse overly much.
After pausing and looking from side to side, Harali steps off the sketchy trail and into the woods on the left. I’m about to follow in her steps when I noticed what exactly she has just stepped over.
Eyes rolling and ‘poacher hunting la la la!’ stopped suddenly I pigeon step in a large semi circle and end up a short distance from Harali, on her right hand side. After a moment of confusion, the guards direct their horses to follow me.
Alex stiffens his posture even more and tugs on the reins. I ignore him.
:What are you doing? : ‘Ali is staring at me.
I give a significant look to the red and white speckled fungi she’s just walked over. :They could’ve bitten me!: I say mistrustfully.
:Teva,: ‘Ali is giving me a look of amazement, :they’re just toadstools—:
:—and Lake Evendim is just a puddle! Besides, how do you know that they aren’t Companivorous toadstools? :
She continues with the disbelieving stare as Sam shifts in the saddle. :Did you stop by the ‘special’ herb garden at Daska’s before we left? : she asks.
:I blame the mushrooms.:
:That would be a ‘yes’ then.:
:Pfft!: I skip past her, tail flagging and start singing my song again. :La! La! Hunting poacher assassins— la!:
At a more sedate pace, Harali picks her way after me. :I’m going to be charitable and decide that the enforced lack of Mindtouch with your Chosen has driven you crazy—:
:—of course, that means lying about your mental state before Alex blocked you.:
I ignore Harali and concentrate on trot-skipping my way along. Alex tries pulling on the reins again, and when I continue ignoring him as well, graduates up to nudging my sides with his feet.
Hah! Don’t talk to me then, Mister Grumpy! I switch abruptly to a pace which has the sole purpose of uncomfortably acquainting a certain almost-Herald’s rear with every part of the saddle in sequence. :How’d’ya like them apples? :
:Apples? : ‘Ali queries in a confused tone of voice, a short distance behind us. :There are apples now? :
Behind her, I can hear the quiet creaks and jingles as the mounted guards follow behind us two Companions. The gist of the whispered conversation, that my backward turned ears keep on catching snatches of , is that both of the Heralds apparently have sticks up their rears, and that I’m apparently bonkers.
:Teva—: Harali sounds somewhat plaintive. :Apples? Where did that come from ?:
I glance back at her and flick an ear. :I was trying to be sarcastic at Mister Pissy—: I’m just inventing more names for Alex by the moment, aren’t I? :—but since he’s blocked me it just reflected to you.:
:Oh.: Harali catches up with me and sighs quietly, our matched hoof beats making no sound in the thick covering of leaf litter on the ground. :What are we going to do ? :
:Arrest the poacher-assassin.: I say in an intelligent fashion, however, I spoil it by adding, :La, la…:
‘Ali sighs. :Well obviously that. I meant what are we going to do about them? : She jerks her head backwards, indicating the pair of Heralds.
:—oh. I don’t know.:
:I thought you said that you had a plan… a cunning plan? :
I step around a bush and reply in a guarded fashion. :I… do, I just need to work out some of the details.:
:Such as? : A twig snaps under the hoof of one of the guard’s horses and ‘Ali swings her head around to snort at them in a disgusted fashion, before turning her attention back to me.
:Um… all of them? : I give her the equine equivalent of a winsome grin, and receive nothing but a metaphorical raised eyebrow and a resigned,
Silence of the mental variety descends to join the already physical silence around us as we continue forwards, my nose flaring slightly as I scent the air. I can smell something not normally associated with woodlands.
:Can you smell that? : I ask Harali as I stop abruptly and raise my head to sniff more effectively.
:Hmm? : She looks at me, then casts around herself. :Wood smoke.: She says shortly.
:I think we’ve found the poacher.: ‘Ali stops next to me as the guards creak and judder to a halt behind us.
“Herald?” The Lieutenant in charge of the detachment of guards nudges his horse to stand in between Harali and myself, looking first to Samyel, then to Alexander in query.
Harali twitches her ears back and I can feel the ‘pointed stare’ radiating in her Chosen’s direction. Human noses can’t pick up the smell of wood smoke this faint, and if either of the boys want to know why we’ve stopped, some shields are going to have to come down.
Sure enough, I can sense the edges of Samyel’s mind shields softening slightly… enough for Harali and himself to actually Mind speak.
