"I see. Well . . . Let's see what we can do about these stolen army horses."
It was stomach churning to watch . . . Exzy just stroked the horses' hind quarters and they could watch the skin shift, the old burn scars moving into new patterns.
"We could sell five of them." Franz eyed the Monster's horse as Exzy stroked his much-branded hide. "Unfortunately that one's much to recognizable, even without the brands. I'm surprised he's got so many."
Exzy snorted. "They're charms, to control him and make him mean. I'm taking them all off. Completely. Then I'll put a protective charm on him."
Jason shrugged. "Well, we'll keep him, and perhaps two others, for pack horses. Now . . . I've hunted all over the far side of the mountains, so I know all the gaps. But getting to them from this side?"
Count William nodded. "And which gaps they guard, especially now, with Raynold planning on . . . what the hell was he intending, anyway?"
"To rule in my name, perhaps?" Jason bit his lip. "Or did he just need my dead body to display so there was no resistance in my name?"
"Oooo!" Exzy was wide-eyed. "Your dead body . . . to rule through."
They all looked at the kid in horror.
Count William shook himself. “We will get you over the mountains as quickly as possible.”
Jason took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes. We’ll move north as quickly as possible, and sell some horses, if we can do so without bringing ourselves to anyone’s notice.”
Fortunately the weather was warm, because Exzy had also failed to pack blankets for nineteen people.
They were stiff, and grubby, and grumbling as they cleaned up quickly, minimally, in the predawn. Jason’s manservant was horrified. Alfred was a tidy little man. Even a night in the “proper” dungeon has done more than wrinkle his short coat and he brushed at Jason’s coat, which was rather the worse for having served as Lady Fern’s blanket last night.
“It’s no good, Alfred, I’m going to be a grubby mess all the way to Laston.”
The poor man looked horrified, but brought him some odd sausage with pastry baked around it. Warm from the oven . . . of which there was none in sight.
With this many horses, the gentlemen pitched in to help get the horses groomed, saddled up and the ladies mounted up.
Jason looked around the bare campsite. The lack of any obvious packs, beyond Exzy’s saddlebags, which were not especially large and rather flat.
Ramon trotted up to him. “We’re a mile from a cart track that’s headed north east, no tracks of troops showing.”
“Right. Is Gerald . . .”
“Following it to see where it leads? Yep.”
“So lead on.” Jason raised his voice. “Ladies, let’s go.”
The deer track could only be negotiated at a walk, which was just as well. Both horses and riders were warmed up and more limber when they reached the cart track.
“Franz? Go the other way a bit, then follow, hanging back. Until someone turns up this track, then hustle up here as quietly as you can and we’ll speed up.” Jason kneed Royal into the long striding walk that he could keep up for hours, and the others followed. The track wandered a bit, generally north east, and climbing toward the pale mountains he could glimpse on those rare occasions the track led through a meadow. It was noon before he came up on Gerald, waiting for them.
“There’s a half dozen mounted troops in the little village ahead. Nothing we can handle, but . . .” he waved to the side.
Jason nodded. “If we can avoid them, we won’t be leaving evidence of which way we’re headed.” He looked into the woods to his right. “I hate game trails, but there are worse things.”
He ducked under the branches of the first trees and gave the horse he was leading some extra rope so it could follow directly behind, instead of to his right.
A faint moan from Lady Fern.
“Buck up, girl. If we win, it’ll be the adventure of your life.” Countess Iris snapped.
Lady Fern snapped back. “Or we’ll all be dead.”
“Don’t be silly.” Ecksey’s—Exzy’s—high voice. “The Good Guys always win.”
Jason ignored the faint choking noises behind him and wove through the trees and brush.
The trail followed along the side of the slope for about a mile, then turned down hill to cross a stream.
Jason called for a stop to water and rest the horses. Not to mention the ladies, and poor Alfred.
Exzy produced more food—the roast beef and rolls again—then helped stake out the horses so they could browse on leaves and the sparse grass.
And lead them back to the stream for another drink and tie them a bit further on to graze a bit more.
His own horse, completely loose, disappeared into the brush.
“He’s looking for a better path.” Exzy poked through his saddle bags, shrugged and closed them, and settled back with his eyes closed.
Jason squinted at the sky. “We’ll rest a bit more then push on another few miles, find a good place to camp for the night.”
Lady Wren’s maid whimpered. Daliah, if he remembered right. A plump girl who’d fallen off whenever he pushed the pace.
If we can cross the mountains at the Fanghorn pass, we could stop in Pristip. If Count Brisco is home at his country place there, we could leave the women in his care and add some troops.
Unless he’s backing Dear Cousin Haskel, which is not unlikely . . . Dammit.
Well, first get out of King Reynold’s reach, then I’ll worry about internal issues.
The little wizard sat up. “Darkness has found a path with no hoofprints on it. It goes past a small farmstead and then there’s a sheep track that heads for the mountains, probably to summer grazing.”
“Good. Let’s saddle up.” And not ask Exzy how he knows!
They saddled horses, walked them down to drink again, loaded the women and mounted up.
Exzy, riding the monster horse led off, turning onto another deer track that edged upward as it wound around trees, but roughly paralleled the stream. The trees fell back and they pushed through brush to a narrow sunken track just a hundred feet from where it crossed the stream in a broad trampled muddy mess. The boy’s horse was there, waiting for them.
“We need to go the other way, but we can water the horses first.” The boy and horse exchanged glances, then the horse trotted away, heading east. “He’ll see if the shepherd and his family are outside working. It would be best if we snuck past them”