:Oh, talking to me now, are we? : ‘Ali’s tone of voice is acerbic, to say the least and I laugh to myself. :And before you get all high and mighty, Teva and I can smell smoke.:
I’m watching Sam with no little interest as she departs that bit of information and he blinks several times. Maybe he replies to her, maybe he doesn’t, either way I don’t hear anything.
“There is a fire ahead, the Companions can smell it.” Sam says in a low tone of voice, causing Alex to look at him, then at Harali and myself, and the Lieutenant to nod and gesture to the rest of the guards.
“How far?” The Lieutenant replies in a similar tone of voice.
Harali snorts mentally. :Well, I’ll just get out my crystal ball and have a look, shall I? :
I blink at her in faint surprise. Apparently Samyel is actually trying to have a conversation with his Companion. I glance in the Herald’s direction and note the frown on his face… well… arguments and conversations are practically the same thing, right?
:I-Need-Some-Bouncy has Farsight.: I point out helpfully to Harali. Given that Sam fails to blush a spectacular red colour, I guess that his shields are still firmly in place against me.
Harali snickers loudly, causing the guards to exchange knowing looks with each other, and turns her head to indicate Alexander with a jerk of her nose. :As Teva so correctly pointed out; her Chosen has Farsight.:
“I have Farsight—“ Alex coughs, apparently having arrived at my point of brilliance all on his own. If only he’d be as co-operative with other matters. Alexander stiffens in the saddle as he closes his eyes and invokes his Gift and I stifle a sigh.
Could this boy’s posture get any worse? I ask myself. :I’m going to be Valdemar’s first purple speckled Companion at this rate!: I complain to ‘Ali, who simply rolls her eyes.
“North… about a mile… there’s a small hut—cabin? He’s there— alone.” As ever, when speaking around his Gift, Alex sounds like an insomniac who’s been up for nine days straight. At least we have a direction and distance though.
“Right,” I drift my gaze away from a holly bush and focus on the Lieutenant. “We’ll split up here and try to encircle this cabin to limit the chances of our would-be assassin getting away. Herald—“ he turns to Sam, “if one of you stays here, the other should come with us; so you’re attacking from opposite sides, as it were.”
Samyel nods. “Good strategy, I’ll go, Alex can wait here.”
“I shall go in the opposite direction with a third group.” The Lieutenant nods sharply. “Split so two men are left behind every hundred paces or so, and begin to move towards the cabin a quarter mark from now; whether or not you have completed the circle.” He pulls the reins of his cob, turning the animal around and nudging it into a near-silent walk.
:It also means that there’ll be half the amount of brilliant white ‘Ooo! Shoot me now!’ in a given area.: I feel the need to make a contribution, even if only ‘Ali and myself can hear.
:Mmm.: Harali makes a non-committal sound as she and just under half the guards begins to pick their way off through the forest, at an angle to the path we were taking before. :Keep safe, Teva.:
:Same to you.:
Apart from the one that stays with us, the rest of the guards, along with the Lieutenant, begin to move in the opposite direction to the first group, soon leaving us alone.
A sideways glance at the guard shows her to be sitting easily on her rough chestnut gelding— despite her obvious youth— with a slightly absent expression on her face. I think she’s counting.
Alex’s seat is still terrible and my back is aching.
:Hunting poacher-assassins la…:
I’m too bored to sing. Instead, I return my attention to the holly bush. It’s very green. And spiky, there is a definite theme of spiky that has been adopted by that holly bush.
Surely a quarter mark has passed already? Heaving out a sigh, I cast a mournful glance over to Counting Girl; she’s still counting, so apparently not.
The holly bush is still green and spiky.
Alex is still sitting on my back like a bag full of angles.
Did I mention that I was bored?
Finally— finally— Counting Girl blinks and clucks to her horse, guiding him around to face me. I eyeball the horse thoroughly and flatten my ears. I don’t like horses.
“It must be time now,” Counting Girl looks to Alex for confirmation and I stifle a snort. No use asking him; I mean, he doesn’t know what’s good for him! Not even when it’s categorically stated to his face.
“Mmm,” I feel Alex shift weight in the saddle as he agrees with her.
:Bag. Of. Angles.: I pointlessly snipe.
“Let’s go, then.” Well I’m not entirely sure who Alex thinks he’s talking to, so I think I’m just going to stand right here and admire my holly bush.
The guard toes her gelding into a walk and guides him past my holly bush, before realising that I’m not following, leading or, in fact, moving at all. She reins her horse in and tosses a puzzled look over her shoulder.
Alex coughs with what I assume to be embarrassment and jiggles my reins. Personally, I would have thought that our prior session of pointless rein jiggling gets you a bruised crotch was perfectly clear. Apparently not. I flick one ear nonchalantly and continue admiring the holly bush.
“Erm… I think she’s… talking to… the other Companion! Yes, that’s it… um.” Given that I am close to being the ruling Monarch of rubbish explanations, I am impressed that Alex manages to top my standards and come out with that utter pile of clap-trap. It must score at least a eight out of ten.
“Oh, alright.” Counting Girl gives me a faintly puzzled look.
“We’ll catch you up in a moment!” Alex sounds faintly desperate, even to my more-shielded-out-than-thou ears.
The puzzled look continues, before Counting Girl nods slowly and resumes her ambling advance forwards.
“What the Hell are you playing at?” Alex leans forwards, resting his weight on the saddle pommel and hisses into my left ear.
:Well, I thought I was getting completely blocked by my Chosen!: My retort would have been so much better if Alex wasn’t still shielding me out. Both my ears flatten and I swish my tail from side to side.
“Well?” Hey, if certain people aren’t going to Mindtouch me, then I’m not saying anything.
My Chosen— although I’m debating asking Veran for an alternative term to use in times such as this— mutters something under his breath that is quite strong enough to remove the bark from my holly bush.
:Language!: I snap reflexively.
I think that my new method of dealing with Angle Arse’s general annoying actions and mental shields is to act as if they don’t exist.
“Look—“ before Alex can continue to nag me, I abruptly lurch forwards, completely upsetting his balance, making his hands slip forwards off the pommel as he half-falls over my neck. “Argh!”
Whoops. Really. Honest.
I adroitly turn my lurch into a trot and quickly catch up with Counting Girl and her gelding, falling into step next to them. Angle Arse pushes himself up from my neck and regains his balance in the saddle, muttering once more, and follows my example of ignoring the guard’s curious sideways look.
The thick layer of decomposing leaves on the woodland floor muffles the chestnuts and my hoof beats almost to the point of silence and the area around us stays serene as we advance.
The smell of wood smoke gets stronger the further forward we go and a short distance from the clearing containing the cabin, I begin to catch sight of the pairs of guards to the left and right of us. This plan might actually work.
We are almost at the edge of the clearing when the stupid pheasant decides to erupt out of the undergrowth directly under my and Counting Girl’s horse’s nose. She and Alex stifle their yelps of surprise, I confine myself to a mental squeak of shock and skit backwards a step as the gelding rolls his eyes and sidesteps wildly as his rider trys to keep him reined in.
All in all, we don’t make that much noise. The same thing can’t be said for the bloody stupid bird, which blunders its way skywards, heading towards the clearing and carrying on like its got a damn trumpet jammed in its crop. Immediately, all the other birds in the vicinity start with their own alarm calls.
:Bloody Hells!: I curse loudly, and catch the edge of Harali’s surprised sending.
:What happened? :
:A damned bird—: Whatever else I am about to say is cut off by a high pitched buzzing sound, followed by a dull thunk as an arrow buries itself in a tree trunk next to Counting Girl’s head.
She spits out a curse and throws herself flat along her horse’s neck, dangling her arms either side so that she can still keep control of the reins, which she uses to rowl him in and back him up from the still vibrating arrow. I am conscious of Alex shifting his weight as I perform my own spinning movement and get the pair of us behind a stand of hazel bushes.
:He knows we’re here!: I shout at ‘Ali, moments before another arrow flies past us; hitting the ground in the spot that I have just vacated.
A piercing whistle splits the air and I flatten my ears and look around as Alex pulls out his sword, still cursing under his breath. Now what?
“’Tenants signal to attack,” Counting Girl hisses in our direction, her reins in her teeth as she pulls out and nocks a positively vicious looking recurved crossbow with a short bolt. “Count of five from the whistle— if we pair go a’ once and act as targets so others c’n sneak up, like.”
I see Alex nod his head shortly from the corner of my eye.
Oh, good. Except that he already knows that we are over here and is shooting at us. Four— shooting arrows at us. Arrows are pointy. Three— And I’m big. Two— And white.
Counting Girl knees her gelding and it leaps forwards, as I sidestep and launch myself forwards. :Hold on—: I unnecessarily order Alexander. My decision to zig-zag back and forth, rather than running in a straight line, stands us in good stead, as the still-hidden assassin elects to continue shooting in our direction.
I swear that one of his arrows passes close enough for me to feel the fletching brush my sides.
On the far edge of the clearing— which suddenly seems a lot bigger, I can see Harali, her head down low, Sam crouched over her back, his sword drawn in his hand. :Where is he? :
:I think the arrows—: speaking of which, I have to break off as I lock my legs, skidding for a moment, before managing to leap sideways, leaving an arrow to vibrate into the leaf loam, :—are coming from the window on the left of the door.:
From a short distance behind and to one side of me, I hear a high pitched twang and a moment later, one of Counting Girl’s little black bolts is buried in the wooden window frame. A second shatters the pane of the closed half of the window a moment later.
:Teva—: ‘Ali tries to attract my attention. :Keep dodging, two of the guards have made it to the back of the cabin, they’re about to break in.:
I don’t voice the reply on the tip of my tongue about her advice to keep moving.
Another arrow buzzes past me, and I hear a yell and a crashing sound; startled, I glance backwards in time to see Counting Girl and her horse finish tumbling to a halt, loam and leaves kicked up in the air around them. Her horse’s neck is bent at an entirely unnatural angle, but she is still alive.
Judging by the shouts and curses, she’s alive and really annoyed.
I turn in a tight semi-circle, feeling Alex slip slightly in the saddle at the unexpected move, and dash away from Counting Girl and towards the cabin, trying to distract the assassin enough so that he doesn’t try to finish her off. My bravery is a bit belated, however as my ears catch the sounds of fighting from inside the cabin.
Several moments later, one of the guards, now supporting a black eye and a shallow knife cut down one arm pushes open the rickety wooden front door of the cabin.
“Got ‘im knocked out cold.” He announces loudly. I bounce to a stop and heave my sides out in a side, suddenly noticing how breathless I am.
The rest of the guard detachment quickly appear, one seeing to the guard in the doorway, several others trotting over towards Counting Girl— who is suggesting that the assassin do something highly improbable with his arrows and a fruit of his own choice— and the rest either checking out the cabin and clearing thoroughly, or moving to help the second guard with the unconscious poacher-assassin.
:Are you alright? : Harali pulls up next to my left side, her expression one of worry that is intensified on the face of her Chosen.
“Are you two okay?” Samyel echoes.
:Ow.: I say. :I think I’m unfit.: My puffing for breath has awoken a cramping stitch in my side which is making it uncomfortable to breathe.
‘Ali continues to stare. :I think you’re injured as well,: she says slowly. :You have blood on your legs.:
:Deh?: I look down at my front legs; sure enough, both are covered with a fine dusting of red spatters, although the right one also has longer streaks on it. :My legs feel fine—: For some reason, however, the right side of my chest band seems to be missing.
“Yes, well, mine doesn’t.” The voice is Alexander’s, and it takes me several long moment to figure out that he just responded to something I said… and that, as well as my side hurting, I am getting definite sensations of ouch from him.
Samyel dismounts and runs around to my right hand side. I twist my head to follow him and end up staring at myself.
I have a theme of red, the main contributors of which are a long, shallow cut running from my shoulder towards my girth, and a corresponding, but deeper, gash across Alex’s thigh, just above his knee.
The cut ends of the chest band strap dangles uselessly from the saddle attachment, and the attachment to the rest of the band.
Shock overtakes everything else for a moment. :He shot us!: I exclaim in an indignant squeal.
Alex has both hands pressed above and below the wound on his leg. “I… noticed,” he says dryly as Samyel gently removes his hands, ignoring the theme of red he quickly becomes a part of, and examines the wound, pulling the torn cloth of Alex’s breeches away slightly to get a better view of it.
:He shot us! The bastard!:
Alex hisses his breath between his teeth and grimaces. “Ow,” he says. I twitch my hide as I get an echo of the leg pain from him, my movements re-establishing my own injury firmly in my mind.
:Owww.: I complain.
“It looks worse than it is,” Sam’s voice is low and the sense of relief in it is palpable even to a whiny horse like me. “The blood is already clotted and it should be fine until we get back to the House of Healing.”
“Right,” Alex swallows and transfers his bloody hands to the saddle pommel, hanging on tight. “How about Teva?”
I feel Samyel wipe at my own cut with a scrap of his own sleeve. “Again, it looks nastier than it is; it’s fairly shallow and isn’t really bleeding much now.”
:It bloody hurts, though.: I point out in an aggrieved tone of voice.
:Can you walk alright or do you want me to double-up Sam and Alex? : ‘Ali asks me. :I don’t know if we can shuffle him between saddles too much, however.: She eyes the pair of us up and down.
I flatten my ears and consider for a moment. :I can carry him,: I finally say, :I don’t want to risk making that leg wound worse without a Healer in the immediate vicinity. I’ll keep.: I twist one ear backward, then eye Samyel up and down and Broadsend. :I expect apples, though.:
Alex manages a weak laugh. “I don’t doubt… thanks Teva,”
I snort, as my usual hide twitch of a shrug would not be a brilliant idea at this precise moment. :Well I can hardly leave you here, can I? I’d never hear the end of it!: During this, after rolling his eyes, Harali’s Chosen has managed to tie up the ruined part of my chest band so that it won’t tangle in my legs as I walk. I surreptitiously shake myself to check that it won’t come free.
Samyel has turned away from us and remounted Harali and is now talking to the Lieutenant. I notice that the rest of the guards seem to have organised themselves; Counting Girl is riding pillion behind one of the other guards, the tack from her dead gelding bundled onto the packs of another guard. The assassin chap has been brought out and draped stomach down over a horse and bound in place. He looks a tiny bit unconscious.
The guard— sporting a large bruise over one cheek— leading the horse shrugs and looks unrepentant. “Me fist slipped,” he says as he catches me staring at him. I snicker.
“Darlin, Kinda and Roach are staying here to bury Laurie’s horse, the rest of us are going to limp our way back to the House of Healing.” The Lieutenant stands up in his stirrups as he delivers his orders, then settles back down, nods briefly to Alex and Sam then nudges his horse into a slow walk, leading the way out of the clearing.
:Huh,: I snort again, :I don’t see him limping.: I quickly fall to the back of the line, content to allow the others, Harali included, to get ahead of me.
“He wasn’t being shot at.” Alex points out mildly. “I wish we thought to bring some painkillers or something with us.” He adds after a moment.
:We weren’t exactly the best prepared.: I agree, before pausing for a moment. :Look, Alex I’m… sorry…about teasing you about… well, you know what.:
I feel him cough slightly. :And I’m sorry for calling you names, I over-reacted to you striking a nerve, I guess.:
I choke down the “But he likes you! Bed each other already!” that evil-Teva strives to wave around and settle for a diplomatic silence and a brief mental hug.
:I was frustrated,: I offer, instead.
:I noticed.: A frown. :He’s acting like it never happened, you know.: Well, I wasn’t expecting Alexander to say that… could it be that we’re actually going to have a rational conversation here? This is new territory…
:He’s acting like a stump.:
Maybe not-so rational or new territory, then.
:Teva!: Alex chokes for a moment, but I can feel the shocked amusement in his head.
:What? He is acting like a stump and if he doesn’t stop, I’m going to kick him in the goolies.:
Another burst of horrified laughter and Alex shakes slightly in the saddle, before grimacing. “Ow, that made my leg hurt.” The guard that has dropped back to ride next to us gives him an odd look. Probably because, for all intents and purposes, it’s been silent for him.
:You’re a persistent matchmaker.: Alex says after he’s settled again, I continue to amble along slowly, ignoring the stinging from my side.
:It was a rhetorical question.:
I twist my head to look at him. :I know, I felt like answering it anyway.:
Alex meets my eyes for a moment, then drops his gaze to concentrate on the reins, which are tied loosely around the pommel of the saddle. He picks at them. :I… do like him.: He finally admits in a quiet voice.
:I know, Chosen.: I point out carefully.
I feel his eyes fix on the back of my head. :You’re planning something, aren’t you? : He sounds suddenly suspicious.
I think I shall treat this as another rhetorical question, but this time exercise my right to silence.
:Yes, Chosen? : Pure driven snow is less sparkly than my ‘innocent’ tone of voice.
:Just—: tiredness and pain mean that Alex is really too scattered to argue properly with me. I might actually win an argument, yay! :Just… don’t shout tactlessly again, alright? :
I flick my tail. :I’ll try.: Sparkle, ting! Innocent voice!
A heartfelt sigh. :Oh…good.:
For some reason, Alexander doesn’t really sound that convinced. I wonder why?
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